Human smuggling is a lucrative business. Despite the best efforts of customs
officials around the globe, smugglers remain in business, in part because of
their access to capital and law enforcementís reluctance to use some of the
most advanced tools on the market.
Smuggled Chinese arrive in the United States by land, sea, and air. Some travel
directly, while others transit through Mexico or Canada and then cross overland
illegally. Although exact figures are unavailable regarding how many Chinese
are smuggled into the United States every year, credible estimates put the
number at 50,000.
The number of Chinese smuggling groups worldwide is not known, with estimates
ranging from seven to 50. The Chinese use the
term "snakehead" for smugglers and "human snake" to describe those being
smuggled. These terms stem from the idea of slithering from point to point
along clandestine routes.
Smugglers reportedly prefer to be paid in full before they depart. If human
snakes are unable to pay up front, when they arrive at their destination, the
snakeheadís organization contacts their relatives. If the family refuses to
pay, the human snakes are often sold; men are forced into hard labor and young
women to prostitution rings, until payment is made in full.
One of the biggest players in the Chinese-American human smuggling industry was
put behind bars in 2006. Chen Chui Ping, also known as Dajie Ping (Big Sister
Ping) was widely known as the "mother of all snakeheads". She was convicted of
conspiracy to smuggle aliens into the United States, hostage taking, money
laundering, and trafficking in ransom proceeds, among other charges. Over the
course of her smuggling career, she is reported to have netted more than US$40
million. This money was effectively laundered using international banks and the
informal financial sector.
Sister Ping, of course, is only one example of a criminal who successfully
smuggled thousands of people across international borders. But what most law
enforcement and customs officials miss is that Ping - along with other
smuggling enterprises worldwide - was able to sustain her operations as a
direct result of her ability to move money internationally.
Ping used a money remitting business and a restaurant to launder the proceeds
of her smuggling activities and facilitate her operations. Located in New York
City's Chinatown, her money laundering operation was directly across the street
from a branch of the Bank of China. Her underground banking system was
reportedly so effective that it eventually became one of the Bank of China's
One female immigrant who used Ping's services told reporters, "The Bank of
China took three weeks, charged a bad foreign-exchange rate, and delivered the
cash in yuan. Sister Ping delivered the money in hours, charged less, and paid
in American dollars. It was a better service." According to New York City
police, Pingís money remitting service allowed snakeheads in China to lend
money to those who could not afford to pay for the trip to America, or who did
not have US-based relatives to sponsor their trip. Ping reportedly charged 30%
annual interest on such loans.
There are steps law enforcement officials and governments around the world can
take to combat human smuggling. Following the money is a good place to start,
but law enforcement agencies must aggregate and sort through financial
intelligence in a smarter way. In the US alone, there are approximately 18
million financial intelligence reports filed annually with the Treasury
Department. In addition, there are countless other pieces of financial
information filed internationally by a wide variety of sources, including
banks, money service businesses, and individuals.
Law enforcement and intelligence analysts must get the proper training to
become proficient in the innovative intelligence and financial tools developed
in the last decade, including geospatial and network analysis tools, to attack
various networks and uncover financial links.
Palantir, Analyst's Notebook, ArcGIS, and Google Earth - tools many government
officials do not use on a daily basis and often are not even aware of - make it
easier to manage and sort through vast reams of data. They also facilitate the
tracking of financial flows and smuggling routes. Ignoring these innovations
hampers our ability to capture and put behind bars members of international
crime syndicates, Chinese gangs known as triads, and other illicit actors.
The global industry in human smuggling is worth an estimated $7 billion per
year, with Chinese traffickers alone reportedly making between $2.4 billion and
$3.5 billion. We have the analytical tools and the intelligence to fight more
effectively. It is time to start using them.
Avi Jorisch, a former US Treasury official, is president of the Red Cell
Intelligence Group and the author of Tainted Money: Are We Losing the
War on Money Laundering and Terrorism Finance?