Card Sharps

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On October 16, indictments were filed against four Mexican-born nationals for manufacturing green cards and selling them at the site. The owners of the laundromat were not indicted. Three of the defendants -- Steven Rivera-Lopez, aka "Hector Gabriel Rivera"; William Rene Espana-Vega, aka "Antonio Cardero-Garcia"; and Daniel Galvan, aka "Victor Martinez" -- have previous convictions for selling fake green cards.

Rivera-Lopez had been arrested in El Paso in 1997 and returned to Colorado in 1999. Espana-Vega was convicted in a U.S. district court in Abilene in 1996, served time, was deported, and returned by June 2000. Galvan was convicted of fraud in a U.S. district court in New Mexico in May 1999, served one year, was deported, and then returned to Denver.

With court documents sealed, little else is known about the defendants and how far their conspiracy reaches. Because the three main suspects amassed prior fraud convictions from different markets and have since met up in Denver, investigators believe that the roots of the organization dig deeper into a larger counterfeiting ring. "This goes much, much further than it looks," assures agent Lembke.

While investigators put their case together and the defendants sit in separate county jails across the region, the completion of Operation Cleanout is approaching. John Torres also says he isn't discouraged by the size of the undertaking or the overwhelming number of fake green cards that are out there. He disputes some critics -- immigration attorneys, namely -- who call the war on green cards a hopeless battle.

"If you look at it from the perspective of the victim," Torres says of those who have lost their Social Security number to fraud, "I guarantee you they are not going to say this is a waste of time and money."

Adds Lembke, "It's a frustrating situation. It's been something that's been known for a long time. The problem has been addressed. But the real problem is, once you arrest a handful of people that are dealing, others move right into that spot. It's an ongoing cycle."

On the first Sunday in November, Alejandro telephones his pretend Canadian customer just as the Denver Broncos are starting to tangle with the New York Jets on television. He instructs his customer to meet him outside the Blockbuster video store at 32nd Avenue and Federal Boulevard in one hour. Before he hangs up, Alejandro wants to know what type of car to look for: "What kind? What color? You be alone?"

At 3 p.m., the designated meeting time, it's still snowing outside and Alejandro is nowhere in sight. At 3:20 p.m., he arrives with his coat collar up around his ears and hands pushed deep into his pockets. He extends his hand for a handshake a good three steps away and offers his customer a wide, good-to-see-you-again smile.

Alejandro slips a small manila envelope over with his left hand. He keeps his hand extended until he receives the $170 in cash. He takes the money but doesn't count it. "You go to your car. Make sure it's good," he says. Because Alejandro's customer isn't really a jittery Canadian citizen, quality is not a big issue, but he nods and returns to his car.

Clearly, the fakes are suspect. At first glance the card is passable, but closer scrutiny reveals its blemishes: The horizontal strip across the top dips to the right; the thumbprint is the size of a child's digit; the signature is hesitantly forged -- and mistakenly printed in all caps. The Social Security card, meanwhile, feels nearly as thin as binder paper and looks like it slipped out of a bubble gum machine.

When the customer looks up from his driver's seat, Alejandro is looking directly at him. Alejandro gives the thumbs-up sign and asks with a raise of the eyebrows, "Everything okay?"

Everything is okay.

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Justin Berton