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INS Breaks Up Ring That Made Fake I.D.s : Counterfeiting: Three are arrested for allegedly making or selling phony citizenship documents. Two are charged under Proposition 187 statute.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal immigration officials in Los Angeles said Tuesday that they have broken up a counterfeiting ring that manufactured tens of thousands of fake green cards, Social Security cards and other identification documents for distribution in Southern California and possibly across the nation.

“This was a major supplier of counterfeit documents in the Southern California area at least,” said Richard K. Rogers, Immigration and Naturalization Service district director. “This puts a big dent in the availability of these documents in Southern California.”

Rogers said three Los Angeles-area men have been arrested by INS agents since Dec. 19 and charged in state and federal courts with counterfeiting under federal law and under a state statute enacted by California voters in November as part of Proposition 187.

Charged by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office with selling and distributing false citizenship documents are Jesus Mendez Castro, 48, and Victor Trigo, 57. Immigration officials said Castro was an alleged salesman of fake documents and Trigo was a distributor.

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Charged with possession of counterfeiting equipment by the U.S. attorney’s office is Robert Duran, 48, owner and operator of California Collators in Montebello. INS authorities say Duran headed the manufacturing side of the ring.

“The investigation is continuing,” Rogers said Tuesday afternoon, “and we’d venture to say there are other distributors and vendors out there that were getting supplied through (this ring).”

An INS team headed by Special Agent Norris Potter recovered 115,000 blank green cards, Social Security cards and other fake documents from Trigo’s apartment in Los Angeles, officials said. The street value of the items, if each was sold at current street value of about $50 per card in Los Angeles, would amount to more than $5 million, INS officials said.

At Duran’s business, agents seized seven high-speed printers, two enlargers, nine negatives of counterfeit green cards and Social Security cards and 46 metal plates of counterfeit immigration-related documents, Rogers said.

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The seizures were the largest in memory in Los Angeles, said John Brechtel, assistant district director of investigations. “We have a major supplier here--no doubt about that.” The biggest previous bust in recent years was the seizure of $250,000 worth of counterfeit birth certificates, driver’s licenses and Social Security documents in 1989, Brechtel said. In that case, eight defendants were eventually convicted in federal court, he said.

Authorities said the latest arrests began with a “buy-bust” operation Dec. 19 in which Castro allegedly sold documents to an undercover INS agent. Using information from the arrest, a search warrant was issued and Trigo was arrested later the same day, authorities said.

Rogers said it is not unusual for the INS to turn over cases of this size to county prosecutors.

Based on information from the Trigo and Castro arrests, Duran was arrested Dec. 29 and arraigned before U.S. Magistrate R.J. Groh Jr.

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If convicted, Trigo and Castro each face possible sentences of five years in prison or $75,000 fines under the fraudulent document section of Proposition 187--the only portion of the controversial initiative that was not enjoined by state and federal judges because of possible constitutional conflicts.

The federal counterfeiting statute under which Duran is charged has a penalty of up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine for each count, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. Duran is currently accused of one count of possessing implements to make counterfeit documents but could be charged with additional counts by a federal grand jury, federal officials said.

Rogers said that now that the alleged ring has been exposed, he expects Trigo and Castro, who have already been arraigned in Los Angeles Municipal Court, to eventually be tried with Duran in federal court in Los Angeles.


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