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 United States 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.
Ex-leader may have profited off sales
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.
Reached by The Associated Press in their hotel Friday, former first lady Martha Sahagun said she and Fox were aware of Villegas’ arrest but would not comment.
Fox issued a blanket denial through his Web site Friday, challenging the media to come up with hard evidence to support the allegations. “Conduct a thorough investigation, and if you find any indication of corruption, file a complaint,” he wrote.
Fox’s ruling National Action Party said it has confidence in Fox’s integrity and maintained the accusations were designed to detract attention from corruption cases involving opposition politicians.
U.S. Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames declined to comment on Villegas’ arrest.
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.
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.
Bootmaker faces prison, fine
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.
The seized boots, belts, shoes and skins are being stored in an environmental protection agency office in Guanajuato, where a chain-link cage is filled with more than 200 cardboard boxes with drawings of ostriches and serpents. “Exotic Boots ... export quality,” is written in red lettering on the boxes.
“They were bringing them to the United States to sell,” said Eloy Urroz, Guanajuato chief of the environmental protection agency. “You can tell because they are very-well crafted.”
State officials gave the AP a glimpse of the accessories Thursday, pulling out stylishly stitched boots with uppers and tips made of shiny sea-turtle skin.
A pair of turtle-skin cowboy boots sells on the black market in Mexico for about $70. Across the border, they can fetch as much as $500, the U.S. Justice Department says. Turtle skins, which sell for about $9 in Mexico, go for about $80 in the U.S.
Any commercial trade in sea turtles is prohibited under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Urroz declined to talk about Villegas or his relationship to Fox.