- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

BUENOS AIRES — Human-trafficking networks are smuggling Chinese nationals into Latin America for eventual entry into the United States, say Argentine and Uruguayan authorities.

“In the past year, we have detained some 700 Chinese nationals in the northeastern part of the country, and we know that, for many, this is a bridge to the United States,” said Cmdr. Jorge Tapia of the Argentine National Gendarmerie, the military force that guards Argentine border areas.

Cmdr. Tapia confirmed recent press reports that immigrants detained in northeastern Argentina are arriving via Chinese mafia organizations operating out of Fujian, an impoverished province in southeastern China.

“The organizations charge $8,000 for passage to Argentina and $20,000 to get to the United States,” said Cmdr. Tapia from his office in Salta, near the porous, remote border with Bolivia. “We know these groups have operations in the United States.”

Argentine authorities are investigating the organizations, which make immigrants pay for their passage through work in slaverylike conditions on Latin American farms and in sweatshops.

“Many of the immigrants must put up their family as security that they will pay what they owe,” said Cmdr. Tapia, who leads the gendarmerie’s operations in northeastern Argentina.

Cmdr. Tapia said officials began to suspect the presence of well-financed smuggling networks when lawyers from Buenos Aires appeared in Salta to represent detained immigrants.

“The lawyers are expensive, and these people can’t pay for them,” he said. “That means someone else is paying. This type of thing never happens with drug smugglers or other detainees.”

On Tuesday in neighboring Uruguay, police arrested the brother of a man thought to lead a group that smuggles Asians to the United States, Argentina and Mexico, according to reports in the Uruguayan newspaper El Pais.

“The United States is the final destination for the Chinese citizens brought by an organization that apparently traffics people from Asia to America,” a source involved in the investigation was quoted as saying.

A week ago, officials detained 15 Chinese nationals found locked in a home without food in the Uruguayan town of Solymar.

A recent series of similar detainments prompted sweeps through Chinese businesses in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, and has spawned investigations of many Uruguayan immigration officials suspected of facilitating the illegal entry.

“This is in the judicial orbit, and we can only confirm that there is an international investigation on the matter of the illegal Chinese nationals,” said a spokeswoman at the Ministry of Immigration in Montevideo.

A spokesman for Argentina’s Department of Immigration said the agency detained 408 illegal Chinese immigrants last year, up from 189 in 2003.

He said, however, that most of the Chinese immigrants never make it out of Argentina.

Before 2001, when Argentines needed no visa to visit the United States, Chinese nationals gained fake Argentine passports through corruption, prompting complaints from U.S. officials.

Experts expect the number of Chinese detainments to increase this year. On Jan. 8, in the northern province of Jujuy, Argentine patrols intercepted two trucks crossing the border from Bolivia and detained 15 Chinese nationals.

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