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Family business Stepdaughter exposes reported false document human smuggling and Social Security fraud ring

By Sara A. Carter, Staff Writer

(Suad Leija) Suad Leija has many secrets. The stepdaughter of Manuel Leija-Sanchez -- a key figure in what federal authorities believe is a document fraud organization run by the Castorena and Leija-Sanchez families -- has been in hiding and on the run from her own family. To help U.S. authorities crack down on document fraud, human smuggling and a host of other international crimes, she has revealed her family business, identified relatives and shed light on a series of national security failures. Fraudulent documents allegedly produced by the families include Social Security cards, driver's licenses, passports, hazardous materials licenses, utility bills and a variety of other forms of identification. To one degree or another, all can be used to board aircraft, transport dangerous materials, earn employment at secure government facilities, and otherwise help illegal immigrants blend into the fabric of American life. Last week, a Pomona man was charged with felony distribution of false government documents after San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies found allegedly fake green cards in his vehicle during a traffic stop. Police said they later found a sophisticated counterfeiting operation at Perfecto Cruz's home, where they allege he produced fake green cards, driver's licenses and Social Security cards. Cruz pleaded not guilty to the charges. That case provides a homegrown example of the ease of distribution and the proliferation of document fraud across the U.S. His alleged operation, although reportedly smaller than the Castorena and Leija-Sanchez families' international network, still poses a national security nightmare for law enforcement and immigration officials.

FAMILY BUSINESS

Suad's secrets, now revealed, have put her life in danger. Her stepfather -- Manuel Leija-Sanchez, 38, who is nearing the end of a one-year prison term in Chicago for document fraud -- has threatened to kill her upon his release, she said. That threat is known to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. But the crimes being committed by her family are more important than her own life, Suad said. Her hope is that her family's multimillion-dollar criminal organization will be dismantled completely before something far worse than the Sept. 11,2001, terrorist attacks occurs. Her biggest fear: The family has already exposed the United States to that very threat. "They don't really care who they sell the documents to,'' said o Read more articles o See more video o Hear more audio o Share your views Suad, a petite, 22-year-old woman with an easy laugh whose youth belies her experiences. During a lengthy interview with the Daily Bulletin, and several follow-up phone conversations, Suad revealed details about her family's criminal enterprise that only she and the government had previously known. "The more money the better -- it's a business to them. Most of my family was and is here illegally ... but in Mexico, my stepfather owns gyms, hotels and many other businesses that he's purchased with the money from the documents. He knows many people and has many connections. They are all very dangerous people.'' In a 2003 report on Mexican organized crime and terrorism, by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, the Castorena family of Mexico is described as one of the largest document fraud organizations operating in the United States. Based in Guadalajara, it is a vast network of document forgery rings working for nearly 20 years in all 50 states. "The Castorena organization is suspected of making hundreds of millions of dollars a year in sales of fraudulent documents,''said Dean Boyd, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, D.C. "They typically charge between $80 and $200 per document, depending on the quality.'' With an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, perhaps more, living in the United States and millions more coming every year, document fraud and national security have taken center stage on Capitol Hill. Hard-line congressional leaders, bent on stronger national security, are fighting a Senate bill they believe offers amnesty to illegal immigrants, who by definition have broken the law. ICE agents have connected fraudulent documents made by the Castorenas to the Leija-Sanchez family. The two families have worked together since their organization got its start in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. "Back then, they were one of the few organizations to have industrialized printing presses,'' Boyd said. "They had the card stock and the technology that allowed for mass production. Other organizations depended on them for the industrialized printing press, and that's when their business started booming.'' And the organization keeps growing, Suad said.

MISSING LINKS

Until this year, the alleged connection between the Castorena and Leija-Sanchez families was relatively unknown. The link became clear in November, when ICE agents arrested Manuel Leija-Sanchez. It solidified when Suad arrived in the U.S. from Mexico earlier this year to assist U.S. agents in identifying family members. She came at the behest of her husband, a U.S. intelligence agent investigating the Castorena and Leija-Sanchez families. Though he spoke with the Daily Bulletin, Suad's husband asked to remain anonymous to protect Suad and his identity. Manuel Leija-Sanchez was taken into custody after ICE agents and police raided a home in Cicero, Ill., a southwestern suburb of Chicago. The agents uncovered a sophisticated document fraud lab in the private residence that held computers, ID card printers and scanners. ICE agents connected the ringleader -- Suad's stepfather -- to Pedro Castorena, son of Don Alfonso Castorena, one of ICE's 10 most-wanted fugitives. The agents arrested seven Mexican nationals at the Cicero house, including Manuel Leija-Sanchez. All of them were illegal immigrants, said Gail Montenegro, spokeswoman for ICE in Chicago. "We know that the Leijas and the Castorenas have been connected since the organization began in Los Angeles,'' Montenegro said. "I can't confirm that it's the biggest in the United States, but I can confirm that the (Chicago operation) is one of the biggest operations in the country.'' In early June, Suad was invited to speak privately to congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., about national security and document fraud. Two weeks later, on June 17, U.S. and Mexican authorities arrested Pedro Castorena in Guadalajara. Castorena was indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury in Denver in July 2005 on charges of conspiracy, fraud, misuse of visas, and money laundering. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver is waiting for Mexico to extradite Castorena to the United States. Suad is expected to testify against him. "The Castorena family made their home in Denver, and my family lived in Chicago,'' Suad said. "But both families are one and the same cartel. They control the whole fraud business in almost every major city in the nation.'' Though both alleged ringleaders -- Manuel Leija-Sanchez and Pedro Castorena -- have been taken into custody, the cartel operation continues because the family has grown so powerful, "nobody ever really stopped them,'' Suad said. Federal authorities in the late 1990s made a dent in the Castorena's Los Angeles cell, arresting a cartel operations chief and seizing millions of documents worth about $20 million. But that bust barely slowed the operation, which had spread to cities across the U.S. Manuel Leija-Sanchez's brothers, Julio and Pedro, also are allegedly high-ranking members of the organization. In 2000, Pedro Leija-Sanchez was arrested for document fraud and other felony charges in Texas, and was sentenced to five years in prison. Pedro, who is considered by U.S. authorities to be extremely dangerous, was using false identification and was booked into prison as Robert Perez. After his release last year, he fled to Mexico. In November, after Manuel Leija-Sanchez's arrest, Julio Leija-Sanchez came from Mexico to run the organization in Chicago, according to Suad. E-mail communication between Suad and ICE agents, obtained by the Daily Bulletin, contains surveillance photos taken in April of Julio Leija-Sanchez in Chicago. In the e-mail, an ICE agent asked Suad to identify the men in the surveillance photos. "I gave the ICE agents everything I know about my family,'' she said. "But now I feel like I have placed my own life in danger, and not ICE or anyone -- only my husband -- can protect me.'' Suad is not in a witness protection program, though she keeps her whereabouts secret and moves frequently. ICE officials said they could not discuss her part in the Castorena/Leija-Sanchez investigation. "I told (the congressmen) about Pedro and my stepfather, and how they worked together in the cartel,'' Suad said. "I told them about my family and their connections to the Russians, Polish people and the possible threat they pose to this country.''

POVERTY TO RICHES

Though the document-forging operation started in Los Angeles, it's been in Chicago more than 15 years, and Suad's family moved from Santa Monica to Chicago along with Pedro Castorena and his wife. Pedro Castorena also is godfather to Suad's younger sister, Shirley. Pedro Castorena and Manuel Leija-Sanchez operated out of a Chinese laundry in Chicago, where hundreds of documents were sold every day, Suad said. The men, along with other family members, would count the earnings daily. "One thousand, two thousand and sometimes five thousand dollars,'' she said. Suad recalled how her family went from poverty to riches in only a few years. "Eventually I would count up to $20,000 myself a night as I got older. I would count the money with others, and I was paid $50 a day. I was so young -- I started counting at 5 years old. I didn't understand until I got older that my family was a part of a major cartel.'' Eventually the organization expanded into a million-dollar business, Suad said, and spread to Atlanta, Las Vegas, Miami, Denver and New York. While in Chicago, Suad and her younger sister were sent to Catholic school, and her father hired Polish bodyguards to protect them. Antoni Gradski, a Pole, was allegedly Manuel Leija-Sanchez's right-hand man and Suad's caretaker. The family had several Polish guards and workers, Suad added. "I thought they were Russian,'' she said, moving freely from Spanish to English and then to Russian, which she learned from Gradski. "Gradski protected me, but I haven't spoken to him since I separated from my family. I fear for his life because of what I've done.'' The connections between the cartel and other countries is one reason why organizations such as the Castorenas and Leija-Sanchezes need to be fully investigated, said Rosemary Jenks, an attorney and director of government relations for Numbers U.S.A., a nonprofit organization advocating reduced immigration to the United States. "Criminal organizations such as the Castorena/Leija-Sanchez crime family have placed our nation at serious risk,'' Jenks said. "We have allowed these criminal enterprises to grow to massive extents. We are overwhelmed with illegal immigration. They have connections all over the world, and now we have no idea who is in our country and who these people have sold documents to.''

TIES TO TERROR?

In December, Suad and her husband went to Mexico City when her grandfather, Natividad Leija Herrera, the reputed head of the Leija-Sanchez family, told her that her stepfather had been arrested. The family was hoping Suad's husband, an American, would help get her father out of jail, she said. Her relatives had no idea her husband worked for the U.S. government. During the visit, Suad and her husband met with Natividad and her uncle, Juan Luis Echeveste, who is Natividad's bodyguard. She asked what would happen if the family's fake documents ever fell into the hands of a terrorist trying to enter the U.S. The answer was frightening, Suad said. "My grandfather said, `Terrorism is an American problem, not a Mexican problem. The organization is about money. Money is the business.'?'' Suad wonders if terrorists are already in the United States using documents her family produced. And she has good reason. "Document fraud has already killed thousands of people,'' said Boyd, the ICE spokesman. "Two of the terrorists who crashed the planes into the World Trade Center could board the plane because they (had) fraudulent documents.''

CASTORENA CRIME FAMILY

o Based in Mexico
o 100 key members oversee cells of 10 to 20 individuals in cities across the United States
o Cells deal in document fraud, human smuggling and narcotics trafficking
o Six Castorena siblings are at the top of the organization ICE'S CASTORENA INVESTIGATION
o In Los Angeles in the late 1990s, agents seized millions of counterfeit documents estimated to be worth about $20 million.
o Documents were linked to more than 400 investigations and seizures in more than 50 cities in 33 states.
o American Express attributed $2 million in losses to the family fraud business.
o In Denver, ICE investigations have led to the criminal prosecution of more than 50 members of the cartel.
o Dozens of members of the cartel have been deported to Mexico since the 1990s. -- Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement