It was hardly a normal childhood. When Suad Leija was growing up in Los Angeles and Chicago, she was assigned a bodyguard at the age of 7 and told not to make any friends at school. Nor should she greet her stepfather, Manuel, if they crossed paths in the street. When she got home from school, Suad would help Manuel stuff the cash proceeds of his business into envelopes in amounts of $1,000, $2,000 and $5,000. But the penny didn't really drop for Suad until a wintry morning in 1995 when 15 FBI agents burst into the Leijas' Chicago apartment in search of Manuel. From that point onward she knew that her stepfather was not the legitimate "salesperson" he claimed to be. Today, Suad is in hiding from Manuel after helping federal investigators take down his 14-year-old fraudulent-identification-document ring last year and provide the locations of her stepfather and two of his brothers, all of whom are now under arrest. "I do feel I'm in danger," says the 23-year-old native of Mexico City. "But I had to make a big decision, and I feel I made the correct one.
When federal prosecutors indicted 22 members of the Leija Sánchez counterfeit ID organization in Chicago last April, they described the arrests as "a significant setback" to one of the largest criminal enterprises of its kind ever to operate in the United States. But they made no mention of Suad Leija and the remarkable tale of how her marriage to an undercover American agent and her choice of country over family led to the downfall of the fake-document ring. Suad began cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in January 2006 and gave investigators the names and addresses of her stepfather's siblings and top lieutenants, who had been photographed while under surveillance by the Feds. Her decision to aid ICE officials, she says, grew out of concern that the fake green cards, driver's licenses and Social Security cards churned out by her family's document mills could be used by terrorists to stage another devastating attack on American soil. "Just as I wouldn't help a drug peddler sell narcotics to kids, there's no way I'd do it for terrorists who want to use fake identification produced by my family," Suad told NEWSWEEK in a phone interview from an undisclosed location. "If another September 11 were to happen and I'd done nothing to stop my family, then I would be just as guilty."
Senior ICE officials also see the booming fraudulent documents business as a bona fide threat to national security. The industry generates annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and its primary markets are the estimated 12 to 20 million foreigners living illegally in the United States and teenagers wanting to sneak into a bar. But some of the 9/11 hijackers obtained legitimate ID documents under false pretenses, and a terrorist suspect linked to Al Qaeda named Nabil al-Marabh allegedly produced fake ID documents at his uncle's print shop in Toronto prior to the attacks on New York and Washington. Though the clientele of the Leija Sánchez ring was overwhelmingly Latin American in origin, federal prosecutors say that documents were sold to Algerians, other Arabs and Pakistanis. "That's where the vulnerability is," says James Spero, a deputy assistant director in the ICE office of investigations. "You can buy a set of documents that will make it appear you are legally in the U.S. for as little as $100, and nobody in these organizations does background checks on their customers."
The story behind the story of the ICE probe code-named Operation Paper Tiger provides a revealing glimpse into the post-9/11 workings of the U.S. intelligence community. The chain of events that brought Suad into the Chicago offices of ICE two years ago did not happen by chance, but was deliberately set in motion by her American husband, who used her to infiltrate the Leija Sánchez organization. Identified only as John Doe at her Web site (www.suadleija.com) for security purposes, the American met Suad in a Managua bar in the spring of 2004 when she was studying architecture in her mother's native Nicaragua. Posing as a businessman, the American was in fact a free-lance covert operative who had been working for a number of U.S. government agencies in Latin America since 1999. His quarry was terrorists, and in 2003 he came up with a plan to trap militant extremists wanting to enter the U.S. through Latin America by setting up a front company in the bogus-documents business. In the course of researching the scheme, he heard about the Leija Sánchez gang through a business associate and learned there was an attractive young woman living in Nicaragua who was related to the family.
The American secret agent picked the right organization to target. At its peak, the Leija Sánchez ring was grossing up to $20,000 a day from the sale of fake documents on the streets of Chicago's predominantly Latino Little Village neighborhood. Known as El Jefe de los Jefes (The Boss of the Bosses), Manuel Leija entered the business in the late 1980s as a colleague of Pedro Castorena, the kingpin of a Los Angeles-based counterfeit document organization who has been described by ICE officials as the Pablo Escobar of the illicit trade. (Castorena has not been convicted but is expected to go on trial in Denver later this year.) One of the key suspects captured last spring was Manuel's 31-year-old brother Julio Leija Sánchez, who is believed to have headed the ring's Chicago cell. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit the April 2007 murder of a former associate in Mexico who had stolen computer equipment and software from the organization to launch a rival counterfeit-document-production operation. Another brother named Pedro was apprehended in Mexico City four months later, and in October, Mexican federal agents arrested Manuel in the city of León. (Neither Pedro nor Manuel have entered formal pleas in this case.)
A New Yorker in his 50s who took part in various counternarcotics investigations in the 1970s as a government contractor, the American started dating Suad soon after their first encounter in the Managua bar. His initial goal in seeking her out was to infiltrate her family, but the couple later married. When federal agents arrested Manuel Leija Sánchez in a Chicago suburb after police raided one of his document mills in November 2005, some of Suad's relatives asked if there was anything her gringo husband could do for el jefe. Sensing a rare opening to gain entry into his in-laws' databases, John Doe told Suad about his undercover work for the U.S. government and arranged a meeting in Mexico City with Manuel's father, Natividad. The American made Natividad a proposition: he would intervene with his supervisors in the U.S. government to spring Manuel from jail in exchange for full access to the organization's fake-document operation.
The family patriarch gave the American a green light, and he and Suad drove to Chicago to present the offer to Manuel at the Cook County jail facility where he was being held. But the cagey documents boss smelled a rat and turned down the proposal. Manuel eventually cut a plea-bargain deal with prosecutors and was deported to Mexico in August 2006. In the meantime Suad was telling ICE investigators all she knew about her relatives' criminal activities. (ICE officials declined to comment on John Doe and his dealings with U.S. government agencies on the grounds that Operation Paper Tiger is an ongoing investigation.)
When Mexican authorities arrested Manuel last October, he was named a codefendant by U.S. attorneys in his brother Julio's alleged conspiracy to murder former Chicago ring member Guillermo Jiménez Flores in April 2007. ICE officials say that fraudulent document rings are on a par with drug cartels in their capacity for violent retribution, and Suad Leija fears for her life. She also has mixed emotions about the wrenching choice she made. "I feel bad because my father is in jail, and I never expected this to happen to my own family," she says. "But my family can counterfeit any document that comes out, and they will never go out of the business."
ICE agents have arrested 38 members of the Leija Sánchez organization to date, and from his Mexican prison cell Manuel is currently fighting extradition to the U.S. His old business associate Pedro Castorena was flown from Mexico to Denver last month to stand trial later this year on fraud, conspiracy and money-laundering charges, and Suad is expected to testify for the prosecution. But as the decline and fall of Pablo Escobar's Colombian Medellin cartel proved in the 1990s, the decapitation of a criminal organization's leadership will not disrupt the industry as long as there is strong demand for its product. And as of this week, ICE officials reported no decline in the availability of bogus documents on the streets of any major U.S. city.