On the trail of the Chinese snakeheads

Despite the Morecambe Bay tragedy, business is booming for the people-smuggling gangs. Kim Sengupta travels to Rotterdam in search of the bosses behind a brutal multi-billion-pound racket
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The Independent Online

The first time I met David Huang, he was wrapped in a scruffy raincoat, leaning over a greasy plastic tablecloth slurping noodles in a dingy neon-lit café in Rotterdam's Chinatown. Every so often his eyes would dart around the room in case anyone overheard what he was saying.

Now we are meeting again in Rotterdam, but this time it is at the bar of the Hilton hotel, overlooking the fountains of Hofplein Square, in one the most expensive and fashionable districts of the city. Huang's hollow cheeks have filled out, his extra weight is camouflaged in a sharply cut if somewhat shimmering pearl-grey suit, and a delicate silver chain hangs under his jowls.

Three years ago, Huang was talking - selectively - of his knowledge of the snakehead gangs, whose activities had led to the death by suffocation of 58 Chinese men and women in a container lorry in Dover. The lorry's Dutch driver, Perry Wacker, a petty criminal who had shut the air vents to stop noise escaping, was convicted of the killings.

This time we are discussing the 20 Chinese migrants who drowned while picking cockles on Morecambe Bay. The deaths, in February, were well publicised. But, three months and dozens of arrests later, nobody has been charged and the police and Crown Prosecution Service are squabbling over who is to blame for the lack of progress.

"Even if they send a few people to prison, so what?" asks Huang. "Whoever was involved in England were just, how you say, the low end. To catch the real people will need an international operation. And even if a few people get arrested, there will be plenty of others to fill the gap. There is just so much money going round."

Huang, 36, insists he picked up his knowledge of such matters from the streets, cafés and bars of Chinatowns in the Netherlands and England. The picture he paints is of a thriving trade based on international co-operation involving, among others, Chinese, Turkish, Albanian, East European and British gangs, buttressed by huge revenues and casual, ferocious violence.

There is no shortage of the human merchandise. At least 600,000 people enter the European Union illegally every year. The Chinese are mostly from the impoverished coastal province of Fujian, and Rotterdam is their port of entry. European law agencies estimate the business to be worth about £8.5bn a year. The Americans claim it is closer to double that - about $30bn worldwide.

As the authorities have tried to stem the flow, the traffickers have found different, more ingenious and increasingly risky routes. Two weeks ago, in the middle of some of worst of the mayhem in Iraq, 20 Chinese men from Fujian turned up in Fallujah en route to Europe. They were promptly kidnapped but then released by the Iraqi resistance, who seemed utterly perplexed by the turn of events.

According to police and customs sources in Britain and Holland, one of the most exotic and powerful figures in the Chinese people-smuggling game is Jing Ping Chen, better known as Little Sister Ping - 5ft 1in tall, waif thin, with a reputation frightening even in this brutal world. She is thoughtto have been responsible for smuggling between 150,000 and 175,000 people, including the Dover shipment, earning about £12m, before her imprisonment last year.

Sister Ping arrived in Rotterdam from Fujian in 1997, and started working in Chinatown. Soon, she met and became the lover of a Chinese man called Peter, one of the leaders of the city's 14K Triad gang.

Ping is said to have strong connections in the Communist Party hierarchy in Fujian, which proved of immense value to Peter and his colleagues, allowing the snakeheads who lead the groups of migrants to obtain legitimate exit visas so that illegal immigrants could leave China by air.

With her contacts in China and in the Triads, Sister Ping decided to set up her own organisation. Her ambitions lay well beyond Rotterdam. Using a Dutch passport, she became a seasoned international traveller, visiting London several times. Police sources say she used Chinese middlemen to invest extensively in property in Soho.

Ping and Peter holidayed in Italy and the Greek islands. Ping was extremely fond of gambling (not in Chinatown dens, but ritzy casinos) and shopping, spending (according to a former employee) £6,000 on clothes in a week.

Dutch police informants have also told stories of her extreme violence and cruelty. On one occasion, her associates beat a man so savagely that his intestine was punctured. Another victim had fingers sliced off with a machete. Potential rivals were not tolerated. One was invited for talks at Rotterdam's Orient restaurant. Halfway through a lavish banquet he was dragged to an upstairs room, smashed with a club, and then shot in both legs. His bodyguard ended up working for Little Sister.

To complicate matters, there was until recently a Big Sister Ping (no relation) in the same line of business. Cheng Chui Ping was active on the route from China to the United States. She first became known to the FBI after a rusty steamer, the Golden Venture, ran aground off New York packed with illegal migrants in 1993.

Big Sister Ping, 53, nicknamed "Bank of China" for her loan-sharking activities, disappeared from America. In April 2000 she was arrested at Hong Kong airport on a US extradition warrant and was returned to the US to face trial. Little Sister Ping was said to get very upset if she was mistaken for Big Sister, whom she regarded as unsophisticated and someone who had barely risen above her peasant stock.

Little Sister's activities were finally curtailed by a gangland betrayal. After the Dover deaths, Gurzel Ozcan, a Turkish member of her smuggling gang, and one of his lieutenants, Haci Mustafa Demiris, were jailed, while it appeared that Ping had got away with the bulk of the proceeds.

Ozcan and Demiris refused to name Ping. Jan Boone, Demiris's defence lawyer, said: "They considered themselves hard men. Being Turkish, they were very macho. But the fact is that they were afraid of the Chinese, too scared to open their mouths. They knew who were the really frightening people." But Ozcan's girlfriend gave information to the police, who tracked Ping down. The Dutch police bugged the telephones of Ping and her associates. The tapes reveal her feelings of vulnerability: "I dream I am returning to China and I'm being arrested by the police. I am always having nightmares," she says in one call.

Eight months ago a Dutch court sentenced Ping to three years in prison. Judge Pauline Hofmeyer said she was the "the clear leader of a structured group focused on smuggling human beings". Prosecutor Remco van Tooren said: "It was her greed which led her to smuggle more and more people. I cannot find any other motivation."

Around the time Sister Ping began her sentence, Zhang Yong Hui, 35 - nicknamed "Young Tyrant" - was being jailed for seven years at the Old Bailey on charges of assisting illegal entry, kidnapping and grievous bodily harm. Police sources believe he and his accomplice Yu Xin Zou had ties with the Ping organisation and helped to bring 700 men and women into Britain.

In Britain, however, most of the headlines in the weeks after the Morecambe Bay tragedy focused on the Tory MP Ann Winterton's joke about the dead Chinese, and a policeman referring to them as "chinks" while carrying out interviews. There appears to have been little progress in seeking justice for the victims. Eight suspects were arrested in February in widely publicised raids. Three have been freed and six have had their police bails extended.

The police sent a report to the CPS outlining alleged evidence of manslaughter and offences under the Immigration Act, but the CPS believes that the evidence presented so far is insufficient for prosecution. Officers involved in the case have complained privately that the CPS is being too cautious.

In the Netherlands, Little Sister's sentence was not long enough for people to lose their fear of her, and her partner Peter is still very much around. Others still prosper from the people trade - many of them working under Sister Ping's direction from prison, the Dutch police claim.

According to police sources, Huang is suspected to be one of them. But he denies this vehemently: his new-found wealth is the result of investment in unspecified business ventures. His excellent English has come through study, and the jagged scar on his forehead is the result of a "bicycle accident", he says, smiling. "Everyone rides bicycles here. I am trying to join the local community. Isn't that what everyone wants?" He does, however, appear to know a great deal about the people-smuggling business: details not in the public domain, but verified by the authorities in Britain and Holland.

One of the main snakeheads in Fujian, says Huang, is a man called Ah Qu. This is confirmed by documents seen by The Independent. According to Huang, it appears that Ah Qu has fallen out with the Sister Ping organisation. "The reason Jing Ping Chen was such a success was not because of violence, but because she was a good businesswoman," he says. "She was also very good at never being directly involved. Do not forget that at her trial the judge said she had no responsibility for the deaths of the people she sent to Dover.

"I do not know who sent those who died in Morecambe to England. But the similar people are involved. They charge about $25,000 [£14,000] per person. It is a lot of money, but for that they provide a service. When they do a deal, they stick with it. You hear stories of people being beaten up and more money being demanded from their families. But that is very unusual. These people want to build a reputation for reliable service. Only a very small amount of the money is paid at the start. The rest is only after the journey has taken place safely.

"The route is normally through Eastern Europe, because it is the easiest to bribe officials. Those who become one of the sheshen [or "snakebody", the migrants led by the gangsters, the snakeheads] do so willingly, they are not kidnapped."

A man known as Wen is one of those who made the journey. He left Funzhou, one the bigger cities in Fujian, to come to Europe a year ago. We meet not in Rotterdam's Chinatown, but at Delfshaven, about 10 miles from the city. He and the man who has agreed translate say it would be too risky to meet in the centre of Rotterdam.

Although he entered the Netherlands illegally, Wen has applied for asylum, claiming to be a member of the Falun Gong sect, whose members have been persecuted by the Beijing government. He says he has been allowed to stay while his case is being considered. He would like to live in London because he has relatives there. Wen, who worked as a builder in Funzhou, is one of three sons in a family of 11. Huang had told me that he may have known some of the Morecambe Bay victims, but Wen isn't sure.

"There is a tradition in Fujian of sons going abroad and sending back money. I earned 15,000 renminbi (about £1,100) a year there, working hard, long days. But we heard of people in Europe, in England, earning 20 times that. Their families had nice homes. We lived very poorly. So it is natural I should want to earn more money. I had to think not just of myself, but my family.

"We had to take out a loan to pay those who could bring me to Europe. There are plenty of moneylenders, and we went to one in a village who charged the lowest interest, about 3 per cent. The cost of my journey came to 310,000 renminbi (£22,000)."

Wen, with six others, was taken to Beijing, where he was given a Chinese passport - which he believes was genuine - and a prized exit visa. From there they flew to Belgrade, where the Chinese passport was replaced by a Malaysian one. The rest of the journey was overland, through (he thinks) Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany to the Netherlands. "The journey was hard. We had very little to eat, and many times we had to sleep in vans. It was very cold, and we did not have enough food.

"All I want to do is save enough money to take back home. I have got no choice. My wife has already paid the men who arranged my travel. Now we have to repay the moneylender."

In Rotterdam, on the terrace of the Weimar bar in Haringvliet, I suggest to Huang that Wen seems too frail, already too tired, for what lies ahead. Huang shrugs. "These people need to be tough, and lucky. They knew what they were getting into. No one told them it was going to be easy."