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"I'm Not Like Them"

The intelligence operation which made possible to strike a major blow against the ID card counterfeiting operation in Chicago began like a love story about a wealthy twenty-something young Mexican woman and a somewhat older American man, supposedly a businessman, who won her heart. She is the stepdaughter of Manuel Leija Sanchez, while he the American was a contact for Federal investigators who had been trying for years to infiltrate the family of "El jefe de jefes" [The Boss of Bosses]. Jorge Mederos La Raza It was in Managua, Nicaragua, and Suad Leija, then almost 20 years old, was starting to learn about nightlife with friends at the university, where she was studying architecture. The year was 2004. She was living there with her Nicaraguan mother Yelba and her younger sister Shirley, far from the Mexican family that ran a document counterfeiting gang operating in 33 states in the US, but still supported by money sent twice a month by her stepfather Manuel. Thousands of dollars came via Western Union, money orders, travelers checks or hidden in magazines sent via FedEx. Sometimes deliveries were made in person by a Polish bodyguard with the surname of Grodski. The money was invested in setting up clothing stores and taxi operations, along with living and schooling expenses. Suad took charge of managing the money, as her stepfather maintained he had lost confidence in his former wife Yelba, who had severe problems with alcoholism. Yelba Marina Reyes had a history in Nicaragua as a former Sandinista guerrilla. Her mentor had been Suad Marcos, an Egyptian communist married to one of the "comandantes" of the Nicaraguan revolution, and so her first daughter was named Suad. For Yelba, life back in her country was to be a refuge to escape the abuse and threats from her former husband. Before Managua, they had lived in Los Angeles and Chicago, cities from which they had to flee in the middle of the night to escape the police pressuring the family's counterfeiting business. Suad reminisced, in an interview with La Raza, that she went to the University "and then we went with my chauffeur to pick up my sister to go to a shopping center for lunch. At night we went out for dinner or to the discothèques." It was during those rounds that she kept crossing paths win an American. "We kept running into each other, not knowing who it was, until one night we were introduced in a popular bar in Managua." "John" did not speak Spanish, but she did speak English, which made conversation easy. He introduced himself as a businessman with business in Latin American who traveled periodically to the United States and Mexico. "We moved in the same social circles. We had friends in common who had casinos, restaurants and nightclubs," said Suad in a telephone interview. A month and a half later they met again, but apparently the American was not interested in a more formal relationship; "He was going out with three or four other girls too at that time," Suad said. She remembered, however, "I told him he wasn't going to get rid of me so easily… until we agreed to get engaged, and finally we got married, first in Nicaragua and then in Mexico."

Undercover mission

For her, it was the fulfillment of a romance with a man who, when out partying at night, attracted women like he was a rock star. For him, it was a first step in getting to explore the labyrinth of the counterfeiting organization set up in 1987 by Manuel Leija-Sánchez (age 40 years) and Pedro Castorena (age 44) and which might be selling ID's to terrorists. Besides the market consisting of undocumented immigrants looking for a way to legalize themselves in order to survive, it was suspected that at least some tiny percentage of fake ID's could be used by people interested in getting into the US for other purposes. "John" had been given the mission of infiltrating the Leija family. His chosen target was Suad, the young woman who spoke haltingly and was raised by Manuel as his daughter from an early age. He had studied her life down to the tiniest detail before approaching her. But the moment of truth was tough, never mind that love had solidified the relationship. When Manuel Leija was arrested in Cicero in November of 2005 after the discovery of one of the counterfeiting mills, the patriarch Natividad Leija needed the help of the family's "American," thinking that a businessman with good connections could do something "in confidence" to get the gang's capo out of jail. According to information obtained by La Raza, the Cicero police got to Manuel after being alerted by anonymous telephone calls about there being suspicious activities at 2555 S. Lombard Ave, Apt. 9. Instead of drug traffickers, as expected, they found one of the places where fake documents were being printed, so Immigration was called in. "My Aunt Edith, my mother and grandmother called me. When I hung up the phone and told my husband, I thought he knew nothing about it, that he was going to be surprised," said Suad, who was living with her husband in Mexico at that time. "Instead, I was the surprised one. He told me what he had been doing for three years, tracking down my family, and that he was in part responsible for my father's being arrested."

"He used me"

"I was so astonished then; I didn't know what to say. We were already married, and no way was I going to say, 'Know what? I'm out of here.' We had grown to be very close, the feelings were deep," said Suad, even though she acknowledged, "He used me." "John" was ready. "He had thought things through, and well," as Suad related. "He told me about the forms of terrorism, about people who blew up buildings in the United States, or the role of the of the drug cartels in Mexico, and I understood. And just like I would not help a drug peddler sell narcotics to kids or my little sister, no way would I do it for terrorists so they could use fake ID's produced by my family." "If something new like September 11 [of 2001] were to happen and I had done nothing to stop my family, then I would be just as guilty. I am not like them," she declared. But besides being convinced by her husband, there was a family event that changed Suad and set her on the path to becoming an informant for Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the United States. In one of his meetings with Natividad, Suad's husband asked the grandfather if he knew whether any of the fake ID's made by his organization had been sold to terrorists "or evil persons who want to hurt the United States," according to the exact words Suad remembered. "My Grandpa and my Uncle Pedro started laughing. Natividad said that terrorism was no problem for Mexico, just the United States. All that matters to us is the money," she said. It seems that at the time there was no awareness in the organization of the role of "John", and Natividad was ready to collaborate with him, but Manuel was refusing to even answer to his American son-in-law during prison visits. No agreement was made. "The blindfold comes off from your eyes. You can't hide the sun behind your finger. You notice that people you grew up with and thought you knew are utterly different, mostly my Grandpa, who I always thought was a nice, friendly person, and all of a sudden he turns out to be so cruel. That is very hard to take."

"Much sadness and fear"

Suad was speaking with La Raza from an undisclosed location in the United States, where she is currently living, under her husband's protection and under threats of death from Manuel. Her cooperation with ICE has been essential in reconstructing the history of the organization and, most of all, in determining the names and jobs of people in the surveillance videos taken by authorities of gang members, most of whom are currently being held in Chicago. Also invaluable was the testimony Suad presented before the federal grand jury which was investigating the case and concluded with charges being brought against 23 persons for counterfeiting documents and money laundering. -Do you think it possible for your stepfather to go through with the death threats? -"Sure, it's possible," Suad responded. She remembers that, in one phone call from the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Manuel told his current wife Fabiola and Suad's mother, that if she didn't back out, leave things quiet and leave her husband, "He would have me killed." She even quoted the testimony of her sister Shirley, according to which Manuel also threatened his former wife Yelba with death, thinking that it was through her that the police got to him the first time, in 1996. "It makes me so sad, and it really scares me, but at some point in life people have to make a big decision. Unfortunately for me, I had to choose between my family and helping a government. I'm proud of what I did," she said. Suad herself admits, though, that "The family is enormous and will never get out of this business." In her opinion, "At any time now, somebody is going to emerge" to take charge of the document counterfeiting operations which, after they were hit in Chicago by the authorities, have been halted, or at least slowed down, here and in other cities where they operated in the United States. The accused are expected to be convicted and to serve their prison terms, which should not be very long, given the nature of the crimes. They will then be deported to Mexico, but long before then the head of the organization will have been replaced, in the opinion of sources of the law enforcement services. © La Raza

The list of the accused published by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is headed by brothers Manuel and Julio Leija-Sánchez, aged 40 and 31 years, accused of counterfeiting documents and money laundering. Among those charged with counterfeiting driver's licenses, ID cards and Social Security cards are Elías Muñoz, aged 62 years, the father of Alderman Ricardo Muñoz whose district includes the Little Village neighborhood where most of the gang's operations took place. According to charges, the Nuevo Foto Muñoz photo studio, located in the Discount Mall on 26th Street, was where the so-called "miqueros" [ID vendors] obtained the photos used in the fake documents, along with the customers' personal information. The customers were mostly undocumented Mexican immigrants, but the list compiled by authorities also included Poles, Indians, Algerians, Arabs, Nigerians, Canadians, Haitians, Pakistanis and Asians. Manuel Leija was jailed for several months in Chicago for the crime of counterfeiting and was deported to Mexico in August of 2006, which is where he now is. His brother Julio was the head of the organization, doing three million dollars of business annually in Chicago, together with his 28 year old wife Caterina Zapien Ruiz, who was in charge of supplying the materials needed for the counterfeiting operations. The crime of money laundering, which involved the brothers and another Mexican, Raúl González-Márquez, involved attempts to smuggle $170,000, in proceeds from the business, into Mexico. The money was hidden in the tires of a light truck which was stopped by border patrol agents in Galveston, Texas. The grand jury charges also mention Julio Leija-Sánchez in a plot to murder two former gang members in Mexico. Identified as Bruno and Montes, they had left the gang with the intent to set themselves up as competitors. Transcriptions of telephone conversations tapped by federal agents would show that Gerardo Salazar-Rodríguez, a hired killer, called Julio, telling him the details of how he shot Montes 15 times, in an episode made to look like a robbery. In the same conversation, Julio Leija gave the green light to the crimes. It is not known whether the murder of Bruno was ever carried out. According to the charges, another of those accused of using violence and threats to limit the competition was "Chato", of unknown age, a native of Mexico's Federal District. The charges mention the following as document vendors: Miguel Cepeda, aged 26 years; José Cortez-Pérez, 42; Armando Dávila, 26; Ricardo González-Márquez, 54; Julio César Hernández-López, 36; Antonio Márquez, 35; Eduardo Molina-Vázquez, 32; Oscar Montiel Gerrido, 29; Rafael Morales, 36; Alfredo Muniz, 30; Luis Pérez, 23; Oscar Perigrino, 34; Claudio Carrillo-Fuentes, 38; and Ricardo Quintero-López, 33. Elías Márquez, aged 51 years and brother-in-law of the Leija brothers, was supervisor of one of the facilities where documents were produced, while Ángel Martín Dorantes-Vázquez, aged 35 years, and José Cortez-Perez, 42, were in charge of surveillance in Little Village and looking out for police in the area. © La Raza