Monday, July 25, 2005

The Mexican national indicted by a federal grand jury in a multimillion-dollar scheme to distribute millions of phony identification documents to illegal aliens in the United States is, according to authorities, a leader of a crime syndicate that specializes in document fraud.

Pedro Castorena-Ibarra, 42, is accused of heading a franchise operation that sold bogus but “high quality” Social Security documents, resident alien and Mexican matricula consular ID cards, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, marriage licenses, work authorization documents, proof of vehicle insurance cards, temporary vehicle registration documents, and utility bills from both Mexico and the United States.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, who sought the indictment after a lengthy investigation, said millions of phony documents were sent to illegal aliens in the United States in the past five years, including 3 million that were shipped to the Los Angeles area alone. The documents were available on the street for $80 to $300, authorities said.

The indictment was handed up Thursday in U.S. District Court in Denver, although an investigation by ICE agents into the conspiracy is continuing. The Justice Department will seek the extradition of Castorena-Ibarra, listed as a federal fugitive.

All 19 of the September 11 terrorists had phony Social Security numbers, state driver’s licenses or state identification cards.

Marcy Forman, director of investigations for ICE, called the Castorena family “one of the largest and most sophisticated document fraud rings ever uncovered,” adding that fraudulent documents “can be provided to terrorists and other criminals, posing a major homeland security vulnerability.”

According to court records, the Castorena family oversees from its base in Guadalajara, Mexico, a large-scale criminal organization with more than 100 members who direct cells of 10 to 20 people located in cities across the United States.

ICE spokesman Dean Boyd said that in the past decade, the family 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.

The ICE probe targeted operations in Los Angeles; New York; Chicago; Atlanta; Miami; Dallas; San Antonio; Las Vegas; Albuquerque; Denver; Lincoln, Neb.; and Des Moines, Iowa.

Mr. Boyd said Castorena family leaders charged a “rent” or “franchise” fee of as much as $15,000 per month for cell leaders to operate in the United States — making millions in return. He said the organization moved its illicit profits through three primary methods: wire transfers, bulk shipments of cash and checks, and couriers who transported U.S. currency across the border and between U.S. cities.

Phony documents supplied by the family, authorities said, have been linked to more than 400 federal investigations and to document seizures in more than 50 cities in 33 states. The American Express Corp. has attributed $2 million in losses to counterfeit documents in Los Angeles alone that authorities have tied to the Castorena family.

More than 50 people have been prosecuted in the probe, Mr. Boyd said, adding that dozens of family members and associates have been deported to Mexico, Colombia and El Salvador. He said ICE agents in Denver also seized 20 computerized laboratories that were used to produce the counterfeit identity documents.

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