A woman's terror fears have taken down one of the largest fake document rings in theU.S.
By Joe Contreras | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Feb 29, 2008 | Updated: 10:35 a.m. ET Feb 29, 2008
It was hardly a normal childhood. When Suad Leija was growing up in Los Angeles and Chicago, she was assigned a bodyguard at the age of 7 and told not to make any friends at school. Nor should she greet her stepfather, Manuel, if they crossed paths in the street. When she got home from school, Suad would help Manuel stuff the cash proceeds of his business into envelopes in amounts of $1,000, $2,000 and $5,000. But the penny didn't really drop for Suad until a wintry morning in 1995 when 15 FBI agents burst into the Leijas' Chicago apartment in search of Manuel. From that point onward she knew that her stepfather was not the legitimate "salesperson" he claimed to be. Today, Suad is in hiding from Manuel after helping federal investigators take down his 14-year-old fraudulent-identification-document ring last year and provide the locations of her stepfather and two of his brothers, all of whom are now under arrest. "I do feel I'm in danger," says the 23-year-old native of Mexico City
. "But I had to make a big decision, and I feel I made the correct one.
When federal prosecutors indicted 22 members of the Leija Sánchez counterfeit ID organization in Chicago
last April, they described the arrests as "a significant setback" to one of the largest criminal enterprises of its kind ever to operate in the United States
. But they made no mention of Suad Leija and the remarkable tale of how her marriage to an undercover American agent and her choice of country over family led to the downfall of the fake-document ring. Suad began cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in January 2006 and gave investigators the names and addresses of her stepfather's siblings and top lieutenants, who had been photographed while under surveillance by the Feds. Her decision to aid ICE officials, she says, grew out of concern that the fake green cards, driver's licenses and Social Security cards churned out by her family's document mills could be used by terrorists to stage another devastating attack on American soil. "Just as I wouldn't help a drug peddler sell narcotics to kids, there's no way I'd do it for terrorists who want to use fake identification produced by my family," Suad told NEWSWEEK in a phone interview from an undisclosed location. "If another September 11 were to happen and I'd done nothing to stop my family, then I would be just as guilty."
Senior ICE officials also see the booming fraudulent documents business as a bona fide threat to national security. The industry generates annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and its primary markets are the estimated 12 to 20 million foreigners living illegally in the United States
and teenagers wanting to sneak into a bar. But some of the 9/11 hijackers obtained legitimate ID documents under false pretenses, and a terrorist suspect linked to Al Qaeda named Nabil al-Marabh allegedly produced fake ID documents at his uncle's print shop in Toronto prior to the attacks on New York and Washington . Though the clientele of the Leija Sánchez ring was overwhelmingly Latin American in origin, federal prosecutors say that documents were sold to Algerians, other Arabs and Pakistanis. "That's where the vulnerability is," says James Spero, a deputy assistant director in the ICE office of investigations. "You can buy a set of documents that will make it appear you are legally in the U.S. for as little as $100, and nobody in these organizations does background checks on their customers."
The story behind the story of the ICE probe code-named Operation Paper Tiger provides a revealing glimpse into the post-9/11 workings of the U.S. intelligence community. The chain of events that brought Suad into the Chicago offices of ICE two years ago did not happen by chance, but was deliberately set in motion by her American husband, who used her to infiltrate the Leija Sánchez organization. Identified only as John Doe at her Web site (www.suadleija.com) for security purposes, the American met Suad in a Managua bar in the spring of 2004 when she was studying architecture in her mother's native Nicaragua . Posing as a businessman, the American was in fact a free-lance covert operative who had been working for a number of U.S. government agencies in Latin America since 1999. His quarry was terrorists, and in 2003 he came up with a plan to trap militant extremists wanting to enter the U.S. through Latin America by setting up a front company in the bogus-documents business. In the course of researching the scheme, he heard about the Leija Sánchez gang through a business associate and learned there was an attractive young woman living in Nicaragua who was related to the family.The American secret agent picked the right organization to target. At its peak, the Leija Sánchez ring was grossing up to $20,000 a day from the sale of fake documents on the streets of Chicago 's predominantly Latino Little Village neighborhood. Known as El Jefe de los Jefes (The Boss of the Bosses), Manuel Leija entered the business in the late 1980s as a colleague of Pedro Castorena, the kingpin of a Los Angeles-based counterfeit document organization who has been described by ICE officials as the Pablo Escobar of the illicit trade. (Castorena has not been convicted but is expected to go on trial in Denver later this year.) One of the key suspects captured last spring was Manuel's 31-year-old brother Julio Leija Sánchez, who is believed to have headed the ring's Chicago cell. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit the April 2007 murder of a former associate in Mexico who had stolen computer equipment and software from the organization to launch a rival counterfeit-document-production operation. Another brother named Pedro was apprehended in Mexico City four months later, and in October, Mexican federal agents arrested Manuel in the city of León . (Neither Pedro nor Manuel have entered formal pleas in this case.)
A New Yorker in his 50s who took part in various counternarcotics investigations in the 1970s as a government contractor, the American started dating Suad soon after their first encounter in the Managua bar. His initial goal in seeking her out was to infiltrate her family, but the couple later married. When federal agents arrested Manuel Leija Sánchez in a Chicagosuburb after police raided one of his document mills in November 2005, some of Suad's relatives asked if there was anything her gringo husband could do for el jefe. Sensing a rare opening to gain entry into his in-laws' databases, John Doe told Suad about his undercover work for the U.S. government and arranged a meeting in Mexico City with Manuel's father, Natividad. The American made Natividad a proposition: he would intervene with his supervisors in the U.S. government to spring Manuel from jail in exchange for full access to the organization's fake-document operation.
The family patriarch gave the American a green light, and he and Suad drove to Chicago to present the offer to Manuel at the Cook County jail facility where he was being held. But the cagey documents boss smelled a rat and turned down the proposal. Manuel eventually cut a plea-bargain deal with prosecutors and was deported to Mexico in August 2006. In the meantime Suad was telling ICE investigators all she knew about her relatives' criminal activities. (ICE officials declined to comment on John Doe and his dealings with U.S. government agencies on the grounds that Operation Paper Tiger is an ongoing investigation.)
When Mexican authorities arrested Manuel last October, he was named a codefendant by U.S. attorneys in his brother Julio's alleged conspiracy to murder former Chicago ring member Guillermo Jiménez Flores in April 2007. ICE officials say that fraudulent document rings are on a par with drug cartels in their capacity for violent retribution, and Suad Leija fears for her life. She also has mixed emotions about the wrenching choice she made. "I feel bad because my father is in jail, and I never expected this to happen to my own family," she says. "But my family can counterfeit any document that comes out, and they will never go out of the business."
ICE agents have arrested 38 members of the Leija Sánchez organization to date, and from his Mexican prison cell Manuel is currently fighting extradition to the U.S. His old business associate Pedro Castorena was flown from Mexico to Denver last month to stand trial later this year on fraud, conspiracy and money-laundering charges, and Suad is expected to testify for the prosecution. But as the decline and fall of Pablo Escobar's Colombian Medellin cartel proved in the 1990s, the decapitation of a criminal organization's leadership will not disrupt the industry as long as there is strong demand for its product. And as of this week, ICE officials reported no decline in the availability of bogus documents on the streets of any major U.S. city.
© 2008 Newsweek, Inc.
“I’m Not Like Them”
The intelligence operation which made possible to strike a major blow against the ID card counterfeiting operation in Chicago began like a love story about a wealthy twenty-something young Mexican woman and a somewhat older American man, supposedly a businessman, who won her heart. She is the stepdaughter of Manuel Leija Sanchez, while he the American was a contact for Federal investigators who had been trying for years to infiltrate the family of “El jefe de jefes” [The Boss of Bosses].
Jorge Mederos La Raza
It was in Managua, Nicaragua, and Suad Leija, then almost 20 years old, was starting to learn about nightlife with friends at the university, where she was studying architecture.
The year was 2004. She was living there with her Nicaraguan mother Yelba and her younger sister Shirley, far from the Mexican family that ran a document counterfeiting gang operating in 33 states in the US, but still supported by money sent twice a month by her stepfather Manuel.
Thousands of dollars came via Western Union, money orders, travelers checks or hidden in magazines sent via FedEx. Sometimes deliveries were made in person by a Polish bodyguard with the surname of Grodski.
The money was invested in setting up clothing stores and taxi operations, along with living and schooling expenses. Suad took charge of managing the money, as her stepfather maintained he had lost confidence in his former wife Yelba, who had severe problems with alcoholism.
Yelba Marina Reyes had a history in Nicaragua as a former Sandinista guerrilla. Her mentor had been Suad Marcos, an Egyptian communist married to one of the “comandantes” of the Nicaraguan revolution, and so her first daughter was named Suad. For Yelba, life back in her country was to be a refuge to escape the abuse and threats from her former husband.
Before Managua, they had lived in Los Angeles and Chicago, cities from which they had to flee in the middle of the night to escape the police pressuring the family’s counterfeiting business.
Suad reminisced, in an interview with La Raza, that she went to the University “and then we went with my chauffeur to pick up my sister to go to a shopping center for lunch. At night we went out for dinner or to the discothèques.”
It was during those rounds that she kept crossing paths win an American. “We kept running into each other, not knowing who it was, until one night we were introduced in a popular bar in Managua.”
“John” did not speak Spanish, but she did speak English, which made conversation easy. He introduced himself as a businessman with business in Latin American who traveled periodically to the United States and Mexico.
“We moved in the same social circles. We had friends in common who had casinos, restaurants and nightclubs,” said Suad in a telephone interview.
A month and a half later they met again, but apparently the American was not interested in a more formal relationship; “He was going out with three or four other girls too at that time,” Suad said.
She remembered, however, “I told him he wasn’t going to get rid of me so easily… until we agreed to get engaged, and finally we got married, first in Nicaragua and then in Mexico.”
For her, it was the fulfillment of a romance with a man who, when out partying at night, attracted women like he was a rock star. For him, it was a first step in getting to explore the labyrinth of the counterfeiting organization set up in 1987 by Manuel Leija-Sánchez (age 40 years) and Pedro Castorena (age 44) and which might be selling ID’s to terrorists.
Besides the market consisting of undocumented immigrants looking for a way to legalize themselves in order to survive, it was suspected that at least some tiny percentage of fake ID’s could be used by people interested in getting into the US for other purposes.
“John” had been given the mission of infiltrating the Leija family. His chosen target was Suad, the young woman who spoke haltingly and was raised by Manuel as his daughter from an early age. He had studied her life down to the tiniest detail before approaching her.
But the moment of truth was tough, never mind that love had solidified the relationship. When Manuel Leija was arrested in Cicero in November of 2005 after the discovery of one of the counterfeiting mills, the patriarch Natividad Leija needed the help of the family’s “American,” thinking that a businessman with good connections could do something “in confidence” to get the gang’s capo out of jail.
According to information obtained by La Raza, the Cicero police got to Manuel after being alerted by anonymous telephone calls about there being suspicious activities at 2555 S. Lombard Ave, Apt. 9. Instead of drug traffickers, as expected, they found one of the places where fake documents were being printed, so Immigration was called in.
“My Aunt Edith, my mother and grandmother called me. When I hung up the phone and told my husband, I thought he knew nothing about it, that he was going to be surprised,” said Suad, who was living with her husband in Mexico at that time.
“Instead, I was the surprised one. He told me what he had been doing for three years, tracking down my family, and that he was in part responsible for my father’s being arrested.”
“He used me”
“I was so astonished then; I didn’t know what to say. We were already married, and no way was I going to say, ‘Know what? I’m out of here.’ We had grown to be very close, the feelings were deep,” said Suad, even though she acknowledged, “He used me.”
“John” was ready. “He had thought things through, and well,” as Suad related. “He told me about the forms of terrorism, about people who blew up buildings in the United States, or the role of the of the drug cartels in Mexico, and I understood. And just like I would not help a drug peddler sell narcotics to kids or my little sister, no way would I do it for terrorists so they could use fake ID’s produced by my family.”
“If something new like September 11 [of 2001] were to happen and I had done nothing to stop my family, then I would be just as guilty. I am not like them,” she declared.
But besides being convinced by her husband, there was a family event that changed Suad and set her on the path to becoming an informant for Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the United States.
In one of his meetings with Natividad, Suad’s husband asked the grandfather if he knew whether any of the fake ID’s made by his organization had been sold to terrorists “or evil persons who want to hurt the United States,” according to the exact words Suad remembered.
“My Grandpa and my Uncle Pedro started laughing. Natividad said that terrorism was no problem for Mexico, just the United States. All that matters to us is the money,” she said.
It seems that at the time there was no awareness in the organization of the role of “John”, and Natividad was ready to collaborate with him, but Manuel was refusing to even answer to his American son-in-law during prison visits. No agreement was made.
“The blindfold comes off from your eyes. You can’t hide the sun behind your finger. You notice that people you grew up with and thought you knew are utterly different, mostly my Grandpa, who I always thought was a nice, friendly person, and all of a sudden he turns out to be so cruel. That is very hard to take.”
“Much sadness and fear”
Suad was speaking with La Raza from an undisclosed location in the United States, where she is currently living, under her husband’s protection and under threats of death from Manuel. Her cooperation with ICE has been essential in reconstructing the history of the organization and, most of all, in determining the names and jobs of people in the surveillance videos taken by authorities of gang members, most of whom are currently being held in Chicago.
Also invaluable was the testimony Suad presented before the federal grand jury which was investigating the case and concluded with charges being brought against 23 persons for counterfeiting documents and money laundering.
–Do you think it possible for your stepfather to go through with the death threats?
–“Sure, it’s possible,” Suad responded. She remembers that, in one phone call from the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Manuel told his current wife Fabiola and Suad’s mother, that if she didn’t back out, leave things quiet and leave her husband, “He would have me killed.”
She even quoted the testimony of her sister Shirley, according to which Manuel also threatened his former wife Yelba with death, thinking that it was through her that the police got to him the first time, in 1996.
“It makes me so sad, and it really scares me, but at some point in life people have to make a big decision. Unfortunately for me, I had to choose between my family and helping a government. I’m proud of what I did,” she said.
Suad herself admits, though, that “The family is enormous and will never get out of this business.”
In her opinion, “At any time now, somebody is going to emerge” to take charge of the document counterfeiting operations which, after they were hit in Chicago by the authorities, have been halted, or at least slowed down, here and in other cities where they operated in the United States.
The accused are expected to be convicted and to serve their prison terms, which should not be very long, given the nature of the crimes. They will then be deported to Mexico, but long before then the head of the organization will have been replaced, in the opinion of sources of the law enforcement services. © La Raza
The list of the accused published by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is headed by brothers Manuel and Julio Leija-Sánchez, aged 40 and 31 years, accused of counterfeiting documents and money laundering.
Among those charged with counterfeiting driver’s licenses, ID cards and Social Security cards are Elías Muñoz, aged 62 years, the father of Alderman Ricardo Muñoz whose district includes the Little Village neighborhood where most of the gang’s operations took place.
According to charges, the Nuevo Foto Muñoz photo studio, located in the Discount Mall on 26th Street, was where the so-called “miqueros” [ID vendors] obtained the photos used in the fake documents, along with the customers’ personal information.
The customers were mostly undocumented Mexican immigrants, but the list compiled by authorities also included Poles, Indians, Algerians, Arabs, Nigerians, Canadians, Haitians, Pakistanis and Asians.
Manuel Leija was jailed for several months in Chicago for the crime of counterfeiting and was deported to Mexico in August of 2006, which is where he now is. His brother Julio was the head of the organization, doing three million dollars of business annually in Chicago, together with his 28 year old wife Caterina Zapien Ruiz, who was in charge of supplying the materials needed for the counterfeiting operations.
The crime of money laundering, which involved the brothers and another Mexican, Raúl González-Márquez, involved attempts to smuggle $170,000, in proceeds from the business, into Mexico. The money was hidden in the tires of a light truck which was stopped by border patrol agents in Galveston, Texas.
The grand jury charges also mention Julio Leija-Sánchez in a plot to murder two former gang members in Mexico. Identified as Bruno and Montes, they had left the gang with the intent to set themselves up as competitors.
Transcriptions of telephone conversations tapped by federal agents would show that Gerardo Salazar-Rodríguez, a hired killer, called Julio, telling him the details of how he shot Montes 15 times, in an episode made to look like a robbery. In the same conversation, Julio Leija gave the green light to the crimes. It is not known whether the murder of Bruno was ever carried out.
According to the charges, another of those accused of using violence and threats to limit the competition was “Chato”, of unknown age, a native of Mexico’s Federal District.
The charges mention the following as document vendors: Miguel Cepeda, aged 26 years; José Cortez-Pérez, 42; Armando Dávila, 26; Ricardo González-Márquez, 54; Julio César Hernández-López, 36; Antonio Márquez, 35; Eduardo Molina-Vázquez, 32; Oscar Montiel Gerrido, 29; Rafael Morales, 36; Alfredo Muniz, 30; Luis Pérez, 23; Oscar Perigrino, 34; Claudio Carrillo-Fuentes, 38; and Ricardo Quintero-López, 33.
Elías Márquez, aged 51 years and brother-in-law of the Leija brothers, was supervisor of one of the facilities where documents were produced, while Ángel Martín Dorantes-Vázquez, aged 35 years, and José Cortez-Perez, 42, were in charge of surveillance in Little Village and looking out for police in the area. © La Raza
Feds: Fake-ID ring killed to stay ahead
Mexico says it has captured leader; his stepdaughter cheers
By Antonio Olivo | Tribune staff reporter
11:24 PM CDT, October 24, 2007
The violent and sometimes improbable saga of a fake ID ring that stretched from Little Village to Mexico City reached a climax Wednesday, when federal authorities announced that they had captured the leader in Mexico and charged him with murder and racketeering.
U.S. law enforcement officials in Chicago said Mexican authorities caught up Friday with Manuel Leija-Sanchez, 40, saying he was the leader of a Little Village-based operation since at least 1993. Officials estimate the ring made as much as $3 million a year over that period.
The ring made headlines in April, when, according to authorities, the slaying of an alleged competitor led armed federal agents to storm the operation in a daylight raid, triggering a street protest over the agents' tactics.
Long part of the daily bustle at a 26th Street outdoor mall, the ring was the Chicago franchise of a larger network of fake ID operations across the U.S., run by the Castorena-Ibarra crime family in Mexico, federal immigration officials say.
Leija had lived in the Chicago area until a 2005 raid landed him behind bars for forgery. When he got out of Cook County Jail less than a year later, he was deported, and had been running the Chicago branch from Mexico since then, officials say.
His arrest last week by Mexican authorities in the state of Guanajuato is the latest chapter in a sort of cross-border version of the Family Secrets case, which used recordings and family informants to detail the inner workings of the Chicago Outfit crime syndicate.
The Leija-Sanchez saga—pieced together through interviews, court documents and a federal cell phone wiretap transcript—features international espionage, a gory slaying, the indictment of a Chicago politician's father, stacks of cash ferried across the border and a sometimes bungling cast of illegal immigrants, smuggled in to help run the business.
For good measure, there's also the reputed ringleader's doe-eyed stepdaughter, Suad Leija-Sanchez, who neither side wants to talk about. She says she has enough goods on the operation to cement the prosecution's case.
Over the last year, she has become a darling of conservative bloggers and talk show hosts, as she wages an Internet campaign to expose her relatives as a national security risk, an example of the dangers that come with the vibrant market for fake IDs in Chicago and other cities.
Web site launched
She and her husband—who she says is a U.S. intelligence agent—run a Web site that features what appear to be surveillance photos, a family tree and government reports raising concerns over the possibility of foreign terrorists using fake ID rings to blend into U.S. society.
"If something happens again, like another 9/11, and they got their IDs from my family and I didn't do anything, I would feel terrible," Suad Leija said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location.
Suad Leija lives in hiding, and neither federal officials nor defense lawyers would comment on her relationship to Manuel Leija, her husband or her story.
She said she has had minimal contact with her family since 2005. She also said she has been brought to Chicago several times for questioning and is under a federal protection program. On Wednesday, she was giddy over the news of her stepfather's capture, saying "Now I don't have to worry about hiding anymore. Or not so much."
Her account of the family's business begins during the early 1990s in Santa Monica, Calif., when she was 7. She says she recalls counting $20 bills and stuffing them into envelopes in stacks of 50 and 100. The family had moved there from Mexico City, where they had lived with Pedro Castorena, a reputed crime boss who she says is her godfather.
On Most Wanted list
As part of a 2005 federal case in Denver, Castorena—for years topping the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "Most Wanted" list—was arrested by Mexican authorities and is awaiting extradition on charges of money laundering, fraud and other related felonies.
"I didn't think much of it," Suad Leija said about her childhood work. "I was getting paid $50 a week."
In 1992, Manuel Leija brought Suad, her younger sister and their mother to Chicago to help expand the Castorena family's empire, Suad Leija says.
Over the years, the ring has relied heavily on a workforce of illegal immigrants brought into Chicago, who would repay their debt to their smugglers by selling fake IDs, officials say. During that period, records show Manuel Leija was in and out of jail for fraud and forgery, sometimes using one of his several aliases.
In 1995 Manuel Leija apparently learned of a federal raid the night before and slipped out of the country, avoiding arrest. Suad Leija recalls federal agents busting into their apartment that August morning.
The agents took Suad, her mother and sister into custody, she said. After hours of interrogation, the family was released. That night, the three were whisked away by paid family security guards toward the Mexican border, Suad Leija recalled. Eventually, they wound up in Mexico, where a smiling Manuel Leija and Pedro Castorena greeted them at a hotel, she said.
Feds: Fake-ID ring killed to stay ahead
That life began to unravel in 2004, when Suad Leija—by then living in Nicaragua with her mother and sister—met her future husband in a Managua nightclub, she said. Posing as an American businessman, he began dating the then-impressionable 19-year-old and eventually fell for her, she said. They married the following year.
When her stepfather was arrested in 2005, "I started to tell my husband what was happening, thinking he was going to be shocked," she recalled. "He starts laughing, telling me who he is and what he's been up to. I'm the one in shock. But, I'm married, I can't just go back."
Though officials declined to discuss Suad Leija's story, a federal prosecutor did acknowledge that the Leija family has "a lot of assets in Mexico" that agents are investigating.
"But we haven't seized them," said Michelle Nasser Weiss, an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.
A federal wiretap transcript obtained by the Tribune details how the family's money was generated, offering a snapshot of a thriving enterprise that begins with the mundane headaches of any business. After two former workers set out to launch their own competing fake ID enterprise in Indiana, however, the talk veers sharply toward blood and violence.
Some of the action detailed in the transcript takes place inside the Nuevo Munoz Foto shop, owned by Elias Munoz, father of Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd). The elder Munoz has pleaded not guilty to felony fraud charges.
In between are pages of orders for stolen Social Security card numbers and phony driver's licenses by "salesmen" using cell phones registered to people as far away as California and driving cars traced to unwitting suburbanites in Illinois, Wisconsin and other states.
"In the eyes, it is `B.R.N,' (brown) not 'B.R.L.,' " a salesman timidly instructs his hot-tempered supervisor one February afternoon, after an unsatisfied customer noticed the eye color listing on a newly minted fake driver's license was incorrect. The client was given a discount.
Death in a cab
Weeks later, a federal investigator heard this on his wiretap: "Then I shot him in the chest, dude. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Let's see, I shot him like four times in the hand, dude. But all the other ones were in the chest, dude. All of them in the liver because the blood that fell was black, dude. Black, black, black."
That boast, of a slaying inside a Mexican taxi, was given by Gerardo Salazar-Rodriguez, 34, who was arrested in Mexico in August and charged in the killing, the transcript states. He had been paid $3,000 by Julio Leija-Sanchez, 31, for that slaying and another in the works before the raid, the transcript states. A third brother, Pedro Leija-Sanchez, 35, also was arrested in Mexico in August and, with his two siblings, faces the death penalty or life in prison.
As the case winds toward trial, Suad Leija expressed some remorse that she was unable to save her family from trouble.
"I was trying to help them." Now, she added, "They're all kind of afraid of me."
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Article published Jun 27, 2007
'Amnesty' fake papers pledged in wiretap
June 27, 2007
By Stephen Dinan and Jerry Seper - ONLINE EXCLUSIVE:
The head of a Mexican forgery ring was convinced he could make phony documents that illegal aliens could use to indicate fraudulently that they were eligible for a new amnesty, says a government affidavit recounting wiretapped phone calls the man made.
Julio Leija-Sanchez, who ran a $3 million-a-year forgery operation before he was arrested in April, was expecting Congress to pass a legalization program, which he called "amnesty," and said he could forge documents to fool the U.S. government into believing illegal aliens were in the country in time to qualify for amnesty, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent said in the affidavit.
In recounting a wiretapped telephone conversation, ICE agent Jason E. Medica said he heard Mr. Leija-Sanchez tell an associate the forgery ring could "fix his papers" to meet the requirements of a legalization program such as the bill the Senate is debating today.
"When Leija-Sanchez said 'if there's an amnesty, he can fix his papers,' Leija-Sanchez was referring to the possibility of pending legislation which would allow a certain class of illegal aliens to remain in the United States, as long as they can prove a term of residency in the United States with no convictions," agent Medica wrote.
"When Leija-Sanchez said 'he can fix his papers,' he was referring to the fact that the organization could fraudulently create or alter documents to falsely prove the requisite residency period," the agent wrote.
Mr. Leija-Sanchez also used his forgery ring to help smuggle illegal aliens into the country on the understanding they would work for his criminal enterprise. He was arrested on charges of forgery and conspiracy to commit murder.
The Senate immigration bill was resurrected yesterday and is headed for a final vote later this week. It includes a path to citizenship for the 12 million to 20 million estimated illegal aliens as long as they can show they arrived in the country by the beginning of this year.
Its backers say it cracks down on fraud by requiring new legal workers to have a tamper-proof ID, but opponents say it would invite a new wave of illegal aliens with fraudulent documents trying to prove they are eligible for legal status. They point to the 1986 amnesty, in which about a quarter of approved applications were later deemed fraudulent.
"It's clear that the most capable fraud document cartel in Mexico has been gearing up for comprehensive immigration reform at the same time we have been here on Capitol Hill — only they're ahead of the game," said Michael Maxwell, senior policy analyst for homeland security for Rep. John Culberson, Texas Republican. "They're already making money and will continue to do so if this bill passes."
In the affidavit, agent Medica said that although the forgery ring was mostly Mexican, its customers were "American, Polish, Indian, Algerian, Arab, Mexican, Nigerian, Canadian, Haitian, Pakistani and Asian." The agent said the organization never refused to sell documents to anyone who had money.
The 113-page affidavit describes a document-fraud investigation by ICE that began in October 2003 in
and targeted a Mexico-based gang that produced false documents in cities nationwide, includingDenver
ICE officials said the gang generated millions of dollars in illicit profits each year by recruiting illegal aliens to sell false documents on street corners in the city. They said as many as 20 illegal aliens sold false documents at any one time in just one location.
Mr. Leija-Sanchez, 31, was identified in court papers as the leader of the organization's
operation. He was among 22 persons arrested in April as part of what federal authorities said was a bustling counterfeit identification document business.
He also was accused of paying $3,000 and conspiring with others to kill two fledgling competitors for stealing computers used to make the phony documents.
The conversations involving potential documents to obtain amnesty were among numerous calls that ICE agents intercepted using court-authorized wiretaps since February, during the final months of the investigation code-named Operation Paper Tiger.
Based on undercover purchases and information from cooperating sources, ICE officials said the organization sold 50 to 100 sets of fraudulent identification documents daily, charging about $200 to $300 per set. A set consisted of a Social Security card and either an immigration green card or a state driver's license.
Under the Senate bill, documents illegal aliens can use to prove they have been in the country long enough include bank records, records from a day-labor center and sworn affidavits from known relatives.
Mr. Leija-Sanchez said he could produce any document for which he had a model to copy. At one point, a customer asked for a driver's license from
, but the forger said he didn't have a model. He offered anOhio
He said he could make birth certificates, green cards, work visas and driver's licenses from 20 states.