Last week, the San Antonio Express-News posted a story about three Afghani Muslim men caught carrying stolen Mexican passports with their pictures and data while en route to Europe. It was revealed by authorities that the documents were genuine and that these men had purchased them for $10,000 each. In light of this information, we at The Americas Report decided to investigate whether this modus operandi could be used by people who pose a real threat to U.S. national security and what we found is alarming.
Our Staff has published articles about the presence of Hezbollah in Latin America, especially in Argentina, Venezuela and the Tri-border region (between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil which intelligence officials usually refer to as "The Muslim Triangle meeting zone.") We wrote a piece about the Iranian presence in Nicaragua, where they are planning to build a dry canal connecting both coasts. Iran also has a huge embassy in Managua where diplomats enjoy immunity and the full support of President Daniel Ortega.
Our team also wrote an article on Iran Air’s weekly flights between Tehran, Damascus and Caracas– where only officials, high ranking intelligence operatives and military personnel from these countries are allowed to travel without needing visas, and where any type of material can be transported. We also published a story about how the Venezuelan government has already issued passports and official documents to members of Hezbollah and Hamas because President Chavez believes in their cause and is a strong supporter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
With this in mind, there is a real possibility that any of these individuals having access to stolen, doctored passports, and thus to U.S. visas could enter this country with the purpose of carrying out terrorist attacks. In fact, it has already happened: four of the nineteen hijackers from 9/11 carried passports that had been "manipulated in a fraudulent manner." The Saudi documentation was genuine, and so were the U.S. visas. Investigators believe the hijackers obtained new passports after telling Saudi authorities they had "lost" their old ones, presumably to cover up trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then, knowing that brand new passports would raise questions, the hijackers artificially aged them and forged entry and exit stamps. When asked, a veteran counterterrorism expert said that “without a microscopic forensic examination, a routine inspector wouldn’t have ascertained that the stamps weren’t valid.”
It now seems that any person wanting to attack this country could use doctored or manipulated passports or could simply travel to Mexico and pay a Coyote to illegally cross the border.
For some time now, experts agree that South America has become a place of preference for terrorists that want to travel to the United States. A case in point is that in 2005, Mr. Minas Mirza of Warren, Michigan along with three others were charged with smuggling people into the U.S. through South America ever since 2001. In guilty pleas, they admitted helping dozens of Iraqis and Jordanians travel to the United States on European passports. In fact, these travel documents had been stolen and then doctored in Lima, Peru and purchased by Mirza there from a “broker.”
A 2007 NBC News investigation uncovered a black market for stolen passports in Latin America. A reporter from this network disguised as a tourist was able to obtain entire new identities and official passports from Peru, Spain and Venezuela and travel throughout the hemisphere without ever raising suspicion.
The journalist had a hidden camera and was able to film "brokers" in the streets of LimaArgentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Canada, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Britain and Switzerland. European passports sell for much more money since its citizens don’t need visas to enter the United States. carrying bags full of stolen identities such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses and passports from a variety of countries such as
These "brokers" usually charge $500 to $1,000 to forge the documents to the client’s preferences, promising “very high quality.” These "merchants" deal in the open and many have contacts inside some embassies, consulates and local government buildings who can easily obtain any official stamps or signatures needed in the process. It is worth noting that these people will do business with anyone: criminals, drug-dealers and even terrorists. It’s all about money for them. For an even higher price these “vendors” offer to hire "high-end coyotes" that will cross the border from Mexico taking good care of their clients.
These "brokers" offer a variety of "services." The most common is the one used by people who look like the original passport holders. A more sophisticated scheme is using stolen passports, changing the original picture and meticulously replicating the special security features. An even more complex and expensive method is when an insider in a consulate steals blank official passports from the stock before names or pictures have been added and then sells them to illicit brokers who customize and sell them.
The "dealers" work in stages: first they meet with the potential client to assess their needs and discuss price details. A few days later, half of the money is paid in advance and then this same vendor brings the documents to the client to sign, and provides a fraudulent birth certificate. The only thing the buyer needs to provide in addition to the money is the passport picture, which can be taken nearby. The following week, they have a meeting in a public place where the broker "suggests" a flight itinerary for his client: he would travel with the Spanish passport to Bolivia, Argentina, Mexico and then to New Jersey to attain enough stamps in his new passport to enter the U.S. without raising suspicion. Together they make up a fake story to tell the authorities, if questioned, and come to the conclusion that the journalist in disguise would also need Peruvian documentation because the claim is that he has "double nationality."
A few days later, the full amount is paid and both passports are delivered in person. To the surprise of the reporter, these passports are real and original. A local then explains that since the buyers usually want proof that they made a good deal, they promptly take the documentation to be verified with the broker at their side. Often, the documents are verified by corrupt officials from the RENIEC, the Peruvian agency in charge of issuing identity documents, who are associates of the "brokers." Within a few days, the client obtains a real Peruvian identity document with the new name and photo. The dealer explains that it will take a couple of weeks for the issued name to appear in the official database. All is done in plain sight.
To prove his case, the undercover reporter traveled with the new documents to Chile, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and was amazed to find out that his name was actually in the official Peruvian database. In Caracas, he contacted an "associate" of the "vendor" he met in Lima who also said he could provide a Venezuelan passport claiming it would be a better deal since nationals can travel without visas to Mexico, Spain, Germany and England. He "bought" the new passport and then flew to Mexico. Then he traveled to Tijuana where he is seen walking along the U.S./Mexican border without anyone asking him any questions. He did not try to enter the U.S. with the fake ID’s.
In the tapes, both the Peruvian and Venezuelan brokers can be seen insisting that with more time and money they could get a U.S. visa for their client providing him with a fake but official birth certificate, a passport, an identity document, a fraudulent bank account and a regular paycheck to be submitted to the United States embassy where he would then be granted an interview and then a visa. They claim to have done it before. The journalist refused to do this but had no doubt that the transaction would have been successful.
The bottom Line
It is just a matter of time, if it has not already happened, before a terrorist, is able to get to the United States using a stolen, doctored passport. However, without going to all that trouble, it is now possible to go to Mexico where there is a growing Muslim community and contact an illegal human smuggler and with his help cross the border in to the U.S.
As the threat of terrorism from the Western Hemisphere increases, which is likely because of the nexus between Venezuela, Iran, radical Islamic groups and the drug cartels, it becomes imperative for U.S. agencies responsible for protecting the American public to become more vigilant. It is also the responsibility of Latin American countries to be watchful for members of Al Qaeda or any other Middle Eastern terrorist network traveling throughout the region in order to reach the United States. Therefore the availability of official documentation for sale to the highest bidder is a serious problem and deserves serious attention.
Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of The Americas Report of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project. She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.