“Did you do anything about the passport?” It was May 29 when M., a Pakistani national and member of a criminal ring peddling forged identification and travel documents, took the phone call asking this question in the middle of dinner. “Wait a few days,” he responded in a laid-back tone. His interlocutor insisted: “When? When the season's over? There's just a month-and-a-half left. There'll be fewer flights after.”
The discussion was kept brief. Before hanging up, M. confided that he is thinking of getting out of the racket. “Stop if you want, but knock out one or two,” his interlocutor responded. “You'll see. It's a lot of money. You'll get hooked.”
This and dozens more telephone conversations were recorded by the Organized Crime Department of the Greek Police. In early October, 12 suspects from Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria were arrested in Athens on charges of belonging to a criminal organization.
According to the police, the suspects had set up a racket to smuggle migrants and refugees from Greece to Western Europe. At least seven of the suspects are said to have been working in Athens and on Kos, one of the eastern Aegean islands that has been receiving the bulk of arrivals from Turkey over the past several months. Today, most of the suspects are in pretrial custody as the investigation continues, while another 18 have been identified or are being sought.
But these were not the only ones to get involved in this lucrative business. Looking at the case files compiled by investigators, talking to one of the forgers who was released in Athens, as well as to a Syrian who sells “authentic” Syrian passports in the Turkish town of Gaziantep, Kathimerini sheds light on how this business is conducted, the techniques and exchange points used by the rackets.
The fingerprints and police registration form for one of the Paris suicide bombers. He was registered in early October on the island of Leros, entering the country with a forged passport as part of the wave of refugees.
A few days after the terror attacks in Paris by jihadi militants, Kathimerini spoke on the telephone, with the help of an interpreter, with Safwan, a man who had posted an ad on Facebook purporting to sell Syrian passports. He lives in Gaziantep, some 300 kilometers from Raqqa, the Syrian town that has been overrun by Islamic State.
“It's genuine,” he said when we presented ourselves as buyers who were based in Istanbul. “The first page is clean. I haven't changed the name or the stamps. If they check it on the computer, they'll see it's genuine,” Safwan said.
Safwan's ad on Facebook.
“A guy has already come in and out of Turkey with this passport; it's got stamps. It will look like a good passport and that counts,” he said, before mentioning the snag: “But you'll have to renew it.” We asked how this could be done. “We have people who do that kind of thing. I'll put you in touch with them,” he answered. “They renew it, we give them $100 and they add another entry stamp on top and you can get out like a gentleman.”
He didn't want to say who the passport originally belonged to or how he came to have it. He guaranteed us that we'd reach Germany unhindered.
“Modern migrant-smuggling and document forgery rings have managed to develop a network of cross-border activities, which make cooperation between nations absolutely essential in stopping them,” says Zacharias Kesses, a lawyer who has handled several cases of passport forgery in Greece. He says that in most cases the authorities manage to stop expendable members of the gangs rather than the leaders.
Cooperation between groups
B., a 30-year-old Pakistani national, was released last year after serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence in a prison in Trikala, central Greece. “Many people still approach me even today and ask me to put them in touch with someone, but I send them away,” he says, asking that his full name not be published. He has returned to his old job in a small factory and claims to regret his past. His involvement with forgery began when he put up a compatriot in his home in the Athens neighborhood of Aghios Dimitrios. “He was educated,” B. says of his guest. “He'd studied graphic design in Pakistan and it was very easy for him to copy what he saw.”
B. met more people involved in other gangs in the same racket. They imported the raw material from Bulgaria and often, despite the competition, worked with each other. “They helped each other. They shared the work or sold materials to each other, like laminating plastic,” says B. “When something went sour, though, one group would turn the other over to the police. That happened a lot.” The cooperation between rival gangs described by B. was also seen in the gang netted by the police in October. On August 24, while the suspects were still under surveillance, a parallel operation by the Attica Aliens Police resulted in the arrest of Z.H., one of the network's key forgers. As was later proved, one of the two forgery workshops in Aghios Dimitrios was registered with the tax authorities as being the residence of a man identified as Q.I., another of the suspects in the same network.
According to the judicial case file, the racket would alter genuine travel documents issued by European or other countries or make passports from scratch, mainly appearing to be from Syria or Pakistan. They also tried to hoodwink authorities by affixing fake entry and exit stamps. “If they see entry and exit stamps they believe the person was coming and going,” said one member of the network in a telephone conversation recorded on June 14.
The forgers would also create “clones,” meaning they would use the data (name, date of birth, residence permit) which coincided with that in the genuine passport. They would often use the details of gang members for their forgeries. The price of a passport could come to as much as 800 euros depending on the quality.
Refugees and migrants would send the forger they were in touch with a photograph via Facebook or the mobile app Viber. They would pay between 2,200 and 3,000 euros for travel documents and air tickets. The airplane reservations were made from a barber shop in the Athens neighborhood of Tavros, while the money would be deposited with a guarantor (minimarkets or currency exchange bureaus). There, using the hawala system, the travelers would be given a code and when they reached their destination, this code would be sent to the smuggler so her could cash the money. The guarantor's cut was 100 euros.
In June 2014, Syrian refugees told Kathimerini that such businesses operate along Acharnon Street, a busy thoroughfare in downtown Athens. In the meantime, and following police operations, it appears that some parts of the activity has been moved elsewhere.
The wiretapped conversations suggest that Pakistanis would use four such establishment in Aghios Anargyros and Syrians at stores owned by compatriots in Omonia and Athinon Avenue.
A few days ago, police in Costa Rica arrested a Syrian woman trying to fly to the US with a forged Greek passport (Photo: Reuters)
Insurance and mistakes
The forgers of the gang that was placed under surveillance by the police's organized crime unit wanted to keep the cost of production as low as possible. They tried to recycle material, which is why they charged up to 1,000 euros for the deposit on a passport. If the client did not return to claim the document or lost it on the way, the gang kept the deposit.
“When we'd used a genuine passport the problem was that the person left and didn't send it back,” said one member of the gang in a conversation recorded on May 29. “If we kept back the guarantee money, they'd send it back fast.”
To increase the chances of a successful transfer, the wiretaps show, the smugglers would advise the refugees to shave before taking the passport photo or would help dress them at specific shops.
The result of their work was not always flawless, of course. In a conversation from July 31, one of the suspects revealed to his interlocutor that he'd made a mistake: “I sent a person twice to the airport to pick up his ticket and they wouldn't give to him. The second time, a policeman said to him: ‘You haven't even been born yet, because here it says you were born in 2088.’” The client had asked his date of birth to be registered as 1988, but the forger got it wrong.
A police handout photo shows some of the findings made in a suspected forgery workshop used by migrant traffickers in Athens.
In early September, three forgers in the networks expanded their activities to the island of Kos. According to police, for a period of at least 11 days they would find refugees and migrants who hadn't been registered by the authorities there and supply them with forged police passes and asylum applications so they could travel by ferry boat to the mainland. Another gang had set up a similar racket on Lesvos but was quashed earlier this month during a joint operation by the National Intelligence Agency (EYP) and the Counterterrorism Unit.
The informant's fate
Activity on the island was not the only sign of initiative seen by the Greek authorities in how forgery rings conducted their business. In May, two cardboard boxes arrived at Athens International Airport from China addressed to a minimarket in Rendi. The customs officers who checked them discovered that they contained 4,000 forged residence permits. The prints, on adhesive paper so they could be affixed to passports, were extremely well made and were identical to the ones issued by the Greek authorities. The value of one single such document is estimated by experts at around 600 euros.
The contents of parcels that were seized from a minimarket in the Athens district of Rendi after being shipped from China.
A police officer posing as a courier service worker delivered the parcels to the minimarket and three arrests followed the operation. As it emerges from the case file, one of the suspects, 41-year-old minimarket owner U.M. from Pakistan was the intended recipient and used his business as a front for the racket. Police raided his apartment, located nearby, and discovered a forgery workshop.
U.M. had been in Greece for almost 20 years, and has spend the last year traveling between Athens and Malmo in Sweden, where he had another business. In the past he had appeared in various Greek courts, acting as an interpreter for other Pakistanis. After his arrest over the parcels from China, he defended himself and argued that it was all a misunderstanding.
“I am the victim of a plot designed by compatriots because I cooperated with the authorities,” he said, according to court records. He claimed he had worked as an informant since 2005 and had alerted authorities to at least two forgers. His claims about the parcels from China were similar. “They were sent by a compatriot who lives there,” he said. “He wanted revenge against me because I had turned him in to the police.”
His allegations did not convince the court and he was sentenced to seven years behind bars.