Authorities in New Mexico said they busted of a fraud ring that allegedly forged false documents for undocumented immigrants who wanted to obtain a driver's license.
We know without a shadow of a doubt there are several other rings operating right now in the state, and the only reason they continue to operate is because it's a profitable business they're in.
- Demesia Padilla, secretary of the state Taxation and Revenue Department
Rental agreements, bank statements, vehicle titles, and insurance paperwork were among the fake documents provided by the ring. In at least 54 cases, these documents were used to obtain licenses, police said.
The probe is continuing, and authorities said during a news conference that investigators believe hundreds of licenses have been fraudulently obtained through the ring over the past couple of years for undocumented immigrants living outside of New Mexico.
Arrest warrants were issued for nine people.
"We know without a shadow of a doubt there are several other rings operating right now in the state, and the only reason they continue to operate is because it's a profitable business they're in," said Demesia Padilla, secretary of the state Taxation and Revenue Department, which oversees New Mexico's Motor Vehicle Division.
Padilla said her concern is that the stories about vanloads of undocumented immigrants being brought to New Mexico from as far as Florida and Illinois for driver's licenses will continue until the state Legislature takes action.
New Mexico and Washington are the only states that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain the same driver's license as a U.S. citizen.
Padilla charged that the Legislature has created a "mess" by not repealing the law.
"We need to end the issuance of driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and until we do that, we're going to leave ourselves open to this type of fraud and this type of crime," she said.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has repeatedly pressed state lawmakers to repeal New Mexico's law over fraud concerns. During this year's session, the state Senate passed a bill that would have made it harder for undocumented immigrants to obtain state driver's licenses. Yet, the bill did not get a vote in the House.
"This fraud ring only confirms what New Mexicans already know - the only way to put an end to this criminal activity is to repeal the law that gives driver's licenses to illegal immigrants," the governor said in a statement issued Wednesday.
A criminal complaint details the ring that authorities say was operating in the eastern New Mexico communities of Clovis and Portales. Those named in the complaint face dozens of charges ranging from forgery to conspiracy to commit altered, forged or fictitious licenses.
Of the nine warrants issued, two people have been arrested and two others have agreed to turn themselves in.
The alleged ring leader, Luis Raul Collazo-Medrano, his wife, Olivia Esther Campos, their daughter Viridiana Campos and two others have yet to be located.
The investigation began eight months ago after several foreign nationals were found to be using the same phone numbers in Roosevelt County to make appointments at the Motor Vehicle Division office. Several applicants also were using the same addresses in Clovis and Portales as their places of residence, even though they did not live there.
It was a phone call from a Brazilian woman living in Georgia inquiring about her license that unearthed the scam, Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler said.
The woman told authorities she agreed to pay Collazo-Medrano $4,000 for a driver's license. The scam involved her flying to Amarillo, Texas, and being driven to Portales, where her paperwork was prepared.
A hold was put on the license due to fraud suspicions. The woman demanded her money back, and Collazo-Medrano allegedly told her that he didn't need her money since he was making $30,000 a month getting fraudulent licenses for others.
"By all means, this is not a case of overcharging or overreaching by law enforcement," Chandler said. "In reality, what we were able to determine is there were hundreds and hundreds" of applicants that went through the system as a result of the scam.
Chandler said the investigation is focused on those running the rings, not the individuals applying for licenses.
State officials said they are working to revoke the 54 licenses that were connected to the busted ring.
About 92,000 foreign national licenses have been issued in New Mexico since 2003. Out of those, only 16,000 license holders filed a return this tax season, Padilla said.
"Where are the rest of them? It appears they're not in New Mexico, as is evident by this ring," she said.
Each time the state has tried to prevent fraud through administrative measures like requiring in-person appointments or tracking addresses and phone numbers of applicants, Padilla said the rings have become more creative in finding ways around the system.
"Absolutely it's given us a bad name," she said. "We're known as the place where they can come to shop for a driver's license. There are advertisements in Chicago, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina where they basically say there's a commodity for sale in New Mexico, and that commodity is a New Mexico driver's license."