The Rise (and Fall) of one of China's Most Notorious Human Smugglers

In the summer of 1993, ten Chinese would-be immigrants drowned when the Golden Venture, the rickety vessel smuggling them and 276 others to America, ran aground on a New York City beach. After more than a decade of police work, authorities tracked down and convicted Sister Ping, the mastermind of the transnational human trafficking ring, who turned out to be an elderly grandmother living in New York's Chinatown. The Crime Report's Cara Tabachnick spoke to investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, who documents the case in his recent book , “The Snakehead.”

THE CRIME REPORT: Exactly how did these snakehead organizations work?

KEEFE: The snakehead organizations were (and are) loosely dispersed transnational networks — non-hierarchical international collaborations in which groups of independent contractors might come together to move a load of people and then separate and go their separate ways. They’re built on connections and driven by opportunism, so a snakehead based in New York might have associates working in Fuzhou, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico.

The routes shifted in order to avoid any obstacle erected by law enforcement, as did the modes of transport: during the 1980s snakeheads flew their passengers by plane, using phony documents, during the 1990s, they used ships, in the years after 2000, they brought people in ships to the coast of Central America, then up overland in cars and trucks through Mexico, and in recent years they have shifted back to planes and forged or doctored documents. Nobody knows how many people Sister Ping brought in over the years, though I would estimate it was in the thousands if not quite possibly the tens of thousands. As I think I explained when we spoke on the phone, the snakehead used Chinatown gangs to hold passengers hostage once they arrived in the United States. The gangs were by their nature violent, dabbling in extortion, kidnapping, and the like, and held the passengers at gunpoint until they paid.

TCR: What is the origin of the name ‘snakehead’?

KEEFE: No one knows the origins of the term, but some suggest it is related to the circuitous routes that the smugglers use to bring their passengers from one country into another. The shape of the route looks like a snake, and the lead smuggler is the head of the snake.

TCR: Why did you decide to profile Sister Ping?

KEEFE: I wanted to write about the globalization of crime. Sister Ping seemed like a fascinating character, and smart. She seemed to be a good entry point for (understanding how) the world had become flat for crime, much like (New York Times columnist) Thomas Friedman wrote about this phenomenon economically. Her complex transnational operation generated millions of dollars, and she managed her business in a cruel and efficient manner. Yet, in Chinatown she is revered as a real kind of hero, almost like (Civil War-era “underground railroad” figure) Harriet Tubman, while the Department of Justice paints her as a terrible kingpin of smuggling.

TCR: Sister Ping believed that she was performing a service for her compatriots by delivering them to a brighter future in America? Was she right?

keefe-patrick-radden KEEFE: I always wondered to what extent she believed that, and what piece of this was an act. Frankly I don't buy it. She charged huge rates to these families that wanted to smuggle their loved ones to the United States. She wasn't charging only what she needed to cover costs. The FBI estimated she made $40 million over her 20 year career. At first, she sent people by plane to the United States, charging $18,000 per person. But when she switched to ships–which was a much cheaper route–she charged $35,000 per person. I think ultimately Sister Ping was involved in human smuggling for the money. She may have done some good by bringing over people from a struggling country, but if the profit motive wasn't there I don't think she would have been in business.

THE CRIME REPORT: Since 9/11, the focus of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division (ICE), which replaced the former INS, has shifted from immigration to national security and terrorism. Does human smuggling still need to be a high concern? Are Snakeheads a threat to national security?

KEEFE: I think it would be real mistake not to pay attention to Snakeheads. They are so sophisticated in how they enter the United States. If I wanted to get into the U.S. in a clandestine manner I would hire a Snakehead. They are starting to smuggle people in from Canada, and immigration officers are starting to see mixed loads come in from different (border) points.

TCR: In order to get your story, you actually infiltrated the gang. How difficult was that?

KEEFE: It wasn't easy. I don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese much less Fukienese. (Ed. Note: Most immigrants who were smuggled to the US by Sister Ping were from Fukien province in China, where they speak a regional dialect) It was something I wrestled with: would the undocumented community just see me as white guy with a notebook? I got around that by hiring great interpreters whom I relied on heavily. I also had some people in the Fukienese community (in the U.S.) who blessed the project. It made all the difference. I had the New Yorker article in hand (Ed. Note: Keefe had written about Sister Ping for the New Yorker magazine in the Apr 24, 2006 issue) when I went to meet people so I could show them (my interest) was real. So a couple of important people said (I) was all right. Someone would make a call and say “I will send this non-Chinese over to talk to you.” If it weren't for these individuals I wouldn't have been able to do the book.

TCR: The mainstream media have not taken the same interest in Chinese gangs that has been devoted to other notorious groups, like the Crips or MS-13, even though they are just as violent. Why?

KEEFE: For some extent there are fewer gangs now. It isn't as bad as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. I also think it was a real learning curve for law enforcement. They didn't know the culture or the people. The NYPD and FBI had hardly any Fukienese speakers. It was harder to go after these gangs and their crimes; so as a result there was not much media attention.

TCR: Has (and how) transnational smuggling organizations learned from Ping’s mistakes and have gotten more sophisticated?

KEEFE: I don’t know about transnational smuggling organizations learning specific lessons from Sister Ping, but one thing that can be said for transnational networks of this sort is that they were constantly evolving and adapting, and I think it’s fair to say that they get more sophisticated every day.

TCR: China today is extremely different from the country many immigrants fled in the 1990s. How has that affected the present smuggling situation? Are there still “snakeheads” as feared and well-respected as AH-Kay and Sister Ping out there?

KEEFE: Things have changed. But people still want to come to the United States. Most are going by plane with phony documents, not by ships anymore. The fee now is $75,000 per person, and it must be paid up front. Certainly when I was in China, I heard the question: Why would we take these risks when things are going so well in China? However (my last interviews) were over a year ago. In the past 6-8 months we have seen a global economic crisis, and manufacturing jobs have been hit hard. Jobs in China have been disappearing, so we may soon see again a huge migration to the United States. There are still Snakeheads out there, but no one is the same as Sister Ping was—none as famous. No one dominates the industry way she did.

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