Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Mexican law-enforcement officers, assisted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, have arrested one of the U.S. government’s “most wanted” fugitives, identified as the leader of a multimillion-dollar document forgery operation.

ICE spokeswoman Kadia Koroma said yesterday that Pedro Castorena, 42, was taken into custody in Guadalajara, Mexico, on a provisional arrest warrant. At the time of his arrest, she said, Mr. Castorena had two counterfeit Mexican identification documents bearing his photograph but an assumed name.

In July, a federal grand jury in Denver indicted Mr. Castorena in absentia on charges of conspiracy, fraud, misuse of visas and money laundering. The indictment named him head of the Castorena Family Organization (CFO), a gang engaged in the nationwide manufacture and distribution of phony immigration and identification documents.

“The arrest of Pedro Castorena is a landmark achievement that deals a serious blow to one of the largest fraudulent-document organizations in the United States,” said Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE.

The indictment said the Castorena gang distributed millions of phony documents to illegal aliens in the United States. It described the papers as “high quality” Social Security cards, resident alien and Mexican matricula consular ID cards, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, marriage licenses, work authorization papers, vehicle insurance cards, temporary vehicle registration documents, and utility bills from Mexico and the United States.

Millions of phony documents were sent to illegal aliens in the United States in the past five years, the indictment said, including 3 million to the Los Angeles area alone — available on the street for $80 to $300.

Court records said the Castorena gang oversees from its base in Guadalajara a large-scale criminal organization with more than 100 members who direct cells of 10-to-20 people in cities across the U.S. In the past decade, the gang has been managed by six brothers and sisters — Pedro, Alfonso, Jose, Maria, Francisco Javier and Raquel — who have maintained direct involvement in the counterfeiting scheme.

Gang leaders charged a “rent” or “franchise” fee of as much as $15,000 per month for cell leaders to operate in the U.S., authorities said. The leaders moved illicit profits through wire transfers, bulk shipments of cash and checks, and couriers who transported U.S. currency across the border and between U.S. cities.

Ms. Koroma said ICE agents in Mexico located Mr. Castorena in May with the assistance of Mexican authorities. After ICE obtained a provisional arrest warrant, she said, Mexican authorities arrested Mr. Castorena. He is being held, pending extradition, in a detention facility in Mexico City.

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