Mexican Drug Cartels Asked Russia Arms Dealers for Help Shooting Down U.S. Helicopters, and Hungary Let the Russians Go

Washington's request to extradite two Russian arms dealers who allegedly attempted to sell weapons to Mexican drug cartels so they could shoot down U.S. helicopters was denied by U.S. ally Hungary, officials revealed Tuesday.

Hungary, a member of the European Union and a U.S. ally, opted to extradite the accused arms dealers, Vladimir Lyubishin Sr. and his son Vladimir Lyubishin Jr., to their home country of Russia instead. It is unclear whether the men will face trial in Russia.

"The United States is disappointed in the Hungarian government's decision to extradite the Lyubishins to Russia. The United States had a strong case, built in cooperation with members of Hungarian law enforcement," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Tuesday. "Hungary is a partner and friend of the United States, but this decision raises questions about Hungary's commitment to law enforcement cooperation."

The story of the Lyubishins was described in detail on Friday when Hungarian reporters revealed the findings of a three-month investigation into the case. The two Russian arms dealers had been residing in Hungary for years and entered into a relationship with representatives for Mexican cocaine dealers, according to the report and court documents reviewed by Newsweek.

The Mexican cartels wanted the weapons to defend themselves from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Russians were told. The men had planned to sell Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns, anti-tank and air-to-surface missiles to the cartels, among other arsenal. The deals were allegedly facilitated by a Turkish middleman who met the Russians in Cyprus and Hungary.

Lawyers representing the two Russians told reporters that the men were unaware that the purchase was being made for drug cartels.

In reality, the entire deal was a setup planned by the DEA. The two Russians were arrested around a year and a half ago in a secret operation codenamed Perseus, which was led by the DEA and Hungarian counterterrorism forces. The suspects were also accused of smuggling cocaine into the U.S.

Court documents filed in the Southern District of New York in 2016 demonstrate that U.S. officials believed at least one of the Russians would soon be extradited. But reporters investigating the case in Hungary said that Moscow successfully pressured Budapest so the men would be released.

"The story of the Lyubishin affair has two parts involving different actors. The first part was the secret investigation and DEA sting operation, which involved the DEA, the FBI and Hungarian authorities—police and counter-terror units. The cooperation was very good, as usual. Hungarians were helping with surveillance, for example, then with the raid and the house searches," Szabolcs Panyi, an investigative reporter with the publication Direkt 36 in Hungary, explained to Newsweek.

gettyimages-1035430968-594x594
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin (from left) give a joint press conference following their meeting at the Kremlin, in Moscow, on September 18. Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

"The second part is when the story reached a political level. It became political when Hungary's government realized they have to explain to the Kremlin why they extradited two Russians to the U.S. Russia is very aggressive in similar cases exerting pressure to secure their citizens involved in arms trafficking," Panyi added.

Hungary's controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban has deepened his country's ties to Russia at the same time he ran afoul of the European Union over his tough stance on migration and crackdown on the free press and judiciary.

This is not the first time this month that Hungary has helped an accused criminal escape justice, either. Earlier this month, Nikola Gruevski, the former prime minister of Macedonia who was convicted on corruption charges, vanished the day before his jail sentence was to begin and suddenly reappeared in Hungary. Investigators claim he was smuggled across the Balkans in a vehicle belonging to the Hungarian embassy.

The Hungarian government is now considering Gruevski's asylum request, a fact many analysts found ironic given Orban's hard-line anti-migrant and anti-asylum views.

Mexican Drug Cartels Asked Russia Arms Dealers for Help Shooting Down U.S. Helicopters, and Hungary Let the Russians Go | World