Human Trafficking from China Sounds Alarm in Latin America

Criminals in Costa Rica and Panama transport Chinese citizens to Central America for labor exploitation or to take them illegally to the United States.
Gustavo Arias Retana/Diálogo | 15 November 2018

Transnational Threats

Costa Rican authorities visited several supermarkets where Asian individuals were forced to work to pay off their trip. (Photo: Costa Rican Ministry of Security)

In September 2018, Costa Rican and Panamanian authorities dismantled a human trafficking ring that smuggled people from China to Latin America. Wálter Espinoza, head of the Costa Rican Judicial Investigation Agency, a unit of the Costa Rican Supreme Court, told the press that the two-year investigation led to a ring linked to criminals in other Latin American countries, such as Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador.

“There was a group of Chinese nationals who had ties in Asia, Europe, and South America. The criminals had contacts that facilitated the arrival of a significant number of people to our country,” Espinoza said. “Victims had two possible fates: Some would stay in Costa Rica, while others would be sent to other places, especially the United States and Canada. Those who remained in our country were sent to commercial businesses, mainly to suppliers [to supermarkets] and restaurants.”

According to authorities, the Chinese citizens were transported from China to Europe by air. From there, they were taken to Ecuador, Peru, or Colombia, with Costa Rica as their final destination for a $22,000 to $45,000 fee. Most migrants entered via Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, Costa Rica, with the complicity of some state officials, now under arrest. In Costa Rica, merchants exploited Asian migrants and “bought” them, while those smuggled to Panama paid to be taken to the United States or Canada. In most cases, they indebted themselves to criminal organizations and had to pay their debt with work.

In Costa Rica, authorities detained 29 people connected to this case. Among the detainees were three Chinese nationals who led the smuggling ring, 10 immigration officials, a lawyer who forged documents, and 15 people in charge of logistics. Authorities also rescued two victims.

In Panama, David Mendoza, head of the Public Prosecutor's Office against Organized Crime, told the press that authorities detained 10 members of the human smuggling ring and rescued six victims. “We were after an organized group engaged in migrant smuggling, in which all victims were of Asian origin. The smuggling ring in Panama consisted of Panamanian citizens and foreigners,” Mendoza told the press.

Not isolated cases

Costa Rican authorities conducted raids in September 2018 to dismantle an Asian human trafficking/smuggling ring. (Photo: Costa Rican Ministry of Security)

The dismantling of the criminal gang compares to other similar cases, which clearly points to a human trafficking/smuggling route from China to Latin America. In late September 2018, Colombian authorities arrested a Nepalese national who led a gang that smuggled people from Asia, some of whom were from China.

Smugglers charged about $10,000 to move people from the Colombian-Ecuadorean border to Panama, where they would head to the United States on their own. The Colombian National Police's Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Interpol said in a press release that the gang moved about eight migrants daily. In this case, authorities detained 32 people. 

Insufficient control from China

The U.S. government denounced the problems China poses concerning human trafficking in its Trafficking in Persons 2018 Report: Country Narratives, published in June. “The government of the People’s Republic of China does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of [human] trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so,” the report states.

According to the report, China is urged to update the legal framework to completely criminalize all forms of trafficking and establish formal procedures to identify and protect human trafficking victims. Statistical management of these cases should also be improved as current figures make it difficult to measure the real impact of the problem.

The report estimates that Chinese men, women, and children are subjected to forced labor, as well as labor and sex trafficking, in at least 57 countries. “Men, women, and children are forced to work in restaurants, shops, agriculture, and factories. Chinese men experience abuse at construction sites, in coal and copper mines, and in other extractive industries, where they face conditions indicative of forced labor. Chinese women and girls are subjected to sexual exploitation throughout the world,” the U.S. Department of State report concludes.

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