NORTH OF THE BORDER
The political turmoil shaking Mexico appears to have spilled north into Colorado. Aeromexico, the country's largest airline, suspects its former top executive of embezzling tens of millions of dollars. According to legal documents filed here, the company now hopes to use a Denver court to lure him back to his Vail condos--so he can be arrested.
In 1988 Gerardo de Prevoisin led a group of investors who bought Aeromexico from the Mexican government. The airline purchase was one of the first projects that then-president Carlos Salinas pushed in his drive to privatize state-owned businesses.
Late last year, however, de Prevoisin was forced out of his jobs as chief executive officer and chairman by the airline's board of directors. He quickly filed a lawsuit in Mexico claiming that the board had wrongly deprived him of his ownership in the company. The airline countersued, charging that its former chairman had swiped nearly $72 million from Aeromexico and spirited it away to a number of places, including Colorado.
As a result, soon after the airline began chasing de Prevoisin in Mexico, the company also filed a similar lawsuit in Colorado. (It has also sued de Prevoisin in Texas.) Because the de Prevoisin family owns several luxury condos in Vail--which the airline contends were purchased with de Prevoisin's ill-gotten wealth--Aeromexico's lawsuit was filed in Eagle County. Recently, it was moved to U.S. District Court in Denver.
Through its lawyers, the airline says it is simply trying to recover some of the money its former boss embezzled. Lawyers for de Prevoisin, however, suspect a more political--and sinister--motive: They say the airline wants to use the Colorado courts to flush de Prevoisin out of hiding so he can be tossed into a Mexican prison.
"As is the case with many other Mexicans who were prominently connected to prior administrations, Sr. de Prevoisin is now a victim of forces tearing at the official leadership of Mexico," his attorneys wrote in a legal filing last month. "Aeromexico wants to force Sr. de Prevoisin's personal presence [in Colorado] so that he can be arrested and then extradited to Mexico, where his imprisonment will ensure that he will not force his claims or defenses."
De Prevoisin himself warns that the political climate south of the border means he could face more than prison time. "As evidenced by the physical violence and related investigations at the highest levels of government of that country, as well as by direct threats to me, I realize my personal safety and that of my children are in jeopardy," he wrote in a personal "declaration" on file in Denver.
"That is not a stifling fear," he continued. "That is simply a fact of life. It would be foolish of me to travel to Mexico or to appear any place known to the Mexican government officials where I might personally be subject to its judicial reach."
The lawyer representing de Prevoisin in Colorado, John Phillips, did not return numerous phone calls over several days. But Kenneth Wynne, the former CEO's attorney in Houston, Texas, says his client is not speaking to anyone.
"I know where he is," says Wynne. "But I'm not going to say." He also declined to elaborate on the threats the de Prevoisin family allegedly received.
Recent events in Mexico are leaving more people than de Prevoisin nervous. In past months the country has been shaken economically and politically. Soon after Salinas's term expired, last November, the peso collapsed. (The United States, through a series of loan guarantees, later propped it up.)
But the Salinas family and its cronies continued to take a political whipping. Early last month Salinas's brother, Raul, was arrested for allegedly planning the assassination of a former colleague of Salinas's, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu. Then it was revealed that Jose's brother, Mario Ruiz Massieu, a deputy attorney general under Salinas, had initially been assigned to investigate his own brother's murder.
Soon after that, Mexican justice officials charged Mario with covering up the alleged involvement of Salinas's brother in the murder. Although he denied any crimes, Mario fled the country after being interrogated by police. Four weeks ago he was arrested by U.S. Customs officials in New York City as he was switching planes for a flight to Spain.
Within days Mexican government investigators announced that they had discovered $24 million in bank accounts controlled by Mario Ruiz Massieu. They suspect that it is either drug money or a bribe that he took to cover up evidence in the murder of his brother.
De Prevoisin has not been named in Mexico's expanding web of corruption and intrigue. But through his lawyers, he claims that the new political climate--in which anyone once associated with former president Salinas is now suspected of wrongdoing--is responsible for Aeromexico's current legal raid into Colorado.
"This is, at its core, a political case, inextricably intertwined with the recent events and modern history of Mexico," his lawyers contend in a recent filing asking that the Colorado case be dismissed.
That said, Aeromexico's claims are specific. In the original complaint, filed in Eagle County District Court in February, the company alleges a series of fraudulent transactions in which de Prevoisin used the airline's credit and cash to line his pockets with a staggering $71,750,000.
Several of the supposed transactions involved a company called GP Investment, Inc. Aeromexico claims de Prevoisin formed GP to hold some of his assets, including four condos in a Vail development called Northwoods Condominiums. (A spokeswoman for Northwoods says the units currently fetch anywhere from $700,000 to $1.2 million each. Beyond that, she declines comment.)
In a written response to Aeromexico's charges, de Prevoisin says that all his financial maneuvering was legitimate. He admits that GP Investment is a corporation he created in 1983. But he claims he turned it over to his adult children in 1992 following the death of his wife. The Vail condos, he concludes, were privately purchased so that the de Prevoisin family could ski there.
So far, though, Aeromexico's case against de Prevoisin has been convincing enough to those who matter. Two months ago Eagle County District Court Judge William Jones slapped a lien on the family's four Vail condos. The lien means that the de Prevoisins can't sell the properties until the legal dispute is resolved.
In spite of his and his lawyers' fears of political retribution, it seems unlikely that de Prevoisin will be toted off to Mexico anytime soon. A spokeswoman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington says she believes that de Prevoisin is not being sought in Mexico for arrest. Nor has the country issued a formal extradition order for the former Aeromexico chief, she adds.
Meanwhile, de Prevoisin apparently intends to ride out the storm--if the courts will let him. "I believe that Mexico will somehow cope with its enormous economic, political and social problems," he wrote in a recent court filing. "In that process, I believe that political actions against me will diminish. Until they do, however, I can only hope that the U.S. and the Mexican courts will understand the dangerous personal predicament in which events beyond my control have placed me.
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