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Feds: Fake-ID ring killed to stay ahead

Mexico says it has captured leader;

his stepdaughter cheers

By Antonio Olivo | Tribune staff reporter 11:24 PM CDT, October 24, 2007

The violent and sometimes improbable saga of a fake ID ring that stretched from Little Village to Mexico City reached a climax Wednesday, when federal authorities announced that they had captured the leader in Mexico and charged him with murder and racketeering. U.S. law enforcement officials in Chicago said Mexican authorities caught up Friday with Manuel Leija-Sanchez, 40, saying he was the leader of a Little Village-based operation since at least 1993. Officials estimate the ring made as much as $3 million a year over that period. The ring made headlines in April, when, according to authorities, the slaying of an alleged competitor led armed federal agents to storm the operation in a daylight raid, triggering a street protest over the agents' tactics. Long part of the daily bustle at a 26th Street outdoor mall, the ring was the Chicago franchise of a larger network of fake ID operations across the U.S., run by the Castorena-Ibarra crime family in Mexico, federal immigration officials say. Leija had lived in the Chicago area until a 2005 raid landed him behind bars for forgery. When he got out of Cook County Jail less than a year later, he was deported, and had been running the Chicago branch from Mexico since then, officials say. His arrest last week by Mexican authorities in the state of Guanajuato is the latest chapter in a sort of cross-border version of the Family Secrets case, which used recordings and family informants to detail the inner workings of the Chicago Outfit crime syndicate. The Leija-Sanchez saga-pieced together through interviews, court documents and a federal cell phone wiretap transcript-features international espionage, a gory slaying, the indictment of a Chicago politician's father, stacks of cash ferried across the border and a sometimes bungling cast of illegal immigrants, smuggled in to help run the business. For good measure, there's also the reputed ringleader's doe-eyed stepdaughter, Suad Leija-Sanchez, who neither side wants to talk about. She says she has enough goods on the operation to cement the prosecution's case. Over the last year, she has become a darling of conservative bloggers and talk show hosts, as she wages an Internet campaign to expose her relatives as a national security risk, an example of the dangers that come with the vibrant market for fake IDs in Chicago and other cities. Web site launched She and her husband-who she says is a U.S. intelligence agent-run a Web site that features what appear to be surveillance photos, a family tree and government reports raising concerns over the possibility of foreign terrorists using fake ID rings to blend into U.S. society. "If something happens again, like another 9/11, and they got their IDs from my family and I didn't do anything, I would feel terrible," Suad Leija said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location. Suad Leija lives in hiding, and neither federal officials nor defense lawyers would comment on her relationship to Manuel Leija, her husband or her story. She said she has had minimal contact with her family since 2005. She also said she has been brought to Chicago several times for questioning and is under a federal protection program. On Wednesday, she was giddy over the news of her stepfather's capture, saying "Now I don't have to worry about hiding anymore. Or not so much." Her account of the family's business begins during the early 1990s in Santa Monica, Calif., when she was 7. She says she recalls counting $20 bills and stuffing them into envelopes in stacks of 50 and 100. The family had moved there from Mexico City, where they had lived with Pedro Castorena, a reputed crime boss who she says is her godfather. On Most Wanted list As part of a 2005 federal case in Denver, Castorena-for years topping the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "Most Wanted" list-was arrested by Mexican authorities and is awaiting extradition on charges of money laundering, fraud and other related felonies. "I didn't think much of it," Suad Leija said about her childhood work. "I was getting paid $50 a week." In 1992, Manuel Leija brought Suad, her younger sister and their mother to Chicago to help expand the Castorena family's empire, Suad Leija says. Over the years, the ring has relied heavily on a workforce of illegal immigrants brought into Chicago, who would repay their debt to their smugglers by selling fake IDs, officials say. During that period, records show Manuel Leija was in and out of jail for fraud and forgery, sometimes using one of his several aliases. In 1995 Manuel Leija apparently learned of a federal raid the night before and slipped out of the country, avoiding arrest. Suad Leija recalls federal agents busting into their apartment that August morning. The agents took Suad, her mother and sister into custody, she said. After hours of interrogation, the family was released. That night, the three were whisked away by paid family security guards toward the Mexican border, Suad Leija recalled. Eventually, they wound up in Mexico, where a smiling Manuel Leija and Pedro Castorena greeted them at a hotel, she said. Feds: Fake-ID ring killed to stay ahead " " " The family moved into a three-story house inside a gated community in Mexico City, adopting the lifestyle of the city's upper class, she said. After living modestly in Chicago, her stepfather began wearing expensive boots and shirts with gold trim, she said. "He wanted to show off," she said. That life began to unravel in 2004, when Suad Leija-by then living in Nicaragua with her mother and sister-met her future husband in a Managua nightclub, she said. Posing as an American businessman, he began dating the then-impressionable 19-year-old and eventually fell for her, she said. They married the following year. When her stepfather was arrested in 2005, "I started to tell my husband what was happening, thinking he was going to be shocked," she recalled. "He starts laughing, telling me who he is and what he's been up to. I'm the one in shock. But, I'm married, I can't just go back." Though officials declined to discuss Suad Leija's story, a federal prosecutor did acknowledge that the Leija family has "a lot of assets in Mexico" that agents are investigating. "But we haven't seized them," said Michelle Nasser Weiss, an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago. A federal wiretap transcript obtained by the Tribune details how the family's money was generated, offering a snapshot of a thriving enterprise that begins with the mundane headaches of any business. After two former workers set out to launch their own competing fake ID enterprise in Indiana, however, the talk veers sharply toward blood and violence. Some of the action detailed in the transcript takes place inside the Nuevo Munoz Foto shop, owned by Elias Munoz, father of Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd). The elder Munoz has pleaded not guilty to felony fraud charges. In between are pages of orders for stolen Social Security card numbers and phony driver's licenses by "salesmen" using cell phones registered to people as far away as California and driving cars traced to unwitting suburbanites in Illinois, Wisconsin and other states. "In the eyes, it is `B.R.N,' (brown) not 'B.R.L.,' " a salesman timidly instructs his hot-tempered supervisor one February afternoon, after an unsatisfied customer noticed the eye color listing on a newly minted fake driver's license was incorrect. The client was given a discount. Death in a cab Weeks later, a federal investigator heard this on his wiretap: "Then I shot him in the chest, dude. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Let's see, I shot him like four times in the hand, dude. But all the other ones were in the chest, dude. All of them in the liver because the blood that fell was black, dude. Black, black, black." That boast, of a slaying inside a Mexican taxi, was given by Gerardo Salazar-Rodriguez, 34, who was arrested in Mexico in August and charged in the killing, the transcript states. He had been paid $3,000 by Julio Leija-Sanchez, 31, for that slaying and another in the works before the raid, the transcript states. A third brother, Pedro Leija-Sanchez, 35, also was arrested in Mexico in August and, with his two siblings, faces the death penalty or life in prison. As the case winds toward trial, Suad Leija expressed some remorse that she was unable to save her family from trouble. "I was trying to help them." Now, she added, "They're all kind of afraid of me." aolivo@tribune.com