December 5, 2016 at 8:53 AM
For a decade, an American flag flew outside a battered pink building in Ghana's capital city, welcoming out-of-town visitors who, once inside, found a photo of President Obama hanging on the wall. Signs confirmed to travelers — who had been bused in from the most remote parts of West Africa — that they had arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Accra.
The "consular officers" working there were not Americans, but they spoke English and Dutch and issued official-looking visas and identification papers. They charged their customers $6,000.
Billboards and fliers advertised the official services.
But there was nothing official about them. The real U.S. Embassy in Accra is white, not pink, and it sits on a large piece of land inside security fences in one of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods.
The battered building with the flag and Obama picture was a fake — ran by Ghanaian and Turkish organized crime rings and a Ghanaian lawyer practicing immigration and criminal law, the State Department said in a statement.
"For about a decade it operated unhindered," the statement said. "The criminals running the operation were able to pay off corrupt officials to look the other way, as well as obtain legitimate blank documents to be doctored."
Officials said they shut down the fraudulent operation during the summer after an informant tipped off the assistant investigator for the Regional Security Office. The investigation in Ghana stemmed from a larger State Department initiative, Operation Spartan Vanguard, which was created by the RSO to "address trafficking and fraud plaguing the U.S. Embassy and the region," according to the statement.
The State Department released information about the investigation Nov. 2, but the news is being widely reported only now. The story seems to have been first reported by Ghanaian media last week, and it cites the statement from one month ago on the State Department website. The information was not contained in a news release from the State Department or its Bureau of Diplomatic Security, but in a "behind the scenes" article written by diplomatic security staff.
In it, officials did not say how many people, if any, may have entered the United States illegally with documentation from the fake embassy or how the crime ring got hold of what the state department called "fraudulently obtained, legitimate U.S. visas."
State Department officials in Ghana deferred questions to the media office in Washington, which did not immediately respond to a request for more information.
The sham embassy, authorities said, did not allow walk-in appointments but instead recruited customers from remote parts of West Africa and even targeted people in the neighboring countries of Ivory Coast and Togo with billboards and fliers. They would shuttle customers to Accra, rent them rooms in a nearby hotel and then shuttle them to the fake embassy, which only operated on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, from 7:30 a.m. to noon.
The Turkish citizens posing as "consulate officers," officials said, issued U.S. work visas, counterfeit visas and false Ghanaian identification papers, such as bank and education records and birth certificates.
The RSO investigator, with officers from the Ghana Police Force, verified the initial informant tip and then formed an international task force that included the Ghana Detective Bureau, Ghana SWAT and Canadian Embassy officials.
They exposed the shabby pink building as the crime ring's central hub and discovered two other locations — a dress shop and an apartment building — that were satellite operators.
A raid at the dress shop derailed the investigation when the "corrupt Ghanaian attorney" lied to local police, officials said, telling law enforcement they could not enter the shop because it was involved in a different court case.
That court case, though, did not exist — it was a decoy meant to buy time for "corrupt officials" to find money and bail out of jail members of the crime ring, officials said. The group then moved the document-production facility — including a purported industrial sewing machine that bound the fake passports — outside Accra and exported the fraudulent documents from the dress shop to Europe and other parts of Africa.
"Several suspects" were arrested during the raids, State Department officials said, but they did not specify how many. Warrants have been issued for the suspects who escaped and Ghanaian police plan to pursue them. Officials said the investigation is ongoing.
Evidence collected during the raids included a laptop computer, smartphones, counterfeit-identity documents, 150 passports from 10 countries, and legitimate and counterfeit visas from the United States, the Schengen area of Europe, India and South Africa.
The creation of fraudulent documents has decreased by 70 percent since Operation Spartan Vanguard commenced, officials said, but called this "only the beginning."
In Africa, many people seek visas for Western countries such as the United States, making production of fake documents at steep prices a profitable business model for crime rings, Reuters reported.
Similar operations have been busted in Accra, including one in January that had been making and selling fake documents for 13 years. In that investigation, authorities found 190 passports, three printers, one camera, 75 different rubber stamps, two lamination machines and a laptop, Modern Ghana reported. Three men were arrested.
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