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2 brothers, hit man face life in prison after convictions in Little Village fake ID ring

Updated: April 6, 2013 6:24AM

For two decades, they used cunning and violence to corner the fake ID black market in Chicago’s largest Mexican neighborhood.

Now the Leija-Sanchez brothers and the hit man they hired face life behind the bars of an American prison.

Julio and Manuel Leija-Sanchez and their paid assassin Gerardo Salazar-Rodriguez showed no emotion as a jury found them guilty on all counts Monday afternoon in federal court.

Convicted of crimes including racketeering, conspiracy to murder, money laundering and harboring aliens, the Leija-Sanchezes for years paid workers to patrol the parking lot of Little Village’s 26th Street Discount Mall, charging $200 a pop for phony green cards, drivers licenses and social security cards.

In a neighborhood that is home to thousands of illegal immigrants, the business was worth millions of dollars.

The ID ring worked with Ald. Riccardo Munoz’s father, who owned the studio where customers posed for photos, forced illegal immigrants they’d helped sneak into the U.S. to work for them, and teamed up with the Latin Kings street gang to protect their lucrative Southwest Side turf, evidence showed.

But by the time they hired killer Gerardo Salazar-Rodriguez to go back to Mexico City to murder a former pal they suspected of setting up a rival ID ring in 2007, the feds were onto them.

Authorities were listening in on wiretaps as the Leija-Sanchezes, Salazar-Rodriguez and other coconspirators discussed in lurid detail their plan to kill former ally Guillermo “Montes” Jiminez-Flores.

Translated transcripts of dozens of those Spanish-language calls formed the dramatic centerpiece of the men’s five-week long trial.

The calls amounted to “a confession, day after day after day,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Porter told jurors during closing arguments last week.

In one call, made after Jiminez-Flores was ambushed and gunned down in a taxi, Salazar-Rodriguez described for his bosses the moment Jiminez-Flores realized he was about to die.

“When that son of a bitch saw me, he looked as if he had seen the devil,” the talkative hit man boasted. “I gave him five … well I let him have them all, and he still kept squirming around.”

In other calls, he described the black blood that bled from Jiminez-Flores’ liver, and discussed an unsuccessful plot to murder a second rival, Freddy “Bruno” Ramirez-Camella — another former member of the ID ring, who testified against his former associates under a plea deal.

Faced with such damning evidence, attorneys for the Leija-Sanchezes and Salazar Rodriguez, tried several defenses. They argued that the Spanish-speaking voices on the tapes weren’t the defendants, that even if they were, they were lying to each other about their plans, and that even if they were behind the murder, it was for personal, not business reasons.

Salazar-Rodriguez even took the stand in his own defense, claiming he did not know Manuel Leija-Sanchez and that he knew nothing about guns, despite his wiretapped chat about weapons including the 9mm handgun he used to kill Jiminez-Flores and an AK-47 sub-machine gun he planned to kill Bruno with.

Prosecutors mocked those denials, saying Sanchez-Rodriguez was the “unluckiest man in the world” if he’d been lying about the plot, only to see it come true in exactly the way he’d described. His vivid account of needing a beer to calm himself after the “adrenaline rush” of killing Jiminez-Flores, “has the ring of truth,” Porter said.

As for Manuel Leija-Sanchez’s claim that he’d tried to act as a peacemaker, Porter quoted another wiretap, rhetorically asking, “Does Gandhi say, ‘The thing is to grab those two sons of bitches … f--- his ass up bro?’

“That’s not a peacemaker — that’s a murderer!” Porter told jurors.

All three defendants already face a mandatory life sentence as a result of Monday’s verdict. But they could each face another life sentence if jurors rule following a post-trial hearing slated for Tuesday that the murder of Jiminez-Flores was part of a racketeering scheme.

The convictions bring to a close a case that first hit the headlines six years ago with a high profile federal raid on the Discount Mall where the Leija-Sanchez’s agents plied their trade. The lunchtime raid, which came days before a massive downtown immigration rights rally, angered many in the Latino community.

But 14 members of the ring — including Ald. Munoz’s father, Elias — have since pleaded guilty.

And in an ironic twist, by the time the Leija-Sanchezes and Salazar-Rodriguez are sentenced later this year, new legislation means Illinois will for the first time be issuing legitimate drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants.

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