Symington Family Partner Under Suspicion

U.S. authorities suspect a Mexican vegetable grower with business ties to the Symingtons is involved in drug trafficking

Governor J. Fife Symington III's family has extensive personal and financial ties to a Mexican businessman who cannot enter the United States because of persistent drug-trafficking allegations, New Times has learned.

The U.S. Customs Service has compiled intelligence that Alejandro Canelos Rodriguez, a Sinaloa produce farmer, shipper and distributor, may be involved in drug trafficking and money laundering, according to federal sources and documents.

"He's a suspected doper," says one federal source familiar with Customs Service intelligence reports on Canelos.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration documents indicate that agency also has compiled information for law-enforcement purposes on Canelos. DEA declined to release the information, citing privacy concerns.

Canelos' son, Alejandro Nicolas Canelos, told New Times in a March 17 letter that Phoenix DEA special agent Gus Fassler would say "that any and all allegations were false."

Fassler did, in fact, tell New Times that Alejandro Canelos "is not a suspect of DEA."

However, a congressional staffer tells New Times he called the U.S. Consulate in Hermosillo on March 18 and was told that "DEA is against issuing the visa" to Canelos. The staffer asked not to be identified.

Despite conflicting accounts of DEA's role, there is no doubt that the Customs Service has monitored Alejandro Canelos' activities for several years and has placed his name in a narcotics intelligence database that has prevented him from obtaining a standard 10-year visa to enter the United States. Canelos' attorney says Canelos was issued two short-term visas in 1996 after he was denied a permanent visa in 1995.

The State Department denied Canelos' most recent application for a visa in December, Mary A. Ryan, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, reported in a March 3 letter to New Times.

Jeri Pudschun, a State Department spokeswoman, did not specify why Canelos was denied a visa but cited a broad provision in law which says a visa can be denied if the applicant is ineligible or fails to provide sufficient information.

Other State Department officials say that the mere allegation that a person is involved in drug trafficking is sufficient to deny a visa.

Alejandro Canelos denies any involvement in drug trafficking and threatened to sue New Times if it publishes "allegations or insinuations which attempt to connect me or any of my businesses to drug-related activities."

Canelos is represented by John Dowd, a high-powered criminal-defense attorney from Washington, D.C., who will defend Governor Symington in his May 13 federal trial on 23 counts of bank fraud, perjury and extortion.

Records obtained by New Times reveal that the governor and his family are linked to Canelos in significant ways, including:

* The governor's wife, Ann Symington, has invested between $25,000 and $100,000 in a Mexican corporation, Melones Internacional SA de CV, a corporation headed by Alejandro Canelos.

* A "J. Fife Symington" is a director of Melones Internacional. The governor's bankruptcy lawyer, Robert Shull, has said the corporate official is the governor's son, J. Fife Symington IV.

* The governor's two eldest sons--J. Fife Symington IV and Scott H. Symington--are business partners with Canelos' son, Alejandro Nicolas Canelos, in at least one Arizona corporation.

* Governor Symington has used his political influence in the United States and Mexico in an attempt to benefit the business interests of Canelos and his family. Symington also has pushed for speedier processing of truck traffic entering the United States from Mexico.

At the same time, critics contend that the state Department of Public Safety, which monitors traffic on Arizona's highways, has seen its ability to combat drug traffic curtailed by Symington's hand-picked DPS administrators.

The governor, his wife and sons refused to return phone calls and letters seeking comment.

Canelos' attorney, John Dowd, at first said there was "no basis in fact to any of the speculation or allegations" involving Alejandro Canelos. Dowd said on March 17 that Phoenix DEA special agent Fassler had cleared up all allegations involving Canelos about a year ago.

"I'm telling you that the special-agent-in-charge of the Phoenix office investigated that information and determined that to be false," Dowd says.

Fassler, however, tells New Times that he investigated only one allegation concerning Canelos--at the request of the State Department--and determined it to be unfounded. He adds that he is not aware of the intelligence that other agencies, including Customs, has compiled.

Of course, as Dowd suggests, law-enforcement computers often store raw, unverified--and often unverifiable--intelligence. But the suggestion that Fassler examined the entire database, investigated the collection of allegations and absolved Canelos is distortion.

"I don't know about any other investigations," Fassler says.
When New Times relayed Fassler's statements back to Dowd, the lawyer acknowledged that Customs intelligence information on Canelos remains in the State Department's files.

"I know of no new allegation or new information," Dowd says. "It's the same old crap in the computer."

Dowd says there is no evidence linking Canelos to drug trafficking and says his client is getting "his business destroyed because the State Department can't get its act together."

Dowd's role as Canelos' attorney--in addition to several partnerships between the governor's sons and Canelos' son--raises the possibility that Governor Symington has known for some time that Alejandro Canelos has been under scrutiny as a possible drug trafficker.

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