Double Trouble

Juan Diaz just wanted his citizenship. The feds wanted a drug-running felon.

As Juan Diaz sat in the Immigration and Naturalization Service office earlier this month, he knew his studying had paid off on the most important exam of his life -- his U.S. Citizenship Test.

The examiner told him he'd passed, then offered congratulations. "And then," Diaz says, "everything started happening right there."

Has he ever been to Arizona? he was asked.

The Diaz family scrambled for proof that Juan wasn't a narcotics trafficker.
Daniel Kramer
The Diaz family scrambled for proof that Juan wasn't a narcotics trafficker.

No. Of course not, he told the examiner.

A few INS officers quickly appeared. He had no answers -- right or otherwise -- for their test. The questions were coming from a sealed federal indictment they carried, with his name among the 24 defendants.

"I started freakin' out," he says. "They showed me a list of names I'd never seen before."

Later he was shown something even worse, a photocopied document. "Is this your picture?"

Yes, it was.

"And your signature?"

He looked closely. Yes, that was his full, formal identity -- Juan Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz. And it was all on an Arizona driver's license -- one he'd never seen before.

Rather than heading into citizenship, Diaz suddenly was ushered straight to a cellblock in Houston's federal detention center.

"They put the handcuffs on me, and I'm thinking, 'This has to be a joke or a trick' -- Either that, or this was some kind of strange new reality show. It was so incredible, I was sure this couldn't be happening; there's no way this can be happening."

Even as the FBI took custody of the prisoner, Diaz was sure he was still the same Mexican immigrant who just had passed his last hurdle toward citizenship. This was a 28-year-old graduate of Milby High School and a technical institute. He was Juan Diaz, husband of Teresa and father of a son and daughter, five and three years of age. He'd been in Houston more than a decade.

Most important, this was a Diaz with a spotless past -- nothing remotely approaching problems with the law. He was a stable family man, a good worker with a solid job selling telephone systems to businesses.

But as Diaz would find out, the standard background check for his citizenship had turned up the other Juan Diaz -- and this one had carried an Arizona driver's license with the Houston man's photo, full signature and other personal information.

The other Diaz went by various aliases, including "Carlos the Cousin." He was one of 24 defendants named in the 1999 indictment of a major drug trafficking ring operating out of Phoenix. The U.S. Attorney's Office there took the case to the grand jury after a lengthy undercover investigation that began in 1998.

The loose-knit gang was accused of funneling large amounts of heroin and cocaine throughout the West, then hauling the proceeds into Mexico to buy more drugs for distribution. The alleged leader, Arturo Vibanco-Contreras, and several others were arrested in late 1999.

Diaz was accused of trafficking in May and June of 1999, when he went from Phoenix to Utah. While authorities declined to discuss details, it is believed that the suspect's identity may have been established as Diaz by agents having a uniformed officer conduct a routine traffic stop on his vehicle, just to get a look at his license in 1998.

In Houston six years later, this Juan Diaz only knew that he was in deep trouble. Now in jail clothing and mixing with real criminals, he says his first night was sleepless. "I was beginning to lose it already, wondering if I'd ever get out," he says. "I was thinking that if I'm going up against the government, and if they wish to do whatever they want to do with me, they could. My life seemed like it was going down the drain. I was wondering if they were going to send me to the Arizona prison or what."

He did get his call in to his wife, telling her to hustle up anything she could to confirm that he wasn't an Arizona drug runner.

"My wife was really at her best -- I can tell you that," he says. "It was amazing what she did."

He was arrested on Friday, July 23. By the following Monday, the Diaz family and their counsel, former prosecutor and veteran defense attorney Mike Hinton, were ready for the initial hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Milloy.

Teresa Diaz had gathered up old pay stubs showing her husband had been working in Houston at the same time the other Diaz was dealing drugs in Arizona. There were cancelled checks and even photos of the family here. On one day when he was alleged to be in Phoenix with the drug gang, Diaz actually was getting his picture taken with his future wife as part of the festivities at her Bellaire High School prom.

Hinton explained the mystery. "He has been victimized by the worst kind of identity theft," he says. "The person who stole his identity was careful never to use it for any of the reasons typically associated with that crime; he never got fake credit cards or used the ID to cash checks or otherwise enrich himself. He obtained it strictly to use as identification in his drug-dealing endeavors."

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