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IMMIGRATION

Young woman lived amid alleged crime family A young woman talked about her life inside an organization that federal officials say is the nation's biggest manufacturer of fraudulent immigration documents.

BY ALFONSO CHARDY

achardy@MiamiHerald.com

A life forged on fraud, crime Suad Leija would sit in a cramped Chicago apartment counting wads of dollar bills -- proceeds from the sale of fake green cards and Social Security cards to undocumented immigrants. She was all of 11 years old. Practicing her math skills on the ill-gotten gains was a profitable enterprise, netting Leija a $50 weekly allowance from her stepfather, she says. Leija, now 22, recounted her childhood memories recently while having breakfast at a trendy restaurant on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. Poised and polished, she spoke at length about her stepfather, Manuel Leija, one of two men accused of leading the nation's biggest manufacturing operation of fraudulent immigration documents: the Castorena crime family organization. Federal officials say the Castorena clan has controlled the fraudulent document business for more than a decade in the United States, with cells throughout the country, including in Miami. Manuel Leija was arrested in Chicago last year while Pedro Castorena, long one of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's most wanted fugitives, was arrested in Mexico last month. Suad Leija told The Miami Herald she is cooperating with ICE and Justice Department officials who are unraveling the Castorena-Leija connection, including identifying family members pictured in surveillance videos and photographs. She also has appeared on several local and national television news programs and said she had met with congressional aides in Washington. U.S. authorities declined to say if Suad Leija is helping them, but they didn't deny it. They said the U.S. government is working toward having Castorena brought to the United States for prosecution.

EXTRADITION REQUEST

''The Justice Department is in the process of preparing a request for the extradition of Pedro Castorena,'' said Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver, which is overseeing the case. Gail Montenegro, an ICE spokeswoman in Chicago, said Manuel Leija is believed to be a partner in the alleged fraudulent document operation, perhaps on an equal footing with Castorena. Robert Rascia, Manuel Leija's Chicago attorney, would not comment on Suad Leija. Suad's mother, living in Nicaragua, could not be reached for comment. Suad provided a copy of a Mexican birth certificate listing her as the daughter of Manuel Leija Sanchez and Yelba Marina Reyes López. She said Manuel is actually her stepfather. Suad said she wanted to expose her family's illegal activities because her stepfather never cared about her while he traveled around the United States expanding his business. ''Whenever something went wrong, he would leave us behind, for his associates to pick us up and take us around,'' she said. The Castorena family organization, as ICE calls the group, is a major target of Department of Homeland Security investigations into document fraud -- a current federal priority as Congress debates immigration reform. ''Document fraud has become an epidemic in this country,'' Julie Myers, the assistant secretary for ICE, told a recent news conference in Washington. ``Millions of illegal aliens have used fraudulently obtained counterfeit documents to unlawfully obtain employment in the United States.'' An undocumented Mexican national who recently was interviewed in Homestead said he had obtained several jobs by showing employers a realistic-looking green card he purchased in Chicago in 2004. The Mexican would be interviewed only if his name was not published because admitting to possession of a fake green card is a criminal offense. The Chicago neighborhood where he bought the fake document is believed to be one of the areas where the Castorena organization operates. Officials say the Castorena organization has ''cells'' making or selling documents in major U.S. cities. ICE officials would not provide details about its investigation of Castorena activities in Miami. Suad Leija conceded that her knowledge of family activities was limited because the last time she lived with her stepfather in Chicago was 1995. The last time she saw her stepfather and Castorena together, she said, was Christmas 1998 near Mexico City. She said Castorena and his wife were godparents to her and her sister and that her stepfather and mother were godparents to a Castorena child.

CAME HERE AT 3

Born in Mexico City, Suad Leija said she was 3 when she first came to the United States after crossing the border illegally with her mother and an associate of her stepfather. They were on their way to join Manuel Leija, who was then living in Los Angeles. She said she remembers family members carrying wads of money -- profits from fake document sales -- and that she helped count the cash and stuff it into envelopes. ''I would write how much each envelope had in 20s or 50s,'' she said. At times family members brought large plastic sheets of forged green cards and Social Security cards, she said. Suad Leija said her mother described the cards as residence documents and that her stepfather claimed they would help immigrants: ``They would say that it was a way to make people legal. That it would help people.'' From the early to mid-1990s, Suad Leija said she lived in a crowded apartment in Chicago with her mother, stepfather, Pedro Castorena and various members of both families. Suad Leija said she was hustled out of the country in 1995 after federal agents raided the apartment. Her stepfather, she said, had been tipped off in advance of the raid and fled to Mexico. After the raid, her younger sister and their mother were taken to separate offices in a building in downtown Chicago, she said, and interrogated by federal officers they believe were from the FBI. Suad Leija said investigators wanted information about Leija's whereabouts and activities.

MOVING TO MEXICO

After several hours, Suad Leija said, she, her sister and mother were released and allowed to return home. Within hours, she said, Leija's associates bundled them into a van and drove to Monterrey, Mexico, where her stepfather and Castorena waited in a hotel. The next day the families settled inside a walled compound just outside Mexico City. Suad Leija said Castorena and her stepfather often used that home to plot illegal business activities. The two-story house with lilac-colored walls is still there, at a corner along Chihuahua street in Tlalnepantla -- a working-class district on the northern outskirts of Mexico City. All the windows are barred. No one came to the door when a reporter for The Miami Herald rang the bell and knocked on the white metal gate on June 15, two days before Castorena's arrest in the Guadalajara area. A neighbor said the family had moved out months ago.