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Identity For Sale: Fraudulent Documents In MacArthur Park

Matthew Tinoco |
May 14, 2014 | 1:58 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter
A Blank US Passport Card (tryanythingonceblog/Creative Commons
A Blank US Passport Card (tryanythingonceblog/Creative Commons
It took less than 30 seconds before I heard “I.D., I.D.” whispered in my direction as I walked down Alvarado Street, adjacent gritty MacArthur park. As a young-looking college student, I am the key demographic for fake I.D.s.
Within 15 minutes a dozen different people approached me, each muttering under his breath "I.D." or "Mica", slang for fake papers of any form. 
I wasn't there for fake papers though; I wanted to know more about what I understood to be a massive operation. But as soon as I made it clear that I wasn't a customer, and instead wanted to learn about the process of making and selling the I.D.s, the eagerness soon gave way to unease.
“Don’t go asking too many questions,” I was warned when trying to talk with one of the many marketers of fake documents around Westlake. Westlake and the other neighborhoods surrounding MacArthur Park are home to some of the most powerful transnational gangs around, and I had very good reason to suspect that they are the ones behind the entire fake papers operation. 
In 2011 federal agents arrested about two dozen people involved with a fake document ring in Westlake, most of whom were connected to an internationally recognized ring of organized crime, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). 
"They were such good documents, and they were the type that they could allow somebody to take on a new identity," Steve Gomez of the FBI told ABC 7 at the time. "[criminals] could basically fall off the face of the planet by having these types of documents." The Feds worry that beyond mere fugitives evading law enforcement, terrorists could use these documents to evade security in airports and other places susceptible to attack.
After a while—eight encounters to be exact—I found someone finally willing to talk. With a backwards Dodger cap on top of his head, Luis*, a Salvadoran immigrant and a father of three assured me that I could get “anything—license, [birth] certificate, social, green card, I.D. from anywhere…any state, any country south, Mexico, Honduras—name it and they got it.”
Sergeant Fernando Zuniga of LAPD’s Fraudulent Document and Gang Extortion Unit, confirmed that what I had heard was accurate. 
“I.D.s can come from almost anywhere,” said Zuniga. “The most common are California Driver's Licenses, but manufacturers have the ability to make I.D.s from any American or Mexican state, and most Central and South American countries.”
I continued talking with Luis, asking him about the prices. “A social will run you about $20—they don’t try and bankrupt the ones who just get here,” Luis said. “An I.D. will cost more." He explained that there was a "Gringo charge" of $300, "but usually [I.D.s] go for about $150.” For larger sums and a bit more time, he said, customers could purchase higher quality I.D.s. 

Downtown Los Angeles viewed from MacArthur Park. (jondoeforty1/Creative Commons)
Downtown Los Angeles viewed from MacArthur Park. (jondoeforty1/Creative Commons)
Most customers are in the country illegally and are looking to work, often on their second or third Social Security Card. Another chunk of his business comes from people under 21 and looking to go out on the town.
But it's not all just college students and undocumented workers. 
“Sometimes I’ll get a guy who asks for some certificates,” said Luis. “Except they’re not for him; He asks for his kids."
As it stands, many preschool programs, like Head Start and state funded preschools, demand birth certificates for confirmation of the child’s citizenship since the services are provided on the taxpayer’s dime. So “some people want to get legal status for their children, or try and get benefits like enrollment in school, or benefits through the city, county or state,” said Zuniga. Given that early-childhood education has received a flurry of attention in recent years and provides meals and medical care for the children, it’s understandable that some parents are willing to procure fake American birth certificates to receive these benefits.
Luis was very forthcoming about the costs and customers of the trade, but he stammered at talking about what goes on behind the scenes, merely describing it as "complex and scary" and making it clear that he didn't want to elaborate. Before turning to leave, I asked Luis why the other vendors were unwilling to talk. Under his breath he muttered simply, “Mara.”  
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is no ordinary street gang. Like other gangs were born around Pico-Union and Westlake in the early 80s, MS-13 has built a reputation for its precision and intolerance for any loose ends, no easy feat considering the gang's involvement with everything from cocaine manufacturing to human trafficking.
Zuniga picked up where Luis left off. He said that the entire process—from placing an “order” for a document to picking it up—takes about two to three hours and involves a multitude of people. After establishing that they want an I.D., customers are led to a booth, or an alcove where they write down the information desired on the the document. After agreeing to a price, customers leave their phone number to be called or texted when the document is ready for pickup. 
“You will leave, come back when it’s ready, and that person will either hand it to you, or direct you to a trash can, newspaper stand, bush, or something similar where it is,” explained Zuniga. After this, you’re free to examine the document, then if it is to your liking you pay and part ways.
During the two or three hours it takes the I.D. to be made, a number things happen, starting with a number of handoffs between gang members to get the document “order” to the document “mill” somewhere in Westlake, where the fake papers are actually manufactured. Zuniga says that the mills tend to be located in very small apartments—often just 300 square feet crammed with printing and laminating equipment—and that hundreds of documents are manufactured in mills around MacArthur Park every day.
Zuniga examines a screen connected to one of the many cameras monitoring the area. (Matthew Tinoco/Neon Tommy)
Zuniga examines a screen connected to one of the many cameras monitoring the area. (Matthew Tinoco/Neon Tommy)
Generally, the documents are made using standard commercial printers to print from templates that are acquired from a black-market CD. These coveted CDs contain blank copies of various documents, ready for the client’s pictures and information. 
After the information has been entered into the template, the document is printed, and then modified to pass as a legitimate document, embossing, laminating, and applying decals as necessary. This entire process takes place in a single location, often operating with just a couple people. The efficiency, however, is reflective of a much larger operation than just the peddling of fake documents on Alvarado.
Zuniga showed me a number of images from busts, including one of an order form requesting about 75 I.D.s to be made. The form includes a long list of different states and countries from where I.D.s are supposed to be from. For example, this particular form includes orders for 20 cards from California, 15 from Texas, 12 from Nevada, 13 from Minnesota and nine from North Dakota, all on one piece of paper, all in the same handwriting.
“We have a lot of cases where they’re bringing in females, or males, for human trafficking for either prostitution or work, so they need documents in various forms so they can get them up and running and get them established, either working as prostitutes or working for legitimate businesses," said Zuinga.
Sometimes when police bust a mill, they come across order forms requesting up to 150 sets of papers at once. According to Zuniga those 150 sets of papers are most likely for 150 human trafficking victims, shipped into the United States from Latin America to essentially be sold into slavery.
This points to the gang's efficiency. Organizations like Mara Salvatrucha are incredibly well organized, seeking to eliminate any point of weakness in their crime ring. Making the papers themselves ensures quality control, and that the people they kidnap are less likely to be found through either a loose end or shoddy workmanship. 
According to Zuniga, formal trafficking orders make up about 1/3 of the total number of requests for fraudulent documents, in addition to those from people who seek out I.D.s from peddlers around the park. 
Zuniga also made it clear that this operation leaves no source unexploited.
“Every single person on the street pays extortion money, or ‘rent’, to the gangs. They come around once a week, and demand rent, or else.”
When considering the other business ventures that Mara is involved in, the or else part of extortion becomes terrifying, and indicative of just how much power these gangs hold. It's shocking.

*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality
Contact Staff Reporter Matthew Tinoco here



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