A Looming Danger
By Dialogo April 01, 2012
“We had two or three days, if not, we would be subject to the consequences,” said
Jacqueline Inés Mauricio Calderón, a Peruvian restaurant owner in Lima, describing the
threatening note her husband received in May 2011. She explained that her husband, a Chinese
national, received the message from the Red Dragon mafia scribbled in Mandarin on a napkin.
The demand: Pay $20,000 within three days or else. The consequences are well publicized in
Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and other countries with large Chinese immigrant
communities – bombings, shootings and other violence against the target. Four days later,
the couple had just finished cleaning their newly opened restaurant for the night when they
Mauricio Calderón was upstairs with her mother and young daughter. Her husband
remained in the humble, seven-table restaurant to relax and watch television just a few
meters from the restaurant window when a Molotov cocktail smashed against the window bars.
The force of the exploding flames broke through the glass, releasing a flurry of flames into
the restaurant. Suddenly the drapes and ceiling of the restaurant were afire, but he was
able to extinguish them. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the incident was not isolated.
The Chinese mafia is known to be active in many crimes, including human smuggling,
forced labor, sexual exploitation, arms sales, drug trafficking and extortions according to
newspaper reports and experts on the subject. An unfamiliar language, extreme secrecy and a
tightknit community are posing additional challenges to security personnel attempting to
investigate and prevent further violence. In the view of Evan Ellis, a China-Latin America
expert and assistant professor at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington,
D.C., the positive benefits of increased trade with Asia bring security concerns as well.
With legal trade and immigration, come illegal immigrants and illicit trafficking.
Alejandro Riera Catalá, a Spanish journalist and specialist in Chinese mafias, said
it is futile to try to establish a specific date when Chinese mafias began to make their way
beyond the Asian continent. “To talk of a specific time period is impossible,” said Riera
Catalá, author of the book La mafia china (The Chinese Mafia). “Organized crime of Chinese
origin comes from ancient times.” He attributes the transnational nature of the mafia to the
rapid and global Chinese migration that has taken place throughout history.
Peru’s Chinatown was born in the 1860s when the first Chinese businessmen began to
arrive in Lima. Today, the heart of the Chinese quarter in the middle of downtown Lima is
filled with residents and Chinese-owned businesses and restaurants. Many Chinese residents
have also migrated to the outskirts of the capital, where goods and services catering to
Chinese nationals, recent immigrants and Chinese-descendant Peruvians are widely available.
As legal Chinese immigration has grown, so has the incidence of criminals who
bypass immigration procedures through corruption and illegal networks. “It’s not only the
businessmen who come, not only those who seek to advance, but also those who are part of the
Red Dragon,” said Rosa Matayoshi Oshiro, public prosecutor overseeing extortion cases
involving the Chinese mafia. Peru’s rich history of Chinese migration makes it one of the
targeted nations by criminal organizations who take advantage of newcomers. The Chinese-born
population in Peru in 2007 was only 3,450 people, reported the Peruvian National Institute
of Statistics and Information. Isabelle Lausent-Herrera, a researcher at the French National
Research Center who lives in Lima and specializes in the Peruvian-Chinese immigrant
community, explained that Peruvian census figures of Chinese immigrants do not match
calculations by the community itself. The actual population is much larger due to unreported
Latin America’s growing commercial ties with China, “as with any commercial
relationship, is expanding illicit relationships,” said Ellis. As regional trade with China
increases along the Pacific rim of Central and South America and beyond, new patterns of
commerce and associated security issues arise, according to Ellis. He mentioned Ecuador as
an example. In 2008, when the visa requirement was dropped for Chinese citizens in order to
increase Chinese investment, a door was also opened to human smuggling rings. Migrants were
smuggled through the country and into Colombia to begin a northward trip to the United
States. These security implications are expanding the roles for the Pacific Navies of Chile,
Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and El Salvador; as well as requiring increased port security, noted
Old Ways, New Ways
Historically, Chinese mafias operate only within their own immigrant communities,
according to Lausent-Herrera, but examples in Peru and elsewhere in the region indicate that
the Red Dragon is beginning to impact the broader population with its criminal activities
and violence. The criminal networks take advantage of Chinese society’s cultural norms.
“Fear, threats and in some cases extreme violence create a microcosm,” said Riera Catalá of
the Chinese mafia’s tactics against their own countrymen.
Peruvian police say the Red Dragon mafia uses the same model for each of its
extortions: A Chinese restaurant owner is threatened with menacing messages claiming to be
from the organization. Some of the threats are delivered in person, some through phone
calls, and others are written in Mandarin on small pieces of paper or even toilet paper. The
sums of money demanded range from $10,000 to $30,000 and must be paid within three days.
Occasionally Peruvian nationals deliver these threats with bullets inside small boxes.
Peruvian involvement in the mafias’ criminal actions may be taking place without
them realizing it, according to authorities. Taxi drivers and other unknowing accomplices —
including a 10-year-old boy – have been used by the mafia to deliver Chinese-written
extortion notes. However, an even more troubling development was the arrest of a Peruvian
citizen who collaborated with the Red Dragon mafia in surveillance and extortion activities,
according to prosecutor Matayoshi Oshiro.
Joseph Cruz Soriano, director of the Tian Long Tan Center of Traditional Oriental
Practices, is deeply connected with the Chinese community in Peru as a religious
practitioner and Spanish teacher. In an interview with Diálogo, he discussed his belief that
the extortionists are small-time criminals, not those behind the transnational smuggling
rings. “There are groups of people who gather to commit crimes, and they form a group. One
group appears, and then another group,” he said. “Those that gain large sums of money do not
have a need to extort,” said Cruz Soriano.
As a large-scale organization or multiple gangs acting independently, Red Dragon’s
threats have been followed by violent acts such as Molotov cocktails, shootings and physical
assaults. For Mauricio Calderón, the violent tactics used by the Chinese mafia against her
made her fear for the safety of her family. She sought assistance from the authorities and
was surprised to see how many Chinese nationals had come forward with the same complaints.
That is not the norm.
Authorities attributed an unusually large number of people coming forward to report
extortion cases between March and June 2011 to a fellow Chinese restaurant owner who rallied
them to seek police assistance. However, in fear of his safety, that individual has since
fled the country, and many of those who brought the complaints forward are reluctant to
follow through with court appearances. Police say that most extortion attempts go unreported
for fear of reprisal.
Police Response, Forward Strides
Ellis underscores the threat of Chinese mafias in the region, given the challenges
faced by security forces. “It’s very hard to penetrate these organizations,” he said. “There
is a huge vulnerability in Latin America when [the mafia threat] begins to gain momentum
because the Chinese are traditionally insular, and there are very, very few agents within
Latin American police departments who speak Mandarin or other Chinese dialects.”
Nonetheless, Peruvian security forces are making strides against the Red Dragon, or Xin Ban
(The Great Gang), as the organization is sometimes known. In June 2011, surveillance
operations paid off and the police successfully arrested four Chinese nationals and a
Peruvian citizen carrying Molotov cocktails, guns and drugs in their backpacks. Authorities
worked with translators to overcome language barriers during the investigation and
“This is the first time in Peru that members of this organization have been
captured,” said Matayoshi Oshiro. The four Chinese nationals are illegal immigrants, and
criminal procedures are under way according to Lima’s attorney general’s office. The capture
is a small success story, but it demonstrates how intelligence, cultural and language
expertise, and the trust of the Chinese immigrant community are the path to stopping Red
Dragon from expanding in the region.
Sources: El Comercio, Journal of Chinese Overseas, Peruvian National Institute of
Statistics and Information, La Razón, Clarín, www.lavoz.com