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The U.S. government is in the process of extraditing the head of a Mexican cartel and not for smuggling drugs. This cartel counterfeits identity documents and sells them to immigrants in the United States. It has done so for two decades.
Now authorities hope that they've made a dent in the operation as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:
The investigation that led to this recent arrest has all the drama and mystery of a Spanish language telenovela. It began six years ago in Denver when authorities set out to stop fake documents from being sold at a local laundromat and flea market. Jeff Dorschner is with the U.S. Attorney's office in Denver.
Mr. JEFF DORSCHNER (U.S. Attorney's officer, Denver): As immigration agents started to investigate where the documents were being produced, they encountered people who had been sent here from California and elsewhere and trained to operate computers, very sophisticated print presses, and screen presses.
LUDDEN: It turned out that behind those fake IDs in Denver, there was a family-run criminal enterprise based in Mexico. It dated to the 1980s when six siblings of the Castorena family found a market in Los Angeles, then expanded to nearly every state.
Dean Boyd of Immigration and Customs Enforcement says the key was high quality paper.
Mr. DEAN BOYD (Immigration and Customs Enforcement official): They conducted research on all the government documents and would print their own and they had various sophisticated presses that would print their own to the extent where even a local policemen who would look at these documents on the street could not tell that they were fraudulent.
Many of the counterfeit document producers had to go to the Castorena family to get hold of this paper, and that's really how they began to assert control.
LUDDEN: The family set up franchises. Boyd says local cells would pay up to $15,000 a month to operate in a certain city. As technology changed, the network adapted, crafting computerized templates, and with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants pouring into the U.S. each year, profits were substantial.
Mr. BOYD: A basic set of documents can go for something like $80, just a resident alien card, and maybe a Social Security card. Depending on the quality, the price could go up. So you can do the math, and there's quite a bit of money to be made.
LUDDEN: The Castorena family network became so successful that inevitably it became known to authorities. Over the years investigators convicted dozens of players. In a breakthrough, one member agreed to go back into the organization in Mexico undercover. Then a stepdaughter in the family defected and started helping U.S. authorities. Suad Leija-Sanchez is believed to be in hiding here, but she's spoken out about growing up in the counterfeiting business as in this recent appearance on CNN.
Ms. SUAD LEIJA-SANCHEZ (Castorena Family Member): As a little girl I used to count the money and I would get $50 in return. I would put envelopes of $5,000, another envelope $2,000, and an envelope of $1,000.
LUDDEN: Last month the man the U.S. believes is the head of the Castorena family organization was finally arrested in Guadalajara, Mexico. The U.S. hopes to try Pedro Castorena in Denver. There last December district court Chief Judge Lewis Babcock sentenced one of Pedro's brothers to seven years in prison and was clearly shaken by the family enterprise. Here's a reading from the transcript of the judge's remarks.
Unidentified Man: The production of one counterfeit document for an immigrant into this country is probably no big deal, but we have millions here. What's so striking about the breadth and scope of your organization is that it's nothing less than striking at the heart of the sovereignty of the United States of America.
LUDDEN: In addition to U.S. law enforcement, the Castorena family's operations now face another challenge. In recent years authorities say a rival counterfeiting gang has sprung up. Los Acapulcos is also thought to be based in Mexico and ready to take over whatever market share the Castorena's lose.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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