Detention hearings are scheduled for today in Laredo, Texas, for three employees of the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud.
Sergio Genaro Ochoa-Alarcon, 31; Benjamin Antonio Ayala-Morales, 34; and Ramon Alberto Torres-Galvan, 34, were arrested last Thursday night in Laredo by agents of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.
The men, all citizens of Mexico, worked as visa clerks at the busy Nuevo Laredo consulate, which issued more than 100,000 visas last year. Prosecutors have declined to say how many visas may have been distributed in the purported scheme.
According to criminal complaints filed in U.S. District Court in Laredo, two of the men provided visas to prospective applicants for payment, generally about $1,500, and the third was paid by a visa broker for improperly arranging visas. Those who obtained the visas did not go through required interviews and background checks.
Law-enforcement authorities have said the scheme is believed to have been directed by a woman in Mexico, identified as Margarita Martinez Ramirez, who made arrangements for the visas to be sold. They said she sometimes met potential clients at Church’s Chicken restaurant in Laredo.
Authorities have been unable to locate the woman.
Diplomatic Security Service agents initiated an investigation last year into accusations that consulate employees were involved in a scheme to provide visas and border-crossing cards in exchange for cash.
Several participants in the scheme are reported to have admitted their involvement, which purportedly involved persons buying visas without required interviews and without determinations that a person was qualified for a visa.
The investigation began seven months ago and resulted in the closure of the consulate office on Jan. 29. U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby said the inquiry is continuing.
The consulate in Nuevo Laredo is located across the Rio Grande River from Laredo, Texas.
In a statement, the State Department said it closed the Nuevo Laredo consulate “in order to conduct a thorough investigation and comprehensive examination of consulate visa operations.” The department said that in conjunction with the Justice Department, it was investigating accusations that “a number of individuals received visas illegally from this consulate.”
The State Department said that the visa process plays a critical role in the protection of American borders, and that maintaining its integrity was a top priority.
“We vigorously pursue charges of wrongdoing and take appropriate action against those who are involved. In order to protect the integrity of the U.S. visa and the visa issuance process, we have temporarily closed the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo,” the statement said.
The department said visa operations would remain suspended until it is satisfied that all visas are being issued in full accordance of the law.
All three consulate workers appeared in federal court Friday and were advised of their rights to representation by counsel. Each requested that counsel be appointed to represent them. The government asked that all three be detained in federal custody pending indictments .
They were ordered held without bond pending today’s hearing scheduled before U.S. Magistrate Adriana Arce-Flores.
More than 20 agents from the Justice Department and the FBI inspected documents and cellular phone records at the U.S. Consulate office last week and interviewed more than two dozen Mexican citizens working at the facility.