The Smugglers

By David Abel in the Dominican Republic
and Juan Forero in New Jersey
The Star-Ledger

MICHES, Dominican Republic - For 10 years, a fisherman named Lolo has loaded small boats with hundreds of illegal immigrants and crossed the treacherous 70 miles separating this seaside village from Puerto Rico, the last major hurdle for immigrants desperate to begin a new life in the United States.

Charging $350 a head, Lolo and his accomplices make two or three jarring trips a year across the Mona Passage, ferrying some 30 or more people each time - Dominicans, Haitians, Cubans and illegal Asian immigrants, often Chinese and Indians.

"When you're a fisherman and you have the amount of kids that Lolo has, this is what you do," said Cezar, Lolo's 32-year-old cousin and on-board assistant. "Just a few trips a year is more than he would make selling fish all year."

Boat pilots like Lolo, whose family asked that his last name not be used, are just one cog in worldwide smuggling networks that move an estimated 4 million people worldwide across national borders and net $7 billion annually.

But on a recent afternoon, Lolo was on the run, trying to evade government soldiers who had searched for him at his small, burgundy-colored house. "I don't know when I'll see him again," said his wife, who would not give her name. "He could go to jail for a long time."

Increasingly, smugglers like Lolo - small-time entrepreneurs who operate with little overhead or connections - are being phased out by larger, better organized and sometimes more ruthless human smuggling rings that are better equipped to dodge enforcement efforts. Officials believe such organized rings were responsible for taking 23 Chinese immigrants on a tortuous, months-long journey earlier this year from Fukian province to Surinam in South America and on to New Jersey, where they were captured in May.

"What is increasingly clear is the little mom-and-pop operations are now working as subcontractors for the big ones," said Robert Paiva, observer to the United Nations for the International Organization for Migration, which tracks international people smuggling and works immigration officials in various countries. "The little ones are being bought out and serving as branches for the big firms."

The new trend has come since 1993, when a ship named the Golden Venture ran aground off New York with 300 illegal Chinese immigrants, setting off alarm bells among U.S. officials.

The government responded by increasing Coast Guard patrols and embarking on world-wide efforts to train thousands of airport inspections agents and airline personnel to better detect fraudulent travel documents.

Last summer, the Immigration and Naturalization Service also initiated its "Global Reach" program, which included adding 13 field offices to the 24 already operating, putting agents in such key transit countries as Guatemala City, Beijing in China and Copenhagen, Denmark.

U.S. officials and international migration experts said the new efforts have thwarted smuggling vessels bound directly for U.S. waters and the airborne arrival of migrants with false documents.

Yet, there were concerns about the emergence of more organized smuggling, as outlined in a 1995 interagency report submitted to President Clinton warning that "as enforcement efforts become more effective...we can expect the smugglers to become more sophisticated and hard-core criminal groups to become involved in this extremely lucrative trade."

To be sure, smuggling organizations to a great degree remain a loose amalgamation of people - forgers, guides, safe house operators, coyotes, enforcers.

But in the Americas, law enforcement officials and Asian smuggling experts say centrally organized, politically connected criminal networks are handling much of a $3.5 billion-a-year enterprise.

"Unlike occasional traffickers or small rings such as the 'coyotes' operating in the border areas, those crime syndicates are capable of moving large groups of migrants in a single venture," said as assessment paper submitted by the International Organization for Migration at a seminar on human smuggling held this year in Nicaragua. "This is becoming a vicious circle: The more migrants the networks smuggle, the more profit they reap; the stronger they are financially, the more sophisticated they can become in order to move even more persons."

Willard Myers, head of the Philadelphia-based Center for the Study of Asian Organized Crime, said one of the largest organizations - serving Chinese bound mostly for the New York area - is based in Guatemala. "It is a Taiwanese organization, which has gotten larger and larger and larger," said Myers, considered a top expert on Asian smuggling gangs.

Myers said the Guatemala operation "runs all the routes through Central America." He said that though the ring primarily deals with Chinese, the largest non-Latin group smuggled into the United States, "anyone who wants to move through these networks has to have at least some connection" to the Taiwanese.

Another large organization that moves people through Central America was initially based in La Paz, Bolivia, but has in recent years relocated to Sao Paolo, Brazil. It is run by a Peruvian-born businessman of Fujianese descent, Lin Tao Bao, who is considered an architect of organized Chinese smuggling.

These organizations and other groups that focus on transporting Chinese sidestep enforcement measures by transversing any number of countries.

"I don't think there's any country that's immune right now," said Jim Puleo, a senior INS policy advisor assigned to smuggling cases with the State Department's bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. "There are some who are picked up in Guatemala. Some go through Mexico, some through Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Guyana...They've tried every one of them."

Guatemala has become an important area of operation, with its large, poorly patrolled Pacific coastline and isolated, unprotected frontier with Mexico. Smuggling experts also say Guatemala, like many developing countries, has had serious corruption problems among its immigration service officials.

Mexican immigration officials, who have stepped up their interdiction efforts on the Guatemalan border, say they have nevertheless continued to see an increase in illegal immigration. Though most migrants are Central Americans, Asians, Africans and Europeans are not uncommon, Mexican authorities said.

"We've seen Hindus (Indians), Chinese, Angolans, also Russians," said Esteban Vega Franco, delegate of the National Institute for Immigration in the Mexican state of Tabasco, which borders Guatemala. "The Chinese, the Hindu, his the United States can run as high as $25,000."

In a phone interview, Vega Franco said most of the crossings take place along the frontier between Tecun Uman, a dusty border town that straddles the Pacific in Guatemala, and the Mexican State of Chiapas.

The migrants are often loaded in trucks with ventilated secret compartments and given hygienic bags, water and food, Vega Franco said. Then, they're ferried north to U.S. border, with bribes greasing the way if the smugglers encounter trouble.

"It's a business of many millions of dollars," said Vega Franco. "Bring in 50 Chinese and you're talking about a million dollars."

For would-be Chinese migrants, the journey to America most often begins in Fukian province in southern China. From there, migrants are taken by land or sea to Thailand, where they wait for travel documents. The next stop is often Moscow, which they can enter easily and where U.S. officials estimate as many 200,000 illegal immigrants bound for other countries are warehoused.

From there, they might fly into Western Europe and then on to countries such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Surinam, all with active Chinese communities.

The migrants are kept in safe-houses and ferried from one location to another under cover of darkness, mostly by locals. While the guides and safe-house operators usually do not speak an Asian migrant's language, they often learn enough to communicate with their human cargo.

"They don't have to be involved in long conversations. All they have to say is, 'Stop, run, be quiet, don't move,'" said Ko-lin Chin, a Rutgers University expert on smuggling who has interviewed 300 Chinese migrants who've settled in the New York area.

The Dominican Republic has also seen widespread smuggling operations, increasingly migrants from outside Latin America.

"It's more than Chinese crossing from non-Latin American countries. There are Polish people and Turks from Germany," said Fausto Peña, spokesman for the Director General of Immigration in Santo Domingo.

Dominican government records underscore the international nature of the smuggling: Between Jan. 1 and July 23 of this year, 145 foreign national were deported, among them 20 Indians, six Koreans, five Sri Lankans, two Nigerians and four Pakistanis.

Smugglers, though, usually succeed in moving their cargo.

In Miches, the seaside village where the smuggler Lolo lives, would-be migrants are rounded up on cloudy, moon-less nights and taken across steep mountains and dense foliage to secret embarkation points. Before the first wisps of light brighten the sky, they board rickety boats, nicknamed yolas. To get through the 24-hour voyage to Puerto Rico, they bring salami, cheese, crackers, water and rum.

"Sometimes the waves can be higher than a telephone pole and sharks circle the boat," said Cezar, Lolo's cousin.

Lately, another problem has arisen. The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy have stepped up patrols in the Mona Passage, part of "Operation Frontier Lands." And Frank Polanco, an immigration official in the U.S. embassy in Santo Domingo, said there has been a "dramatic" reduction in illegal migration.
Many of the people in this area, though, believe that smuggling will continue because it's too lucrative a calling.

"As long as there are clients, there will be captains," said Lolo's wife, even as her husband continued to elude authorities. "The money beats fishing."

Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998, The Star-Ledger