CHICAGO - Twenty-two people connected to a bustling, multimillion-dollar counterfeit ring that produces several thousand bogus identification documents a year have been arrested, officials said Wednesday.
The fake documents, which range from driver's licenses to Social Security cards, could help criminals and even terrorists blend into society, said Elissa Brown, an official with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Investigations in Chicago.
Twelve people were arrested Tuesday in Chicago, and 10 others are fugitives, including four believed to be in Mexico, officials said.
The arrests "represent a significant setback to one of the largest and most sophisticated illegal document fraud rings in the United States," Brown said.
According to the complaint affidavit, the organization started in Mexico and is thought to be active in Los Angeles and Denver.
In Chicago, the operation was run mainly by Mexicans but served a range of nationalities from Polish to Nigerian to American, authorities said.
The ring used illegal immigrants working on street corners and in parking lots who would take orders for and deliver the false IDs, authorities said. Those IDs included green cards, authorities said.
The Chicago operation, which produced as many as 100 documents a day and charged customers as much as $300 for a set of two or three documents, generated as much as $3 million in illegal proceeds a year, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said.
The ring's alleged leader in Chicago, Julio Leija-Sanchez, 31, of Oak Lawn, sought to have two rivals in the document business killed in Mexico, and he was among those arrested, Fitzgerald said.
Leija-Sanchez is charged with conspiracy to commit murder outside the United States and with conspiring to illegally produce IDs. There was no telephone listing for a Julio Leija-Sanchez in Oak Lawn.
The investigation culminated Tuesday with search warrants at four Chicago locations: a basement apartment where fake documents are suspected of being produced, two homes, and a photo shop at a discount mall, officials said.
Gun-wielding federal agents closed and locked down the mall during the daytime raid, while investigators conducted searches and made arrests.
Neighborhood activists said agents used excessive force, accusing authorities of wanting to intimidate the Hispanic community in the lead-up to immigration-reform marches planned for May 1.
Fitzgerald denied that.
"I can assure everyone that the arrests yesterday had nothing to do with a rally that's upcoming," he said. "This was not an effort to send any message to anyone - other than those who traffic in counterfeit documents."