Twenty-two people have been charged with producing more than 15,000 false documents for illegal immigrants in 11 states and protecting their lucrative turf through kidnappings, beatings and the slaying of a rival, officials said Thursday.
The ring operated in 19 cities and generated more than $1 million over less than two years selling Social Security cards, driver's licenses and work documents at prices ranging from $150 to $200, according to an indictment. The proceeds were wired to the ring's base in Mexico, the indictment said.
The defendants, who are being held in Virginia, are accused of 12 counts, including racketeering, murder, assault, firearms possession, kidnapping, money laundering, and possessing and producing false documents. Most are illegal immigrants from Mexico.
"This is a chilling document," U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride said at a news conference.
The director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the ring was among the top three document fraud cases the agency has ever investigated.
"This was not a mom-and-pop organization but rather organized crime on a grand scale," ICE Director John Morton said.
The indictment said the defendants produced high-quality identification cards in 19 cities from New England to Arkansas where there were few other forgery operations.
When they found competition, investigators said, they dealt with it violently.
Two of the defendants are accused of fatally beating a rival in Little Rock, Ark., in July 2010. Two other defendants beat a competitor in Richmond, placing the barrel of a loaded firearm in the victim's mouth and warning him to seek a career change, the indictment said.
The violence also extended to workers within the ring who violated the strict rules of the businesslike operation, such as filing biweekly sales reports, the government said. Offenders were beaten and threatened with violence, the government said.
"This case was all about intimidation and violence, all about maintaining control and discipline within the organization and running rivals off through aggressive and violent means," Morton said.
Craig W. Sampson, an attorney representing one of the defendants, said his client had not entered a plea. He said the case will be a test for the federal court in Richmond, which has only a handful of interpreters for the nearly two-dozen Spanish-speaking defendants.
Investigators initially uncovered the forgery ring in Norfolk, Va., and tracked down cells in three other Virginia locations. They then traced the ring to Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, Indiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri and Tennessee.
Asked if U.S. authorities were working with their Mexican counterparts to prosecute the ring's management, MacBride said "the investigation continues and we're going to follow this case wherever it leads us."
A total of 28 people were initially indicted and arrested late last year in the document ring. Some have entered pleas.
The superseding indictment released Thursday added new charges.