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"I'm Not Like Them"

Authorities fight document fraud as terror threat

By Sara A. Carter, Staff Writer

One day in the winter of 1996, while 12-year-old Suad Leija was getting ready for school, more than a dozen armed FBI agents raided her family's Chicago-area home. They were looking for her stepfather, Manuel Leija-Sanchez, who federal authorities believe runs a document-fraud network -- producing fake passports, Social Security cards, driver's licenses and a variety of other official papers -- with cells throughout the United States. That cold morning, the agents were too late. Manuel Leija-Sanchez had fled during the night to Mexico after he was tipped off to the impending raid, his stepdaughter recalled. The business continued to flourish, and it would be almost 10 years before authorities would catch up with her stepfather again. Suad's family is a major part of the much larger Castorena crime organization based in Guadalajara, federal law-enforcement agencies assert and Suad has confirmed. Since the mid-1990s, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, along with other federal law enforcement agencies, have worked to dismantle the fraud cartel.

BY THE NUMBERS

ICE document fraud investigations In the past two years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement document fraud investigations, arrests and convictions have grown. 2004 2005 Investigations 2,334 3,591 Arrests 1,300 1,391 Convictions 559 992 Since the mid-1990s, more than 100 members of the Castorena crime organization have been arrested or deported, and millions of dollars in equipment and counterfeit documents have been confiscated by ICE. Source: Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE officials recently questioned the now 22-year-old Suad, who has voluntarily given up vital information about her family to U.S. authorities. She hopes that her family's organization and the Castorena network -- whose documents have been found in all 50 states -- will be taken apart before their highly coveted papers end up in the hands of terrorists. Still, she cannot be certain some of those documents haven't already been sold to people bent on doing harm to the United States. "I just hope it is not too late,'' she said in a recent interview with the Daily Bulletin. In November, the Department of Homeland Security announced the Secure Borders Initiative, a comprehensive multi-year plan to secure U.S. borders and reduce illegal migration. A key element to the initiative is interior enforcement and investigations focusing on document and benefit fraud, said Marc A. Raimondi, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The initiative includes a multi-agency task force formed in April to combat document fraud in the following cities: Atlanta; Boston; Dallas; Denver; Detroit; Los Angeles; Newark, N.J.; New York; Philadelphia; and St. Paul, Minn. Though he did not comment directly on the Castorena nor the Leija-Sanchez families, Raimondi said, "When it comes to document fraud, our goal is to identify all the criminal organizations regardless of their motives and close them down. "Criminals are motivated by greed and profit, while terrorist organizations are motivated by hate and ideology,'' he added. "The criminal organizations really don't care who their clients are or whether they are feeding terrorists documents meant to harm us.'' Fraud organizations such as the one the Leija-Sanchez and Castorena families allegedly operate already have assisted terrorists in boarding airline flights, ICE spokesman Dean Boyd said. Fake documents paved the way for the infamous events of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I HAD NO OTHER CHOICE''

On Aug. 2, 2001, Herbert Villalobos and another individual helped Sept. 11 hijackers Abdul Aziz Al Omari and Ahmed Alghamdi obtain fake Virginia residency certificates from a Falls Church attorney, Boyd said. Al Omari, on board American Airlines Flight 11, and Alghamdi, who boarded United Airlines Flight 175, used the residency certificates, known to agents as "feeder documents,'' to get valid Virginia driver's licenses and ID cards. "(The) case exemplifies the threat posed by document fraud schemes,'' Boyd said. "The licenses allowed them to board the flights.'' Villalobos, of El Salvador, was convicted in February 2002 and again in August 2005 of aiding and abetting in the production of false documents. Each time, he was sentenced to four months in jail and two years of supervised release, according to ICE officials. ICE officers deported Villalobos to El Salvador in May, Boyd said. Suad said her stepfather's organization and the Castorena network --which are essentially one and the same -- are "nothing more than terrorists.'' She says she has been warned by family members that her stepfather is going to kill her for exposing the family. Suad is in hiding and moves constantly. ICE officials have confirmed she has reported the threat on her life. "I had no other choice,'' she said of her decision to cooperate with U.S authorities. "They have to be stopped.''

GROWTH INDUSTRY

Nearly 12 million illegal immigrants, perhaps more, live in the United States. For a price, the Castorena and Leija-Sanchez families reportedly supply forged documents to those who would otherwise not have documentation for employment, travel or government benefits. Breaking up such syndicates is not an easy task, Boyd said, but with hundreds, possibly thousands, of document-fraud operations in major U.S. cities, the Department of Homeland Security has taken a keen interest in abolishing them. "We've prosecuted at least 100 people within the Castorena organization since the mid-'90s,'' Boyd said. "You could focus on the street vendor, but you've really got to get the head of the organizations. If you can seize the labs and the ringleaders, then you put a crimp in the organization.'' ICE investigations into members of the Castorena/Leija-Sanchez organization also have yielded millions of dollars in assets and the seizure of fraudulent document labs around the nation, Boyd said. Still, despite the investigations and arrests, the organization continues to grow through the involvement of extended family members, Suad said. Manuel Leija-Sanchez, 38, was captured by ICE agents in a Nov. 15, 2005, raid in Cicero, Ill. Suad's stepfather's cell was estimated to have made $2.5 million a year in fake ID sales in the Chicago area alone. Agents confiscated printers, computers, scanners and laminating equipment from a home in the southwestern suburb of Chicago. In May, Manuel Leija-Sanchez pleaded guilty to possessing fraudulent documents and was sentenced to one year in prison. He is scheduled to be released sometime within the next few months, Suad said. His brother, Julio Leija-Sanchez, moved from Mexico to take over the Chicago operation while her stepfather served time, she added. Suad wonders why her stepfather -- whom ICE agents and other federal authorities assert heads a major crime operation -- was sentenced to only a year in prison. Chicago ICE agent Gail Montenegro said her law-enforcement agency is not responsible for the sentence handed down by the Cook County judge, nor for decisions made by the state attorney's office, which prosecuted the case. She also would not discuss details of the investigation into the document-fraud operation, or Suad's dealings with ICE. "We're going to continue to investigate this document fraud enterprise both here in Chicago and across the United States,'' Montenegro said. State attorney's officials in Cook County could not be reached for comment on Manuel Leija-Sanchez's case. Suad returned to the United States from Mexico this year with her husband, a former U.S. government intelligence agent, to tell U.S. law-enforcement officials about her stepfather's operation. Her husband, who also spoke to the Daily Bulletin, asked to remain anonymous in an effort to protect his identity and for Suad's safety. In early June, Suad spoke to congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. She also has been interviewed by ICE agents investigating the families' operations in Chicago and Denver, and continues to communicate with ICE via e-mail. On June 17 -- two weeks after Suad spoke to lawmakers, Mexican authorities -- in cooperation with U.S. officials, arrested Pedro Castorena, head of the Castorena family, in Mexico. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver requested Castorena's extradition from Mexico to the U.S. following his 2005 grand-jury indictment in Denver on charges of conspiracy, fraud and misuse of visas.

A THREAT ON PAPER

In congressional testimony before lawmakers of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security on Oct. 1, 2003, John S. Pistole, assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division, warned lawmakers about document-fraud cells and their direct connection to terrorists operating within U.S. borders. "The ability of an individual to create a well-documented, but fictitious, identity in the United States provides an opportunity for terrorists to move freely within the United States without triggering name-based watch lists that are disseminated to federal, state and local police officers,'' Pistole said. "It also allows them to board planes without revealing their true identity, and in some cases purchase firearms.'' But the issue extends beyond the hazards posed by would-be terrorists. It goes to the ability of illegal immigrants to enter the country without detection, and to pass as legal residents once here. Senate and House lawmakers have reached a stalemate on immigration reform. A Senate bill would eventually grant amnesty to illegal immigrants who have resided in the United States for five or more years. But hard-line congressional leaders, who passed one of the toughest immigration-enforcement bills in U.S. history late last year, are not compromising on the Senate's bill, and reform legislation is not expected to pass this year, experts say. Border Patrol agents have found fraudulent utility bills -- dating back more than five years, and thus proving residency under the Senate's bill --in the possession of those illegally crossing the border into the United States. Many of the immigrants with the documents had never visited or lived in the country, said one Border Patrol agent who requested anonymity. Fraudulent U.S. documents also are being purchased in Mexico by would-be immigrants hoping reforms granting amnesty will pass this year, according to Border Patrol sources. "The Castorena/Leija-Sanchez crime organization is about as serious a national security threat as anything else,'' said Suad's husband, who has spent the majority of his adult life in Latin America and Central America. "Something has to be done, and Suad is risking her life to get lawmakers to listen.''

Fraudulent and stolen documents used by alleged terrorists

o A Pakistani detainee who worked as a doctor and guard for the Taliban was detained at John F. Kennedy airport for attempting to enter the U.S. with a forged passport.
o An Iraqi detainee bought a fake Moroccan passport for about $150 and used it to enter Turkey, where he was arrested
. o An Algerian detainee requested asylum in Canada after entering that country with a fake passport
. o A Yemeni detainee acquired a false Yemeni passport and was able to get a Pakistani visa.
o An Algerian detainee obtained a French passport using an alias and used it to travel to London. Cost of the passport: about $530.
o An al-Qaida terrorist cell in Spain used stolen credit cards in fictitious sales scams and for numerous other purchases. They also used stolen telephone and credit cards to call Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon and other countries. False passports and travel documents were used to open bank accounts where money for the mujahedeen movement was sent to and from countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan. Source: Testimony by John S. Pistole, FBI assistant director for counterterrorism, before the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, Oct. 1, 2003. Information is from interviews with individuals linked to terrorist organizations. Sara A. Carter can be reached by e-mail at sara.carter@dailybulletin.com or by phone at (909) 483-8552.