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Top Stories - Reuters
US Visas Said Sold on Mexican Street for $1500

Thu Feb 6, 7:01 PM ET  Add Top Stories - Reuters to My Yahoo!
By Deborah Tedford

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) - U.S. Consulate staff in the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo who have been charged with conspiracy to commit visa fraud sold visas on the sidewalk at up to $1,500 a time, according to a court document seen on Thursday.
An affidavit by an investigator in the case said that for four months, four employees -- one U.S. citizen and three Mexicans -- drummed up business on the street outside one of the busiest consulates on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The document, seen by Reuters, said the accused sold non-immigrant visas for fees many times their actual $100 cost.
One of the men -- Mexican Sergio Ochoa Alarcon -- stopped people as they headed into the consulate for appointments, telling them he could make sure their visa applications were approved in return for a bribe, the affidavit says.

Last week, the State Department shut down the consulate's visa unit and agents of the diplomatic security service interviewed consulate employees.
The four have appeared in a federal court in Texas where they have not yet entered a plea.

Bond was set at $150,000 for Miguel Partida, 41, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Ochoa, 31, and fellow-Mexicans Benjamin Antonio Ayala Morales, 34, and Ramon Alberto Torres Galvan, 34, are being held in federal custody.
Although the alleged crimes were committed in Mexico, the four were arrested in the United States and charged in Texas.
Security has been a priority along the 2,000-mile border since Sept. 11, but Consul Thomas Armbruster has said there was little risk that anyone who received a fraudulent visa posed a national security threat.
Agents with the diplomatic security service received numerous tips that an employee was involved in a visa-selling scheme before the investigation began in May, according to the affidavit by Special Agent James Burke.
After making contact with prospective customers outside, Ochoa allegedly went into the consulate and gave the names to Partida.

He steered the applicants to the desk manned by Ayala, where their applications would be taken and they would be photographed and fingerprinted, according to the affidavit.
Partida issued the visas without ever interviewing the applicants, it states.
"Once the visa was issued, the applicant would pay the predetermined fee to ... Ochoa outside the consulate," the document states. "Ochoa, in turn, would split this fee with ... Ayala" and Partida, it said.

Torres' alleged role is not outlined in the affidavit.
Across the border from Laredo, Texas, the consulate received more than 300,000 applications for non-immigrant visas from tourists, students, scholars and border residents during 2001.
U.S. officials say the consulate should reopen soon.
"We believe that the office will be ready to open for appointments by the end of the week," Armbruster said.