By Matthew Hendley
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By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
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In a reversal, the U.S. State Department has issued a one-year visa to a Mexican businessman with close ties to the family of Governor J. Fife Symington III. The businessman, Alejandro Canelos Rodriguez, has been suspected by the U.S. Customs Service of being involved in drug trafficking.
The nonimmigrant visa allows Canelos to enter the United States an unlimited number of times for tourism and business purposes during the next 12 months. Last month, a U.S. congressional staffer told New Times that on March 11 Canelos had applied to the consulate for a 10-year visa, the longest U.S. visa a Mexican can get.
Munchmeyer declined to comment on the issuance of the one-year visa other than to say that the visa's duration is at "the discretion of the consular office."
Sandra Salmon, the U.S. consulate in Hermosillo, declined Tuesday to comment.
In December, State Department officials in Mexico City rejected Canelos' request to receive a visa, according to a March 3 letter sent to New Times by Mary Ryan, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs.
New Times reported in its March 20 issue that Canelos' application for a visa had been denied. New Times also revealed that the Customs Service has investigated Canelos' possible role in drug trafficking and money laundering for several years ("Symington Family Partner Under Suspicion").
Canelos has denied any connection to illegal drug activities. "Any allegations against me concerning drug activity are false," Canelos stated in a March 17 letter to New Times.
Canelos' attorney, Washington, D.C., lawyer John Dowd, demanded in a March 31 letter that New Times "retract the malicious article immediately and publish a prominent apology."
Dowd reiterated his demand for an apology on Tuesday in a letter sent to New Times.
"Surely, if there were any truth whatsoever to your report that Mr. Canelos is a drug trafficking 'suspect' of the United States Government, he would not have been granted any visa at all," Dowd writes.
New Times editor Jeremy Voas says the newspaper stands by the accuracy of its story.
A government source says the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 1995 asked that Canelos' visas be restricted, and rather than a long-term visa he was issued short-term, three-month visas that year.
Dowd has confirmed in previous interviews that Canelos' name has turned up in DEA and Customs Service intelligence computers. Dowd says a Phoenix DEA agent, Gus Fassler, gave Canelos a clean bill of health last year.
But New Times was told by a congressional staffer last month that DEA officials in Mexico were still objecting to issuing Canelos a visa. New Times relayed the information to Fassler, who said he would check with DEA officials in Mexico. Fassler, however, told New Times he would not share any information about Canelos he might obtain from his counterparts in Mexico.
Dowd's April 15 letter also states that Canelos has been subject to scrutiny by the U.S. Customs Service stemming from its May 1990 seizure of an airplane.
Dowd states that U.S. Consulate Salmon limited the duration of Canelos' current visa to one year rather than granting a longer-term visa of up to 10 years because she "mistakenly concluded that Mr. Canelos owned this airplane. In fact, the airplane was owned by a company in which Mr. Canelos has an interest. Mr. Canelos was not using the airplane and was not present when the airplane was seized. No drugs were found on the airplane, no accusations of illegal conduct were made and, ultimately, the airplane was not forfeited."
Dowd says Canelos has asked Salmon "to reconsider issuance of a 10-year visa."
Salmon's decision to limit Canelos' visa to one year is a possible indication that Canelos' background is still causing some concern with visa officials, a State Department official says.
"A one-year visa is pretty good," says the official who asked not to be identified. But he added that people of Canelos' "class and stature" are routinely granted 10-year visas.
The Symington family has significant business and personal ties with Canelos.
A "J. Fife Symington" is on the board of directors of Melones Internacional SA de CV, a Culiacan, Mexico-based corporation whose president is Canelos. Symington bankruptcy attorney Robert Shull says the director is the governor's eldest son, J. Fife Symington IV. Neither Shull nor the governor has produced documentation substantiating the claim that the younger Symington is the director.
The governor's wife, Ann Symington, has invested between $25,000 and $100,000 in the Mexican corporation, the governor's 1996 financial disclosure statement shows.
Canelos' son, Alejandro Nicolas Canelos, and the governor's son, Fife IV, were classmates at Harvard University from 1988 to 1992 and have formed at least two Arizona-based corporations together.