The evidence speaks loudly in Latin American nations that strengthened their bonds with China in recent years: Asian shops are booming although funding sources are obscure, human trafficking cases with practices similar to slavery are escalating, while new players are picking up different illicit activities, such as counterfeiting of goods, documents, and money. According to Antonio Barrios, an international relations and security specialist at the National University of Costa Rica, Chinese mafias are behind these crimes. The mafias of the Far East expanded their operations in Latin America in the last 15 years and have an increasingly more destructive impact in the region.
“As relations between Latin American countries and China grow deeper, illicit activities related to mafias are being noticed,” Barrios told Diálogo. “The Chinese government’s idea has always been to empower its Latin American colonies by establishing businesses. Their funding has been linked to mafias, and it’s with this funding that these criminal groups extended their tentacles throughout Latin America.”
Alejandro Riera, a Spanish specialist in organized crime and author of the book “The Chinese Mafia: Triads, Secret Societies”, explained that violent actions used for rapid expansion over a territory are characteristics of criminal rings. “Violence is characteristic of Chinese mafias. We are seeing that in Argentina, where Chinese supermarket owners are shot for not paying the protection tax.”
Chinese mafias’ activities in the region are based on violence. Juan Belikow, an Argentine security affairs specialist at the University of Buenos Aires, said that much of their income comes from extorting Chinese business owners in Latin America. “In our region, it’s normal for them to use extortion within their own Chinese community, and this is absolutely linked to Chinese supermarkets in Latin America,” Belikow said. “These shops sell stolen and counterfeit goods. These businesses also engage heavily in tax evasion, because they almost always use cash. Most importantly, shopkeepers have to pay a large portion of their income to the mafias to be safe.”
According to the three specialists, the mafias fund Chinese nationals to settle in Latin America. In return, those have to pay a generous share of their monthly earnings from the businesses they operate in the region, such as supermarkets. They must also pay the debt accrued to travel to Latin America and the protection the mafias allegedly afford.
Direct connection with narcotrafficking
Narcotrafficking is yet another sector seeing Chinese mafias’ increased participation, Riera and Belikow said. According to a BBC report on the global industry of narcotrafficking, the Chinese mafia, better known as the Triad, gained a dominant role among narcotrafficking criminal networks in America, Asia, and Oceania.
“One of the activities causing the most damage to health is methamphetamine, for example. Mafias are major producers and distributors of synthetic drugs in the region. They take it to Latin America, and from there they move it with their networks or the networks they create with other criminals in the region. There is also significant movement of drugs like marijuana in the Tri-border area shared by Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay,” said Belikow.
Barrios explained that Chinese mafias entered drug smuggling by establishing ties with other Latin American traffickers. Mafias facilitate money laundering from drugs processed in Asia.
“The Chinese had to join local mafias that know the area well and how the governments and laws operate to get in and be able to play by the rules of each country,” Barrios said. “Chinese mafias had to associate with other criminal groups in countries they want to operate. And they made that bond by facilitating [money] laundering.”
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warned in its October 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment that criminal groups from Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela were using their contacts with Chinese mafias to launder money through Chinese banks. “Asian TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] in the United States play a key role in the laundering of illicit drug proceeds. Asian TCOs involved in money laundering contract their services, and in some cases work jointly with other criminal groups, such as Mexican, Colombian, and Dominican TCOs,” the report indicated.
Gate to corruption
The advance of Chinese mafias in the region brings about other crimes, as rings seek to access power by corrupting government officials. “Undoubtedly, the government is somewhat complicit. It’s not very clear how some supermarkets obtained their permits, while others operate in a way that violates sanitary norms. It’s clear that there is some corruption going on, and that’s impossible to ignore. Mafias work this way, and wherever they go they reproduce their corrupt tendencies,” Belikow said.
For Latin America, the presence of Chinese mafias is worrisome and represents a security threat. The close ties with the Asian country not only favor the Chinese government’s interests in the region, but also opened the doors to violent criminal organizations that have dire consequences. Their advance must be stopped.