A Looming Danger

Hiding behind a thousand-year-old code of secrecy and using Chinese dialects to communicate, the Red Dragon mafia is expanding its global network of crime and violence across the Americas.
Print | 1 April 2012

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“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 were attacked.

Owners of small Chinese restaurants throughout Lima, Peru, and its environs are victims of extortion by the Chinese Red Dragon mafia. Restaurants such as the one pictured have been attacked with Molotov cocktails when extortion demands were not met.[DELIA JOURDE/DIÁLOGO]

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 illegal immigration.

In the heart of Peru’s Chinatown, Capon Street bustles with Chinese immigrants, Peruvian citizens and Peruvian citizens of Chinese descent. [DELIA JOURDE/DIÁLOGO]

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 Ellis.

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.

Latin America’s growing commercial ties with China, as with any commercial relationship, is expanding illicit enterprises.[DELIA JOURDE/DIÁLOGO]

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 subsequent interrogations.

“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

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