In June 2010, the sacking of Secretary of Justice Romeu Turna Júnior for allegedly being an agent of the Chinese mafia rocked Brazilian politics.1 Three years earlier, in July 2007, the head of the Colombian national police, General Oscar Naranjo, made the striking proclamation that "the arrival of the Chinese and Russian mafias in Mexico and all of the countries in the Americas is more than just speculation."2 Although, to date, the expansion of criminal ties between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Latin America has lagged behind the exponential growth of trade and investment between the two regions, the incidents mentioned above highlight that criminal ties between the regions are becoming an increasingly problematic by-product of expanding China-Latin America interactions, with troubling implications for both regions.
Although data to quantify the character and extent of such ties are lacking, public evidence suggests that criminal activity spanning the two regions is principally concentrated in four current domains and two potentially emerging areas. The four groupings of current criminal activity between China and Latin America are extortion of Chinese communities in Latin America by groups with ties to China, trafficking in persons from China through Latin America into the United States or Canada, trafficking in narcotics and precursor chemicals, and trafficking in contraband goods. The two emerging areas are arms trafficking and money laundering.
It is important to note that this analysis neither implicates the Chinese government in such ties nor absolves it, although a consideration of incentives suggests that it is highly unlikely that the government would be involved in any systematic fashion. This article also does not suggest that the criminal ties spanning both regions reflect a coordinated group of purpose-driven criminal organizations. Rather, it calls attention to a problem that is an unfortunate but natural artifact of the expansion of human and commercial contacts between Latin America and Asia, and for which Latin America may be frighteningly unprepared.
The"C hiñese Mafia" in Latin America
As in other parts of the world, organized criminal groups with linkages to mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau have long operated within the relatively closed ethnic Chinese communities of Latin America. Some but not all of these groups, referred to as the "triads," had their origins as "secret societies" organizing Chinese diaspora communities, with respect to both their new countries and to political activities in mainland China and surrounding areas, but which evolved into criminal groups over time.
Because ethnic Chinese communities abroad have historically been reluctant to report problems among their own members to non-Chinese host nation authorities, the activities of Chinese mafias in Latin America have been almost invisible to date. Nonetheless, in recent years, stories have increasingly emerged regarding extortion and other criminal activity by such groups operating in the major urban centers. In Argentina, for example, where Chinese mafias with ties to Fujian Province have had a recognized presence since the 1990s, there have been increasing news accounts regarding extortion-related violence against Chinese shopkeepers.3 Indeed, accounts of such activities and related crimes against members of the Chinese business community have appeared in the press not only in metropolitan Buenos Aires, but also in other parts of the country, including Mar del Plata,4 Bahia Blanca,5 and Lomas de Zamora.6 Similar incidents have also been reported in the interior of Argentina, including the modest-sized provincial capital of Mendoza, where authorities reported 30 separate extortion threats in one 48-hour period in 2011.7
In metropolitan Lima, Peru, which is host to one of Latin America's largest Chinese communities,8 similar accounts have emerged of "Chinese mafias" extorting ethnic Chinese owners of hotels, saunas, restaurants, discos, and other commercial establishments. …