LATIN AMERICA NEWS — Chinese mafia operations in Latin America are little understood, but a recent report on these groups in Argentina illustrates how they make their presence felt via extortion, human smuggling rings, and the occasional murder. As China deepens its economic relationship with Latin America, it’s possible these mafias may become ever more prominent.
Authorities in Argentina have attributed 31 murders over the last five years, and four in 2014 alone, to seven Chinese mafias operating in the country, reported La Nacion. These mafias reportedly earn revenue by extorting businesses within the Chinese community, and resort to violence when owners do not comply with their demands.
In at least three of the 2014 cases, the victim did not appear to have been robbed, leading authorities to believe they were killed after running afoul of criminal groups in the Chinese community. According to La Nacion, the Chinese mafias (also known throughout Latin America under the umbrella term Red Dragon) often hire Argentine nationals to commit the murders.
The most recent Chinese victim — who was shot and killed in Buenos Aires in August — was found carrying a large sum of US and Argentine currency at the time of his death, and was under investigation by police for human trafficking.
Red Dragon Touts Diverse Criminal Portfolio
As exemplified in Argentina, extortion is one of the most common sources of revenue for Chinese mafias in Latin America. In one typical strategy, mafias will send Chinese business owners letters in their native dialect, demanding money in return for “protection” services. A 2011 investigation in San Martin, Argentina, revealed that one Chinese criminal group required local owners who had paid a protection fee of $50,000 to hang a drawing of a Chinese dragon over their door as a sign that they had paid their dues.
Chinese mafia activity in Latin America isn’t limited to the extortion of businesses. These small-scale extortion operations are generally run by loosely affiliated groups, while larger gangs run more complex illicit enterprises such as human smuggling rings, which can bring in much higher profits.
Human smuggling is an especially lucrative business for Chinese mafias in Argentina and beyond, as Latin America is an important transit point for Chinese nationals seeking to enter the United States without visas. Chinese mafias reportedly charge up to $60,000 per person and can potentially earn as much as $750 million per year bringing Chinese immigrants to countries along Latin America’s Pacific coast, including Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru. Once in Latin America, many Chinese continue their journey north using overland routes, traveling through Central America and Mexico before entering the United States.
The more sophisticated Chinese criminal groups are also involved in drug trafficking, with cases involving Chinese gangs that have moved cocaine and synthetic drugs from Peru and Panama to Europe and Asia. There are also reports of Chinese mafias in Mexico trafficking precursor chemicals used in methamphetamine production.
A Growing Threat?
Although Chinese organized crime groups have attracted the attention of authorities in Latin America since at least the 1990s, they have historically been able to stay below the radar of law enforcement officials. Language barriers among Latin American police forces — as well as the fear of retribution that has prevented many in Chinese communities from reporting abuses — have kept Chinese mafias largely in the shadows, giving them near total impunity to carry out criminal activities in the region.
According to Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American Studies at the US Army War College, the development of Chinese organized crime in Latin America is a natural by-product of the increased human and commercial interactions between the two regions. Given the impressive 20-fold increase in trade between China and Latin America since 2000, it would hardly be surprising if Chinese organized crime had grown as well.
Drug trafficking, human smuggling, and contraband smuggling are all facilitated by this increased trade. “Without the high volume of barrels and containers traveling across the Pacific carrying legal goods between the two regions, it would be difficult to conceal contraband and illicit drug materials such as precursor chemicals,” Ellis told InSight Crime. With China’s plans to continue deepening commercial ties with Latin America, it’s possible that the increased flow of goods and people could present more opportunities for Chinese mafias to expand their operations.
However, there are also signs that Latin American authorities are focusing greater attention on Chinese mafias. In 2013, concern among high-level Chinese government officials over the safety of Jamaica’s Chinese population spurred the creation of new security measures meant to fight Chinese organized crime on the island. Meanwhile, police in Argentina have developed an information sharing system with law enforcement in China to better investigate crimes involving Chinese mafias, according to La Nacion.
The lack of reliable empirical data on Chinese communities in Latin America makes it difficult to fully understand the scope of Chinese organized crime in the region. Although the Overseas Community Affairs Council in Taiwan releases official data on Chinese nationals living outside of mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (pdf), illegal immigration makes it difficult for Latin American authorities to release accurate estimates of the actual size of their Chinese communities.
“There are a large number of Chinese immigrants entering Latin America, both legally and without visas,” Ellis told InSight Crime. “Police officials in countries I visited, such as Suriname, didn’t know the size of their Chinese population, and they had very little idea of what criminal structures existed within these communities.”
While it remains to be seen if new security strategies can neutralize the threat of Chinese mafias as commercial transactions increase between the two regions, stronger data on Chinese migration patterns and criminal organizations would undoubtedly support efforts by local authorities to limit these groups’ presence in Latin America.