Authorities in Ghana have busted a fake US embassy in the capital Accra run by a criminal network that for a decade issued illegally obtained authentic visas, the US State Department has said.
Until it was shut down, the sham embassy was housed in a rundown, pink two-storey building with a corrugated iron roof and flew an American flag outside. Inside hung a portrait of the US president, Barack Obama.
“It was not operated by the United States government, but by figures from both Ghanaian and Turkish organised crime rings and a Ghanaian attorney practising immigration and criminal law,” the State Department said in a statement.
Turkish citizens who spoke English and Dutch posed as consular officers and staffed the operation. Investigations also uncovered a fake Dutch embassy, the State Department said.
Officials in the Netherlands were not immediately reachable for comment on Sunday.
The crime ring issued fraudulently obtained but legitimate US visas and false identification documents, including birth certificates at a cost of $6,000 (£4,700) each, the statement said.
During raids that led to a number of arrests, authorities also seized authentic and counterfeit Indian, South African and Schengen zone visas and 150 passports from 10 different countries along with a laptop and smartphones.
The statement did not say how the gang obtained the authentic visas or how many people were believed to have illegally entered the US and other countries using visas issued by the crime ring.
“The criminals running the operation were able to pay off corrupt officials to look the other way, as well as obtain legitimate blank documents to be doctored,” the statement said.
Visas for western countries are in high demand in Africa and embassies say the visa market is a big target for organised crime.
The real US embassy in Ghana is a prominent and heavily fortified complex in Cantonments, one of the capital’s most expensive neighbourhoods. Lines of people queue outside each day for visa appointments and other consular business.
The fake embassy was open three mornings a week and did not accept walk-in appointments. Instead, the criminals advertised on billboards in Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast and brought clients from across west Africa to Accra where they rented them hotel rooms in nearby hotels.
US authorities conducting a broader security operation were tipped off about it and assembled a team, including the Ghana Detectives Bureau and police as well as other international partners to shut down the ring.
There was no immediate comment from Ghana’s Criminal Investigations Division.