​First Majestic Silver Corp. won a reprieve on criminal tax fraud charges in initial Mexican court hearings for a case that will test the strength of the country’s crackdown on tax evasion, according to people familiar with the matter.

A judge in Mexico City declined to charge the Canadian mining company with criminal tax fraud, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the matter is private. Prosecutors can still return to court and present additional evidence. One of the people said the judge delayed ruling until an audit by Mexico’s tax authority was finished and that the judge hadn’t ruled yet on the evidence presented in the case.

First Majestic, a Vancouver-based company that operates three producing silver mines and other projects in Mexico, declined to comment. Representatives from Mexico’s government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

First Majestic is facing down authorities in court after other major companies including Wal-Mart de Mexico caved in front of potential criminal tax charges last year and made more than US$1 billion in tax settlements. Mexican tax prosecutors have discretion to settle criminal charges even after they have handed complaints over to the Attorney General’s Office.

Shares of First Majestic, which has been cited as a short-squeeze target, soared as much as 39 per cent in New York on Thursday amid a frenzy of retail trading fueled by Internet chat rooms.

While other countries doled out tax breaks during the pandemic, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pushed forward with a campaign using criminal enforcement of the tax code. Lopez Obrador has accused major companies of failing to pay their fair share for decades.

Mexican tax authorities won a court victory in September when magistrates ruled that Primero Mining Corp., which First Majestic purchased in 2018, had hatched an illegal pricing agreement with tax authorities early last decade.

First Majestic filed an appeal in late November to that decision, one of the people said, and the company has said it is assessing all legal options for both domestic and international arbitration. Back in June, the company hoped to reach a quick settlement with Mexico amid the flurry of deals with other companies, but it also started the process for international arbitration.

Mexican authorities have told the company it owed US$260.9 million for the 2010 and 2012 tax years, according to financial filings.