Why Chinese Mafias Are Moving Into Chile

Latin America

A series of police operations have revealed how a Chinese criminal gang has made strong inroads into Chile, benefiting from the country’s flourishing marijuana trade and close trade ties to China.

In late August, a criminal complaint in Santiago stated that over 200 Chinese migrants had been illegally brought to Chile from the Chinese mainland since 2021. The complaint, filed by the Trade Association of Chinese Culture and Commerce in Chile (Asociación Gremial de Cultura y Comercio China en Chile), alleged that the migrants made their way to Argentina, Brazil, or Bolivia, and were then brought into Chile, paying between $2,500 and $8,000 each.

Once arriving in Chilean cities such as Santiago, Valparaiso, and Temuco, the migrants would often be forced into sex exploitation at entertainment venues or to work as growers in indoor marijuana plantations.

A parallel criminal investigation, which began in 2020, found that a string of these indoor marijuana plantations and entertainment venues were owned by families originating from the southern Chinese province of Fujian, known as the Bang clan.

“There have been at least four investigations in recent years linked to migrant smuggling and human trafficking [from China]…in which we can see the same management structure,” Luis Toledo, the head of the national anti-drug unit at Chile’s Attorney General’s Office until January 2023, told InSight Crime. 

While Chinese organized crime has made inroads into Latin America before, supplying fentanyl or chemical precursors to Mexican groups or helping to launder drug proceeds, this presence in Chile appears to be far more permanent. 

InSight Crime lays out here why this country has been the ideal landing point for the Chinese mafia. 

International Legacy of Fujianese Organized Crime

The Bang group is one of the more prominent criminal outfits to emerge from the southeastern province of Fujian. Due to its geographic position and trade links, waves of Fujianese immigrants have migrated around the world, with a heavy presence in Hong Kong, southeast Asia, the United States, and Canada

Historically, this diaspora has allowed Fujianese organized crime to set up operations in different countries, either running these internally, or collaborating with other Chinese Triads, the Japanese Yakuza, or mafia groups in the United States. Such operations habitually took the shape of running licensed casinos or entertainment venues and beauty parlors as fronts for drug trafficking and prostitution.

These operations formed an early template for how the Bang group would come to operate in Chile. The group was able to benefit from a Fujianese legacy of running entertainment venues like karaoke bars as fronts for criminal economies, while also developing their own expertise in growing and selling marijuana

Tried-and-Tested Business Model 

Chile was not the first foreign country the Bang group moved into. Its first major operation overseas began in Spain. In April 2021, Spanish security forces dismantled a large-scale illicit marijuana production ring. Belonging to the Bang group, it operated 13 separate growing sites and exported “industrial quantities of marijuana,” according to the police. Sixty-five people, including many Chinese citizens, were arrested in Spain, as well as the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Italy.

This had all the hallmarks of the Bang group’s modus operandi in Chile, namely producing large quantities of marijuana, selling it on, but also keeping the entire operation largely confined to Chinese nationals. Two families, identified as Lin and Zheng Wei, were known to Spanish authorities since 2012 for smuggling migrants from Fujian. From 2017, they dedicated themselves to marijuana production, according to Spanish police documents.

A  number of overseers, mostly young men in their twenties and thirties, who ran each marijuana production site. And then, came the “gardeners,” often Chinese migrants who earned a small salary and could earn a cut of the sales from the marijuana they produced, according to an investigation by Spanish media site, 20 Minutos.

The Bang group replicated this same model in Chile, down to the marijuana plantations, forcing migrants to work for them, and relying on the Chinese diaspora.

“We have seen Chinese groups, linked to the Fujian Bang group, with the same operation as they had in Spain and other parts of Europe, namely linked to marijuana trafficking and migrant smuggling,” said Toledo. 

However, the human trafficking element tended to be more collaborative in nature, needing the involvement of local officials to facilitate the movement of migrants, while the Bang group’s marijuana interests were kept more private. 

“Our investigations showed the cooperation of Chileans and the participation of public officials in cases of migrant trafficking. In terms of drug trafficking, the criminal structure tended to be more closed off and encouraged the participation of its citizens,” explained Toledo. 

One exception appears to have been when it came to synthetic drugs. While the Bang clan sold its marijuana to Chilean traffickers, it also bought ketamine and ecstasy to sell inside its karaoke venues, according to Chilean newspaper, La Tercera.

The investigation also discovered that one Bang group member, identified as Ling Chen, had a Venezuelan partner, José Morales Rodríguez, and that the two had traveled to Peru to set up a supply chain for synthetic drugs, which they planned to sell in Chile. 

Chile’s Growing Marijuana Market

If the Bang group were looking for a Latin American destination to replicate their marijuana model, Chile would have been an obvious candidate. Fifteen percent of Chileans regularly smoke marijuana, according to the 2019 UN World Drugs Report, with the country ranking third in the world for use of the drug behind Israel and the United States.

While the country has decriminalized personal use of marijuana, its large-scale growing and commercialization remains illegal. There was therefore a ready demand for large-scale marijuana cultivation, which plenty of criminal actors have stepped into.

SEE ALSO: Chile Becomes Increasingly Fertile Ground for Marijuana Plantations

From 2019 to 2022, Chilean authorities seized increasing quantities of marijuana entering by land and sea from Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia. But as land borders closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, moving in marijuana from abroad became more difficult. Domestic production predictably rose. In 2022, several large-scale outdoor plantations, each with plants worth millions of dollars,  were discovered in Chile’s province of Choapa.

This provided a real opportunity for the Bang, a group with expertise in indoor marijuana plantations and able to operate largely under the radar. 

An indoor marijuana plantation owned by the Bang group in Santiago. Source: Chilean Investigations Police

China’s Integration With Chile

Chile maintains close relations with China, especially since 2006 when it became the first Latin American country to sign a free-trade agreement with the Asian nation. Chile’s economy is heavily dependent on China, with over a quarter of Chile’s exports heading there, especially raw materials such as copper.. These ties have helped Chinese organized crime mask illicit activities, such as smuggling in migrants or buying stolen copper.

Chinese organized crime has benefited from Chilean ties before. In 2020, over 50 tons of copper cables worth around $250 million were stolen near Santiago and were set to be exported to China. Legal exports of copper from Chile to China reach $20 billion a year, making it relatively easy for buyers to hide stolen loads into the mix.

SEE ALSO: Chile’s Copper Robbing Epidemic Likely Fueled by China Demand

Chinese trade associations in Chile are flourishing, both nationally and locally. The original criminal complaint against the Bang group was even filed by one such association, showing how the Chinese business community in Chile is uniquely positioned to report on China-linked criminal economies.

These trade associations are well-integrated and their members are responsible for extensive job creation. Corrupt business owners within this diaspora are therefore ideally positioned to provide assistance and camouflage for migrant trafficking and subsequent labor exploitation.

One such entrepreneur, Yu Caixin, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Temuco, was crucial to the Bang clan’s efforts. A savvy criminal operator, he formed ties with political power players. In 2022, he helped the governor of La Araucanía, where Temuco is located, to raise money and supplies for victims of sweeping forest fires. The two men even took a picture together where they held the Chinese flag.

In reality, Yu was also one of the main financiers of the Bang marijuana operation which had grown thousands of plants across 26 sites, with over $1 million in cash found at these sites during the 2021 raids. He was arrested in April 2023 on charges which included drug production, drug trafficking, and belonging to a criminal organization.

In August 2023, Yu struck a deal with authorities, pleading guilty to the charges and avoiding jail time but agreeing to up to five years of probation.  

Crime and Migration in Chile

Chile’s reputation as a relatively wealthy and safe country has made it an attractive target for migrants from around Latin America and further abroad. The political and economic crises in Venezuela and Haiti saw tens of thousands of people from these countries head for Chile in often perilous circumstances.

Criminal groups rapidly preyed on these vulnerable populations, through extortion, drug trafficking, and sexual exploitation. Venezuelan gang, Tren de Aragua, is particularly notable for this, criminalizing numerous Venezuelan migrants on the way to Chile and continuing to do so inside the country. Tren de Aragua has been blamed for an escalation in homicides, extortion, and migrant smuggling. Copycats, falsely claiming to be with Tren de Aragua, have also emerged, likely only worsening the image of Venezuelan migrants in the country.  

The Bang group has followed the same pattern, bringing in migrants from Fujian, speaking a language unknown to Chilean authorities, and forcing them to work and live under their complete control. 

While Chile is currently cracking down hard on crime caused by foreign gangs, including revising its immigration policy, it remains to be seen how this will affect Chinese organized crime.

“Migrant trafficking is nothing new, but the level of organization and consolidation by these groups has changed. Known smugglers have been joined by Tren de Aragua and now the Bang group. A lack of control at the border and the lack of an ordered, controlled migratory policy has helped this entry of crime,” according to Pilar Lizana, a security analyst from Chilean think tank, AthenaLab.

This once-liberal immigration policy has been reversed, with thousands of migrants deported back to neighboring countries and causing a political flashpoint. Chile has even been criticized by international aid agencies for alleged “arbitrary deportations” of Venezuelans.

But despite raids against the Bang group, it is unclear whether Chile’s harsher migratory stance will spread to the Chinese diaspora. While some of the workers found at the marijuana plantations spoke of working under slavery-like conditions, Chinese mafias remain a relatively small part of Chile’s organized crime landscape and they are difficult to investigate.

Even when Chilean investigators began focusing on the Bang clan, they struggled with language problems when trying to decipher tapped phone conversations. “They were not necessarily speaking Mandarin or Cantonese. And when we found interpreters, some quit because they were threatened or were afraid of retaliation by the organization,”said Toledo.

“They take advantage of difficulties caused…by their own Fujian dialect, which is more difficult to translate,” prosecutor Yans Escobar, who oversees the Bang investigation, told La Tercera.

Despite increasing awareness, Chinese mafias may be able to continue staying below the radar, when compared to Chile’s other criminal challenges.

“The Bang mafia in Chile has joined the arrival of organized crime to our country, taking advantage of the weakness of the state and the impact of this new wave of criminality,” said Lizana.

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