September 22, 2007 in Nation/World

Bootmaker for Bush, Fox allegedly used illegal hides

Lisa J. Adams Associated Press

GUANAJUATO, Mexico – A bootmaker to world leaders, including President Bush and Vicente Fox, is in a Colorado jail, charged with money laundering and conspiring to illegally smuggle the skins of protected animals into the U.S. to provide exotic footwear for high-end clients.

The arrest of Martin Villegas – and Mexico’s raid of a warehouse filled with hundreds of cowboy boots and belts made from endangered species – has raised questions about how much Fox knew of the scheme and whether the former Mexican president purchased illegal boots himself.

Before Fox left office in December, Villegas created a special brand of cowboy boot named after him, which was manufactured in Mexico’s shoemaking capital, Leon, in Fox’s home state of Guanajuato.

The Mexican bootmaker also produced footwear for Fox’s bodyguards, Cabinet members, relatives and friends – including Bush, a fellow lover of ranchwear who accepted a pair of ostrich-skin cowboy boots as a gift during a visit to Fox’s ranch in 2001.

Fox, in Rome for his election as co-president of an association of center-right parties from around the world, was under fire this week from Mexican media speculating not only about the boots, but the source of his post-presidential wealth.

Fox issued a blanket denial through his Web site Friday, challenging the media to come up with evidence to support the allegations. “Conduct a thorough investigation, and if you find any indication of corruption, file a complaint,” he wrote.

Villegas was arrested Sept. 6 along with two other Mexican nationals and two U.S. residents following a three-year undercover operation by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents. The five allegedly made 25 illegal shipments of banned skins into the U.S. since 2005, the department said.

According to court records, Villegas pleaded not guilty in a Sept. 11 court appearance, and is now being held at the Jefferson Co. jail in Golden, Colo., just outside Denver.

Days later, Mexican federal agents raided the Canada Grande factory and warehouse in Leon, which is owned by one of the other Mexican suspects, Esteban Lopez Estrada. They found about 400 pairs of cowboy boots and 150 belts made of the skins of endangered sea turtles, as well as products made illegally from the hides of crocodiles, lizards and cobras.

If convicted in the U.S., Villegas and Lopez face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines for each conspiracy count, and 20 years and $500,000 in fines for each smuggling and money laundering count.

If Lopez is convicted in Mexico, he faces one to nine years in jail and a fine of $1,365 to $13,650.

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