MEXICO CITY — The U.S. Treasury Department has temporarily stopped sharing confidential financial information with the Mexican government, a move that could eventually hamper efforts to follow the money in cross-border narcotics and terrorism investigations.
The action came in response to a leak of U.S. intelligence provided to Mexican officials pursuing a corruption case against Mexico City's former finance minister.
In a letter dated April 21, William Fox, director of the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, chastised the head of Mexico's Finance Ministry for "improper disclosure" of a secret U.S. report given to Mexican officials to aid in their efforts to pursue Gustavo Ponce. Portions of the report have been published in Mexican newspapers.
Ponce has not been seen in public since he was fired in March after footage of him gambling in Las Vegas -- allegedly with Mexican taxpayers' money -- aired to public outrage.
The Treasury Department's Fox asked for a meeting with top Mexican officials "as soon as possible" to discuss the leak of the U.S. report.
"The breach of confidential information is a very serious matter
The high-level spat is the latest chapter in a scandal involving the administration of Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The politician with the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party was widely considered the front-runner in Mexico's 2006 presidential elections. But footage of his finance minister playing $300-a-hand blackjack and of another aide stuffing his pockets with apparent bribe money has dented Lopez Obrador's image as an honest politician.
Lopez Obrador says he is the victim of a conspiracy between U.S. officials and Mexican President Vicente Fox to discredit him. Fox, a member of the National Action Party, cannot run for reelection. Lopez Obrador waved what appeared to be a copy of the confidential U.S. report at a news conference this month, saying that Mexican officials knew about Ponce's activities but waited to press charges until the videos were aired to maximize the embarrassment to his administration.
U.S. and Mexican officials have denied the allegations. And Lopez Obrador's action at the news conference earned him a trip to the federal prosecutor's office Friday to answer whether he leaked the documents.
Lopez Obrador contends that members of the federal government are to blame. Meanwhile, Mexico's Fox pointed the finger back at Lopez Obrador.
"When the Mexico City mayor made [the information] public, the American authorities complained," Fox said. "We are already working to reestablish an exchange of information with the United States."
Diana Page, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, said the leak "is a serious problem." But she downplayed the notion that the episode could erupt into a wider diplomatic breach. "Has it stopped our cooperation on other fronts? No," Page said. "Everything else is going smoothly."
Still, a U.S. official acknowledged that suspending cross-border information sharing on financial activities was an unusual step. Law enforcement cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. has been characterized by mistrust.
Mexican Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha said Friday that the U.S. decision affects the monitoring of about 30,000 financial transactions a day. "We have to reestablish this flow of information because it's very important for Mexico and for many countries," he said.
Times staff writer Warren Vieth in Washington contributed to this report.