Federal immigration officials say that Cruz, who this week pleaded guilty to racketeering in federal court in Richmond, was a key player in one of the largest and most sophisticated document mills they have uncovered. His Manassas operation was part of 19 that ran in 11 states, stretching from Nashville to Providence, R.I., officials said. Each year, the ring produced between 10,000 and 15,000 fake documents. They wired at least $1 million to the bosses in Mexico.
As the federal and state governments continue to crack down on illegal immigration, such document mills are becoming a growing obstacle. Immigrants, seeking to skirt local and national laws, need the documents to work and drive. Cruz’s ring turned to violence, prosecutors said, to protect its turf from rivals, just as drug dealers have done for decades.
Authorities say the ring Cruz worked for was unique. Far more sophisticated and productive than most of the mom and pop shops selling fake documents, it operated under a strict chain of command, covered a large geographic area and produced realistic counterfeits.
“It was very much like a legitimate business,” said James C. Spero, deputy assistant director for the Homeland Security Investigations division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “If you worked hard, you could work your way up higher in the organization.”
Cruz, prosecutors say, reported directly to the “national supervisor” on the U.S. side of the operation: Israel Cruz Millan, who was known by his Spanish nickname “El Muerto,” which means “the dead one.” Millan is awaiting trial.
Based in North Carolina, Millan was part chief operating officer, part enforcer, authorities say. He held regular conference calls and insisted that cell managers submit detailed inventory lists of their ink cartridges, paper and other supplies, prosecutors allege. Managers provided biweekly sales reports. One note from Nashville showed $4,150 in proceeds and $1,684 in expenses.
Each cell’s success depended heavily on runners who sought out customers at grocery stores, laundromats and bars, authorities said. Sometimes they even passed out business cards advertising their services.
Proceeds were divided up. Runners, who were expected to deliver seven to 10 customers a week, typically got a few hundred dollars, attorneys involved in the case said. Managers got a fixed salary of between $300 and $400 a week. Millan took a cut, and the rest of the money went to Mexico.
The cells used code names to hide their activity. Social Security cards, printed in blue ink, were known as “smurfs,” authorities said. “New ones” meant a customer wanted a green card. They called the business cards “18s,” because that’s how many fit on a sheet.
Workers who didn’t follow the boss’s strict protocol or didn’t sell enough fake documents were punished, federal officials said. They were spanked, had their eyebrows shaved or were forced to wear weights.
Stealing from the organization was the “ultimate no-no,” one prosecutor said.
In October, Millan hosted a conference call with managers from across the country, according to court papers. He told them that one worker had pocketed the proceeds from selling fake Social Security cards. Millan beat the man so the group could hear his screams, authorities said.
“The point was to say, ‘I’m in charge. Nobody steals from me and this organization, or this is what will happen to you,’ ” said Neil H. MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, whose office is prosecuting the case.
The group also turned to violence to protect its turf.
In 2009, members of the ring posed as customers buying fake identification cards from competitors and arranged to meet them at a house in Richmond, according to court papers. They bound the men’s hands, feet and mouth with duct tape and beat them with a bat, authorities say. One of Millan’s crew put the barrel of a gun in one man’s mouth and warned him to stay out of their selling area.
In Little Rock, authorities said, a competitor was left for dead after a group working for Millan lured the man and one of his partners to an abandoned trailer, where they were attacked and beaten.
“They resorted to brutal, ruthless violence to support the criminal enterprise,” MacBride said.
Federal agents said they received a tip about Millan’s document ring and moved in in November in an effort involving about 250 officers in nearly a dozen states.
In all, 27 people were arrested on a range of charges including making and selling false documents, gun possession, racketeering, kidnapping, and, in one case, murder. Sixteen people, including Cruz, pleaded guilty in connection with the ring. Two defendants are fugitives in Mexico.
Millan is expected to go on trial later this year.
In Cruz’s Manassas home, authorities found more than 100 fraudulent documents as well as printing equipment, card stock with holographic images and “18s.”