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    Greater China
     Jan 24, 2013

Chinese mafia thrives in Europe
By Emanuele Scimia

It is a fact: Chinese criminal syndicates based in Europe are increasingly thriving in their business, notably by means of a successful hybridization with indigenous organized crime groups. The phenomenon is impacting the Old Continent as a whole, with Italy and Spain the most affected countries.

In mid-December 2012, Italian law enforcement officials uncovered a criminal organization run by Chinese residents with the help of some local white collar workers. In the space of a few years, the criminal outfit had created a real estate and commercial empire in the district of Venice, northeast Italy, by investing proceeds from human trafficking and forced prostitution of illegal immigrants from China.

Two months before the Sino-Italian criminal ring was disbanded, a Chinese organized crime ring was smashed in Spain. More than

80 people were arrested on charges of money-laundering, sex trafficking and extortion. The crime syndicate had allegedly laundered US$200 million annually for years, money that it had garnered by dodging custom duties on imported goods from China.

Secretive Chinese communities scattered throughout the world are the real power base of criminal networks managed by their compatriots. Chinese enterprises in Europe keep up robust bonds with their motherland. They often serve as hubs for counterfeit goodsd sourced from mainland China and Hong Kong and are the natural outlet for the labor force emigrating from their country to the Old Continent.

The migratory flux from China is strongly conditioned by crime syndicates' needs, according to annual reports from the European law enforcement agency Europol and Italy's Anti-Mafia National Directorate.

Paolo Borsellino, a famous Italian anti-mafia prosecutor, who in 1992 was victim of a car bombing attack plotted by the Cosa Nostra criminal organization, used to say that "politics and mafia are two powers aiming to control the same territory: they either fight one another or come to terms".

Paraphrasing Borsellino's words, and adapting them to the dynamics concerning the balance of power among competitive trans-national criminal organizations, it seems that Chinese crime organized groups in Europe have chosen to come to terms with local mafias rather than antagonizing them, much as they are doing in Latin America with Mexican drug cartels.

Chinese and European criminal organizations have built their profitable joint ventures on the import of counterfeit products (especially garments, pharmaceuticals, software, compact discs, movies, luxury products and toys). Fake goods produced in China usually arrive in Europe after passing through free-trade zones in the United Arab Emirates. Chinese counterfeit goods that go across the Black Sea are often stored in some countries of the Western Balkans ahead of entering the seaports of Western Europe.

For smuggling their bogus goods into Europe, the Chinese gangs can also use Chinese companies established in North Africa, exploiting loopholes in the preferential trade regime the European Union (EU) has granted to all North African countries but Libya. Chinese crime groups seized on an EU move in 2011 that eased rules of origins for manufactured products hailing from that region.

In this regard, in 2012 the African Development Bank raised concerns about the prospect that Chinese enterprises in North Africa - whose numbers are growing steadfastly year after year - could export to Europe goods produced in China with the deceptive trademark of African countries: a damage for both European consumers and local manufacturers.

The Camorra and Ndrangheta, two criminal groups that have overtaken the Cosa Nostra as the most powerful Italian mafias, have joined forces with their Chinese counterparts while facilitating the illegal entry of counterfeits via several container-terminal ports in southern Italy such as Naples, Salerno, Gioia Tauro and Taranto.

In 2010, the Italian revenue police defeated two money-laundering outfits that since 2006 had illegally transferred US$3.5 billion to China. The criminal network was led by Chinese nationals who smuggled fake fashion producs into Eastern Europe from their base in Italy.

The Italian government has tightened customs clearance laws, and fake products coming from China have been flowing into Europe through alternative seaports such as Hamburg and Bremen in Germany and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Spain is yet another destination for illegal smuggling of Chinese-made goods, with Valencia the main entry harbor of textiles.

The economic crisis has thus far represented a great opportunity for Chinese gangs operating in Europe, but there are signs that it could backfire on them. Their power base is slowly shrinking, with Chinese immigrants abandoning recession-hit Italy and Spain and going back home. But some are moving on to Canada, South America and even Africa (where the oil-rich Angola is the top destination), the Financial Times and Italian daily Corriere della Sera have recently reported.

Immigrants from China seek their fortune elsewhere, and probably some Chinese mobsters are expected to follow suit. That will be nothing new in the history of organized crime groups, whose propagation has always gone hand in hand with the flux of overland and overseas migrations, towards a new land of opportunity.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and geopolitical analyst based in Rome.

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