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Priest among dozens held in Spain 'marriage scam'

By Al Goodman, CNN Madrid Bureau Chief
  • Spanish police arrest priest, 33 others in alleged "marriage of convenience" scam
  • Mostly Colombians immigrants, linked to drug trafficking, wed Spaniards to get residency papers
  • Immigrants paid about $15,000 to wed Spaniard and gain fast track to obtaining residency papers

Madrid, Spain (CNN) -- Spanish police have arrested a priest and 33 others in an alleged "marriage of convenience" scam in which mostly Colombians immigrants, linked to drug trafficking, wed Spaniards to get residency papers.

The suspects include a Colombian-born priest, a Spanish civil servant, and a Colombian woman who claimed to be a lawyer while allegedly arranging most of the 100 marriages of convenience cited in the scam, a police statement said Tuesday.

The immigrants paid about $15,000 to wed a Spaniard and gain a fast track to obtaining residency papers, while the Spanish fake "bride or groom" in the scheme earned nearly $4,500.

And the two witnesses required for each civil or church wedding? They collected $300 each, authorities said.

The group allegedly started with marriages of convenience but lately had branched out into forging marriage certificates in order to avoid the wedding itself. That reduced the costs of paying the fake bride or groom and the witnesses, police said.

The forged wedding documents were later presented to a Civil Registry, which officially records marriages.

The suspects face charges of fraud, document forgery, infringing the rights of foreigners and illicit association.

Police began investigating some of the suspects two years ago and last week closed in to arrest the alleged ringleaders in Madrid and in nearby Valdemoro.

A top suspect is a Colombian-born woman with Spanish nationality who used the name "Claudia" and claimed to be a lawyer. She operated a company in a Madrid working-class neighborhood that offered the marriage service, always going to certain Civil Registry or Justice of the Peace offices in Madrid province or nearby, the police said.

She is accused of organizing 56 civil marriages of convenience in Torrelodones, a Madrid suburb, and 22 church weddings in various parishes, the police said.

Police have searched five homes and authorities are expected annul the fake marriages and any Spanish residency cards that have been issued as a result, the statement said.