The Chinese Triads
Sung Lian Strength: several hundred members, mostly second-and third-generation mainland immigrants. Activities: debt collection, massage parlors, brothels, small businesses.
Tian Dao Man Strength: several hundred members, mostly native Taiwanese. Activities: debt collection, massage parlors, brothels, small businesses.
Four Seas Strength: up to 2,000 members, mostly second-and third-generation mainland immigrants. Activities: construction, security services, debt collection, massage parlors, brothels, small businesses.
United Bamboo Strength: 10,000 members, mostly second-and third-generation mainland immigrants. Activities: construction, security services, debt collection, loan sharking, gambling dens, hostess clubs, restaurants, small businesses.
United Bamboo Members' Code of Ethics
Sources: United Bamboo Gang: Portrait of a Triad, U.S. Customs Service; "Code of ethics" is translated from a document seized by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Chinese emigrants are desperate for a shot at riches in america - but many end up being explained by criminal gangs.
The main U.S. federal detention center for illegal aliens in California sits on an unimposing spit of land in Los Angeles harbor called Terminal Island. It was built several years ago to hold some of the 1.4 million Hispanics who dart across the Mexican border each year. But today its halls echo a dialect spoken mainly in Fujian province, China.
Men here live 80 to a room amid a forest of metal bunk beds. Beyond the bulletproof windows, the lights of downtown Long Beach glimmer faintly on the horizon. The American Dream may be just meters away, but the men inside might as well be in isolation, since they speak no English and their guards no Chinese. For them, each day is an exercise in tedium that slowly unravels as they mutely watch U.S. television and wait for rice to arrive from a kitchen designed to turn out tortillas.
The Chinese of Terminal Island have no complaints about their accommodations. Their odyssey began months before, when a triad smuggler (or "snakehead") in Fujian herded them into a muck-filled pig sty to wait for their ship's arrival. "That morning, after the snakehead locked the gate, he laughed and said he'd return when the boat was ready to leave," remembers Chen Jinling
At 2 a.m. the group was driven to the Fuzhou waterfront and loaded aboard a departing trawler. "It was a tense moment," whispers Chen. "Several boats before ours had been caught, and some of the people sent back committed suicide because they had paid all their money." But at 6 p.m. the following day the crowded boat pulled alongside the Taiwanese freighter San Tai No. 1. Chen joined a group of 160 Chinese for a voyage that would end 43 days later when the U.S. Coast Guard plucked them from a sinking ship 200 miles off the California coast.
All of the passengers aboard the San Tai No. 1 have applied for asylum, and each, in time, will get it. But the prospect of freedom does little to ease his worries. "I'm afraid of what will happen once we get out and the snakeheads find us," frets Chen. "These people are incredibly cruel."
All across the U.S., detention facilities are full of Chinese who agreed to pay a minimum of $30,000 to be smuggled into America. Most are poor Fujianese who pay smugglers in China a down payment of $3,000 and promise the balance on arrival in New York City. The wave of emigrants has overwhelmed the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and in the past four years has doubled the population of New York's Chinatown, where up to 20 percent of the people now sleep in shifts in communal apartments called gong si fong.
INS agents with Operation Dragon, a special task force charged with curtailing the flow, believe that more than 5 percent of the people arriving may be triad soldiers. But their greatest concern is that the fees paid to gangs could be used to fund an expansion of organized crime. Smugglers already collect more than $250 million a month, according to U.S. Senate testimony, making the illegal transport of Chinese aliens a $3 billion-a-year business -- nearly as large, for example, as Hong Kong's $4.7 billion watch and clock industry.
The emergence of this new generation of boat people is the result of major changes in the two countries involved. China's Fujian province is booming, thanks largely to investments by overseas Chinese living in Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere. But with exports from Fujian running at $3 billion annually, the growing disparity between rich and poor has exacerbated social tensions and fueled dreams of success. To many poor villagers, the idea of going to America and getting rich has great appeal.
While economic discontent has fueled Chinese hopes for a better life, changes in U.S. law provided Chinese the opportunity. In the wake of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, many Chinese students in the U.S. asked for asylum. Their pleas fell on sympathetic ears in the U.S. Congress, which voted to punish Beijing by imposing trade sanctions.
Scrambling to save China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status and, possibly, the livelihood of his brother Prescott, a consultant to businesses trading with Beijing, U.S. President George Bush proposed a compromise. If Congress left China's MFN status intact, Bush would permit all Chinese with a legitimate fear of persecution to remain in the U.S. until January 1994.
The result, an executive order issued in April 1990, was viewed more as symbol than substance. However, it explicitly encouraged U.S. judges to grant asylum to Chinese aliens who claimed they were persecuted by Beijing's family planning policy limiting most couples to one child. Bush's executive order, in effect, made asylum a sure thing for virtually anyone who could reach the U.S. and claim they were victims of coercive family planning.
In Chinatowns throughout North America, criminal organizations began maneuvering for advantage. New York gangs like the Flying Dragons and Fuk Ching began to challenge established groups. In Canada, where four out of every 10 Chinese admitted for residency eventually paid to be smuggled into the U.S., the Kung Lok and 14K gangs were overwhelmed by the far more sophisticated Dai Huen Jai (Big Circle Boys) from Guangdong, who had access to stolen passports, Chinese weaponry and counterfeiters who could duplicate watermarks and holograms.
Perhaps the most violent struggle occurred in San Francisco, where suspected Wo Hop To leader Peter Chong ordered 300 bulletproof vests, then declared war on the Wah Ching, a triad that had controlled the Bay Area for 20 years. Throughout most of 1991 the battle raged. At least five people on both sides were gunned down on city streets before the Wah Ching finally broke under the pressure.
"Triads realized they could turn Chinese desire for a better life into easy money," says Sgt. Harry Hu, 36, the Hong Kong-born head of the Oakland Police Department's gang unit. "Profit was $25,000 to $35,000 per person, more if women could be turned to prostitution. Moreover, the people were easy to control because they spoke no English and knew nothing about America."
Before 1990, most Chinese illegally entering the U.S. paid $18,000 to be brought in through Canada or Central America. But after the executive order, the number of people leaving China and the amount each was willing to pay increased dramatically. People began spending up to $30,000 for forged passports. According to Chinese clients of a leading U.S. immigration attorney, one smuggler in 1991 earned $4.6 million in a single day when he successfully packed 153 Chinese on a 373-seat plane bound for New York's JFK airport.
The greatest attraction of the people-smuggling business is its low risk factor. A smuggler bringing in 100 Chinese risks a maximum jail term of 18 months against a potential profit of $3 million. Being caught with $3 million in heroin, however, draws a mandatory sentence of 16 to 20 years that can climb to 27 years if the smuggler is arrested with a firearm. Says Mike Zweiback, an Assistant U.S. Attorney with the Organized Crime Strike Force in Los Angeles: "Our sentencing guidelines don't pose much of a deterrent. People in this business have no fear of going to jail for 18 months."
By late 1991 the number of people wanting to leave Fujian began to exceed the number of forged or stolen passports available. In the past, shortages were resolved by buying travel documents from Fuzhou officials. But when the price of a passport increased, smugglers started moving emigrants in ships.
For INS senior special agent Jeannette Chu, a Taiwanese-American in charge of Operation Dragon, the increased use of ships confirmed her suspicion that the organization behind the smuggling was not a conventional triad but a crime network composed of elements from different gangs. "The people behind the smuggling are criminal entrepreneurs who can locate cargo vessels, hire crews and reconfigure a hold to accommodate hundreds of people," she says. "These aren't triad goons who collect mahjong debts with a club."
In 1992 an armada of gnarled fishing trawlers packed with Chinese began appearing in U.S. waters. Subtlety was not always a requirement for success. The Taiwanese trawler Yun Fong Seong No. 303 entered Honolulu harbor in February 1992 at full speed and crashed into the main dock, whereupon 93 Chinese quickly jumped ashore and proclaimed themselves victims of coercive family planning. Trawlers gave way to freighters which often picked up passengers in Bangkok or Singapore and occasionally sailed around Africa to the Atlantic Coast.
Cracking the smuggling rings is no easy task. "It's difficult to know who they are," admits Kwok Cho-Kuen, the senior superintendent who heads Hong Kong's Organized Crime and Triad Bureau. "Cash flow, not triad loyalty, appears to hold these organizations together."
Taiwanese immigrant Peter Kwong, 50, a political science professor at the State University of New York and an expert on triad crime, believes the revenue is funding a global crime network of unprecedented sophistication. "Triads used to be easily identifiable because their preferred sources of revenue, extortion and prostitution, required intimidation and territorial control," says Kwong. "But international smuggling relies on networking and anonymity and is organized not by triads but by criminals who have triad affiliations. These gangs are almost impossible to infiltrate because, unlike the Mafia, they aren't monolithic."
One aspect common to all smuggling ventures, however, is indifference to the welfare of people being transported. When the Manyoshi Maru limped into San Francisco last December, the 170 people aboard were ankle deep in feces and completely out of water. Several ships were breeding grounds for Hepatitis B. When the Chin Wing 18 developed engine trouble off the North Carolina coast last September, most of the 151 Chinese aboard were infected by a mutant strain of German measles.
Delivering human cargo to New York is not a major worry for the smugglers. Less than 4 percent of the Chinese who enter the U.S. illegally are caught. Those who are have the right to petition for asylum. If asylum is denied they can appeal. Because detention facilities are limited, all but known criminals are released on bond. Since the Executive Office of Immigration Review has only 85 judges, and a backlog of 500,000 cases, it can take years to set a trial date. Fewer than 40 percent of the Chinese released on bond appear for their day in court. Should they be apprehended in a subsequent INS sweep, they face no penalty for failing to appear. They can apply for asylum and start the entire process all over again.
The result is that only about 3,000 of the more than 80,000 Chinese who entered the U.S. illegally in 1992 were apprehended at airports or taken off ships. Total deportations for the year: 15.
Once released, emigrants must pay the balance of their smuggling fee. Those who can't are sometimes tortured or killed. Last January, gunmen killed two illegal aliens in New York's Chinatown who had failed to repay the money advanced for their passage. Three months earlier another Chinatown assassin pumped 13 bullets into a man with a delinquent account.
Some Chinese would just as soon stay in detention, but attorneys who appear in their defense -- often within hours of a boat's arrival -- seldom let that happen. "How can these poor people afford private attorneys flown in from New York?" asks Henry Der, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a San Francisco advocacy group. "The issue is very complicated, but it seems these people are indentured servants brought over as cheap labor for sweatshops."
On Terminal Island, fear of the triad smugglers seems almost palpable. "I've already been to court twice, and I'm afraid I'll be released the next time," says Zhou Xiaoqi, a 28-year-old from a village in Fujian. "If we could be released in a group a few of us might be able to escape, but our attorney is very powerful so we are turned over to him one at a time."
When a group of fellow prisoners approaches, Zhou falls silent. Of the more than 100 people on his boat he trusts only three. We walk slowly toward a sound-proofed room used for interrogations. "The attorney has influence even inside these walls," Zhou explains as the room's heavy metal door clangs shut. "Please, please don't let the attorney get me."
Zhou's lawyer does not look threatening. On the contrary, the amiable attorney appears almost cherubic. But according to confidential documents circulating among law enforcement agencies, this attorney is suspected of being a gangland adviser linked with the most vicious gangs in the U.S.
The attorney lives well. From the window of his Los Angeles office, he has a panoramic view of the Hollywood Hills, which soar above a sea of gently swaying palm trees. He dismisses the allegation that he's a triad mouthpiece. "My clients are families who pay to get their relatives released," he says. "I'm very successful, so I get a lot of referrals."
The world better get used to the idea of Chinese emigration, the attorney advises: "Beijing certainly is not going to do anything to stop the flow. The PRC regards this as a natural migration that produces hard currency."
Between the attorney's office tower and the crest of the Hollywood Hills, the Chinese consulate sits hidden beneath the palms. It is a tranquil place that remains aloof from the hundreds of Fujianese filtering through the city. And that's the way it will stay, insists political affairs consul Lan Lijun, since Washington, and Washington alone, is responsible for the torrent of migrants.
Indeed, Washington's pro-refugee stance was reiterated last October with passage of the Chinese Student Protection Act, which effectively -- and indefinitely -- extends coverage of Bush's 1990 executive order. For the 80,000 Chinese legally residing in the U.S. on April 11, 1990, Congress's decision means they may become eligible for permanent residency. But for Chinese illegally emigrating today, it will have little effect. Most will simply disappear into the gong si fong of New York's Chinatown. The lucky few who become waiters may earn as much as $20,000 a year. But most will end up in one of 600 garment factories earning less than $9,500 a year.
Perhaps surprisingly, U.S. immigration officials battling the tidal wave of emigration have found a rhetorical ally in the man who represents the country the emigrants are fleeing. "How can every man on a boat, even 18-year-olds too young to marry, claim to be a victim of family planning?" asks Lan. While China may be the source of the refugee flow, Lan says only one nation is to blame. "This entire problem," he says, "is caused by laws passed by the U.S. government.