News/Panama/Chinese: Immigrant trade in Panama part of global network

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Subject: News/Panama/Chinese: Immigrant trade in Panama part of global network
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Fri Aug 20 1999 - 09:37:38 EDT

Immigrant trade in Panama part of global network
By Christopher Marquis and Glenn Garvin, Herald Saff Writers
Miami Herald, August 19, 1999

PANAMA -- Two nights every week, sleepy tropical Tocumen International
Airport comes to life as hundreds of Chinese crowd onto the concourses to
greet long-unseen friends and family members arriving on the flight from
Hong Kong.

But amid the waves of laughter and tears that accompany the emotional
scene, a few men stroll along with measured calm, cell phones pressed to
their ears, their eyes seeking out the airport's hidden corners and passages.

They go by many names: In Spanish, they're palanqueros, the guys with the
leverage. In Chinese, they're ''snakeheads,'' suggestive of the way their
clients feel about them. In English, they're called immigrant smugglers.

They are among the central figures in a U.S. law enforcement investigation
of smugglers inside the Panamanian government. The investigation, recently
disclosed by The Herald, has toppled several officials and led to
accusations that President Ernesto Perez Balladares may have provided visas
for illegal immigrants bound for the United States.

But the alleged scheme is merely one branch of a vast criminal network that
deploys thousands of would-be migrants from Southern China on grueling
odysseys around the globe, depletes their savings and frequently abandons
them to sweatshops or prostitution.

To the snakeheads, the trade is irresistible, with Chinese migrants paying
up to $47,000 each, depending on the destination and mode of
transportation. Availing themselves of bribes, hidden compartments and safe
houses in many nations, smugglers often mimic the behavior of drug
traffickers, U.S. immigration officials say. But there are big differences:
The penalties are fewer and the ''contraband'' can run for its life.

The level of Chinese traffic in human beings pales in comparison to overall
illegal immigration. Authorities caught 1,956 illegal Chinese immigrants
trying to slip into the United States during the first nine months of
fiscal 1999, a period when 1.1 million apprehensions were made on the U.S.
border with Mexico.

But the cruelty of the Chinese trade, coupled with a seemingly limitless
supply of fortune-seekers from that nation, has riveted the attention of
U.S. and Canadian officials.

Part of the problem, according to critics, is that the Chinese government
does little to discourage the exodus. Smugglers not only function as a
social pressure valve, permitting potential malcontents to leave, but they
also provide a lucrative new source of income. The economies of entire
cities in southern Fujian province -- Fuzhou, for example -- rely heavily
on remittances sent home by Chinese working abroad.

Some gripping incidents in recent days have sounded an immigration alarm:

On Monday, police arrested 41 illegal immigrants from China on the island
of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, bringing to more than 180 the
number of Chinese smuggled to the U.S. territory since March. It was
unclear whether the men had been transported with a group of 15 Chinese
arrested Aug. 9 on nearby St. Thomas, officials said.

On Aug. 12, immigration officials boarded a 685-foot cargo vessel that was
intercepted by the Coast Guard off Savannah, Ga. Acting on a tip, the
officials discovered a secret hold in the bow of the Cypriot-flagged
vessel, the Prince Nicolas, that contained 132 Chinese migrants tucked into
a warren of bunks, with a hole in the floor for a toilet.

A day earlier, a Korean fishing boat dumped 126 Chinese into the frigid
waters off the coast of British Columbia. The migrants, who included small
children, were told by the Korean crew that they could escape on a nearby
highway. They were forced to wade through rough seas and await Canadian
rescuers on a steep rocky shore.

On July 20, a boat carrying 123 Chinese migrants was intercepted off
British Columbia.

Southern cities not usually thought of as gates of entry -- Charlotte,
N.C., and Atlanta, for example -- report cases of forced prostitution among
smuggled Chinese women. Many migrants make the trip on credit and remain in
debt to the snakeheads indefinitely.

Phenomenon not new

While the numbers of illegal Chinese migrants are growing, the smuggling
phenomenon is not new.

Experts date the Chinese outflow to the late 1980s and the aftermath of a
sweeping U.S. immigration law of 1986 that allowed thousands of illegal
aliens to normalize their status in the United States and, later, encourage
relatives to join them.

Latin America became an early transit point for smugglers. Several Central
American nations, including Panama, had established relations with Taiwan,
which was home to the most sophisticated snakeheads. And Panama, where as
much as 10 percent of the 2.6 million population may be ethnically Chinese,
has long been a favorite of smugglers.

Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the former Panamanian strongman who is serving
a prison term in South Florida on drug charges, sold visas to thousands of
Chinese citizens, scores of whom were later apprehended in the United
States, officials said. After Noriega was toppled by an American invasion
in 1989, about 10,000 used Chinese passports were found in one of his
homes. Their owners had apparently swapped them for Panamanian passports.

Gap filled

Although Panamanian government connivance in the illicit traffic appeared
to ebb after Noriega's ouster, the private sector seems to have filled the
gap. A study last year by the Geneva-based International Organization for
Migration found that nearly half of Panama's illegal migrants had arrived
with the aid of smugglers.

''In order to get a better grip on trafficking and illegal migration,'' the
organization reported, ''the Panamanian authorities need more resources,
more staff, information technology and reception facilities.''

''Among Chinese here, this is no secret at all,'' a Chinese businessman in
Panama said last week. ''The Herald stories were translated in the local
Chinese newspaper and the reaction was: Why are they making a big deal of
this? Everybody has known this for years.''

Chinese community leaders in Panama say they know of four major smuggling
routes that lead to the country from Hong Kong. In the most complicated,
Chinese fly to Ecuador with legal visas, then cross into Colombia and take
small ships to Panama's Atlantic Coast.

Usually, the Chinese fly directly to Panama. Some have crudely forged
visas, good enough to get them out of China but not to fool Panamanian
authorities; when they land, snakeheads lead them out unguarded airport
exits. Or, in the scheme the United States is investigating, they have
legitimate Panamanian visas purchased with $15,000 bribes.

''If the Panamanian government really wants to get to the bottom of this,
all they have to do is arrest one of these palanqueros,'' a Chinese
businessman told The Herald. ''They'll hear some very interesting stories.
Let's see if they do.''

Smugglers richer

But closing down the Panamanian routes hardly seems likely to put the
snakeheads out of business. In just one decade, smugglers have grown much
richer as their fees have multiplied fivefold. And, like drug traffickers,
they are increasingly resourceful, shifting strategies to exploit
enforcement weaknesses of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and
other agencies. They plumb Chinese-American communities for workers, cut
deals with sweatshop employers and even contribute to political causes that
promote the naturalization of undocumented migrants.

''The international smuggling network is very well informed and is
constantly adjusting to information about law enforcement,'' said Peter
Kwong, a professor of Asian-American studies at Hunter University in New
York who has covertly investigated the trend in China. ''Every time INS has
been able to close down one end, they're behind the eight-ball on something
else. We're talking about [criminals] spending 24 hours a day thinking of
ways to beat the system.''

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