Counterfeit Immigration Identification Ring Busted In Denver

Counterfeit Immigration ID Ring Busted In Denver
Fake Documents Look So Real Only Crime Lab Can Tell Difference

POSTED: 9:15 pm MDT July 20, 2005

DENVER — Federal authorities said Wednesday they have disrupted a far-flung counterfeiting ring that makes hard-to-detect forgeries of immigration and identification documents, and they hope to extradite the alleged leader from Mexico.

Authorities said the fake Social Security cards, driver's licenses and other documents are so sophisticated that only a crime lab can distinguish them from the real thing.

An indictment accuses Pedro Castorena-Ibarra of Guadalajara, Mexico, of running a franchise-style operation with cells in more than a dozen cities across the country. Cell leaders pay a “franchise fee” to operate the business, said Marcy Forman, director of investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A federal grand jury indicted Castorena-Ibarra, 42, on five counts of fraud and conspiracy last week. Acting U.S. Attorney Bill Leone said federal authorities will work with Mexican authorities to extradite Castorena-Ibarra, who faces a maximum 65 years in prison if convicted on all counts. Leone said a 20-year sentence would be more likely.

Also indicted was Francisco Javier Miranda-Espinosa, accused of running the Denver cell of the counterfeiting operation. He was arrested on immigration charges in January at his apartment in suburban Aurora, where authorities found fake documents and equipment to make them.

The indictment accuses Miranda-Espinosa of fraud, conspiracy and identity theft.

Ten other people were arrested, and authorities seized document-making equipment in Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois.

Authorities said the indictments, coupled with the seizure of documents and equipment, will hurt the ring but not break it up. They said the organization has bounced back from the convictions of numerous members in the past decade.

“We are not naive enough to believe we've ended false-document production, but we think we had a great impact here,” said Jeffrey Copp, special agent in charge of the Denver Immigration and Customs office.

Castorena-Ibarra, his two brothers and 16 other people were indicted in May 1995 in Texas on counterfeiting charges. Pedro Castorena-Ibarra fled to Mexico and has been running the counterfeiting ring from there, authorities said.

The brothers, Alfonso and Francisco Javier Castorena-Ibarra, pleaded guilty to a felony and were deported to Mexico after serving short prison terms, authorities said.

Since 1995, 43 people involved in the ring have either been convicted or pleaded guilty in federal court in Denver, prosecutors said. Cases are pending against eight others, including Pedro Castorena-Ibarra and Miranda-Espinosa.

Members of the organization have also been convicted of making, distributing and possessing false documents in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas and Albuquerque and other cities, authorities said.

Authorities declined to discuss how many counterfeit documents were seized in Denver, but Copp said the Denver operation alone netted millions of dollars by charging up to $300 for each document.

Copp said authorities knew of no terrorism connections or violent crimes stemming from the case, but he said the operation produces “breeder documents” that could be used to obtain legitimate government identification papers that would allow terrorists to easily blend into society.

In addition to driver's licenses and Social Security cards, the ring produces vehicle registrations, auto insurance cards, utility bills, resident alien cards and Mexican identification documents, authorities said.

Forman said the counterfeiters are able to simulate holograms and other security features.

Equipment the ring used to produce the documents was easily portable, allowing cell leaders to set up operations in motel rooms, apartments or other such locations