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The Taiwan Connection : A Network Some Authorities Call the Single Most Important Criminal Threat to the United States Smuggles 100,000 Illegal Immigrants from China Each Year, Collecting Billions to Bankroll a Diverse Criminal Empire. As Federal Investigators Struggle to Fight It, All Roads Lead to Taiwan.

October 09, 1994|Marlowe Hood | Marlowe Hood is a Paris-based journalist. His last piece for the magazine covered the plight of illegal Chinese immigrants once they reach the United States

Jorge Guzman, a special agent for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has a price on his head. It is his reward for snapping at the heels of one of the biggest, and most profitable, human smuggling operations in the world, a network that in turn fuels criminal enterprises from drug trafficking to credit card fraud, from prostitution to extortion.

A broad man with a broad grin, Guzman wears his moods on his sleeve. Shielding himself behind the mask and monotone so typical of his law- enforcement colleagues is clearly an unnatural act. Nor does he suffer fools easily, on either side of the law--the grin can disappear in a flash. But Guzman would hardly rate an assassin's contract if he didn't have an effective sting. As the L.A.-based coordinator of investigations into Asian organized crime, he engineered the only successful undercover operation to date against Chinese migrant smugglers. Operation Dry Dock arrested 132 illegal Chinese immigrants and yielded a wealth of information on the smuggling masterminds.

The man suspected of ordering the hit on Guzman is Taiwanese. Based in Guatemala, his criminal shadow looms largest over Southern California. Federal officials have asked that I not reveal his name, so let's call him Mr. Li.

Poker-faced and a bit jowly from too much banqueting, Li looks like what he is, a successful Chinese businessman in middle age. But rather than athletic shoes or dried mushrooms, multiple sources say, Li imports China White, an exceptionally pure form of heroin. Rather than the Rotary or Kiwanis Club, they say, he is affiliated with triads in Asia and street gangs in Los Angeles. And rather than mini-malls, he invests in L.A.-area nightclubs staffed by prostitutes from Shanghai and Fuzhou.

But these interests are all peripheral to his main, multimillion-dollar line of business: smuggling economic migrants from China into the United States, some by sea and even more by air. Li has had a stake in nearly half of the 20-odd human-cargo boats apprehended in the Pacific since August, 1991, according to a confidential State Department memo outlining his career. And those are just the ships of which law enforcement is aware. "Li doesn't have any real competitors on the West Coast," says a senior INS official.

As big as he is, however, Li is only one link in a transnational chain of ethnic Chinese enterprises that are flooding the United States with illegal immigrants and high-potency heroin. They generate tens of billions of dollars each year, much of it used to bribe officials around the world, and have become, in the words of the Washington official, "the single most important criminal threat to the United States."

One cannot but marvel at a network that was able to sneak 100,000 people a year through dozens of countries around the globe with hardly anyone paying attention--until a migrant-laden tramp steamer, the Golden Venture, ran aground near New York City in June, 1993. Since then, the smuggling of Chinese immigrants has fallen out of the headlines, but it continues unabated, not only in the United States but all over the world.

The story of Li's empire, and the larger empire of which it is a part, gives a glimpse of the reaches of this network, which Guzman and other front-line agents, outmanned and out-financed, are fighting in their two-front battle against Asian organized crime. On one front are Li and his far-flung, highly mobile army, connected in myriad ways to criminal--and possibly official--organizations in Taiwan. On the other is a government that has been slow to recognize the scope and reach of highly diversified Chinese criminal groups and whose unfocused policies have made it frustratingly hard for investigators like Guzman to penetrate the human smuggling rings that turbocharge these groups with cash and manpower.

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Li's business empire began to burgeon in the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping opened China to trade. In the boom that followed, Taiwanese were among the first and most aggressive investors, despite the political tension between Beijing and Taipei. They naturally gravitated to their ancestral province of Fujian--virtually a stone's throw from Taiwan--where they speak the same dialects and often have relatives.

There, criminal entrepreneurs found what would become a gold mine. Farmers in Fujian, on the southeastern coast of China, were being squeezed off their land. The country's breakneck transition to industry was replacing farms with factories, displacing millions of agricultural workers. The farm jobs that did remain were being filled by desperately poor peasants from China's interior, willing to work for next to nothing. The pressure of unemployment and personal debt, combined with abuse from venal officials, made daily life increasingly difficult for growing numbers of Fujianese.

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