Inmates in a maximum security jail carried out a complex telephone scam that defrauded Mexicans living in the U.S. of tens of thousands of dollars by pretending their family members had been kidnapped.
A police operation in Guadalajara’s Puente Grande prison—the jail from which Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped in 2001—uncovered a stash of seven mobile phones, 18 SIM cards and even scripts that were used by prisoners.
The gang of 10 inmates called Mexicans living in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and several cities in Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Oregon and pretended to be lawyers acting for relatives that had been kidnapped, according to a statement from the office of the Attorney General.
They persuaded concerned family members to wire money into Mexican bank accounts held by relatives or friends of the inmates, who kept detailed accounts on their takings. Notebooks found during the raid indicate that the gang made around $60,000. Known as “virtual kidnapping,” the technique has been on the rise in recent years and the FBI recently issued a warning on its website in August 2014 explaining how to avoid it. It revealed that virtual kidnappers have cold-called hundreds of numbers in the United States.
The Mexican authorities are now awaiting permission from a judge to carry out a forensic examination of the phones to track the exact number and identities of the people involved in the network that enabled the scam, which is likely to include people working both inside and outside the prison.
The huge operation reportedly involved 332 officers who inspected the dormitory of the prison to find prohibited items. Besides the phones used in the scam, the authorities also confiscated a cache of weapons that included knives, scissors and screwdrivers, razors and hammers.
Puente Grande hit the headlines in 2001 when Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, broke out of the prison by bribing guards who allowed him to escape in a basket of dirty laundry. He ended up spending the next 13 years on the run until he was arrested in 2014.
Guzman escaped again in 2015 after tunneling out of Mexico’s most secure prison and was finally captured in a shootout with Mexican soldiers the following year.
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