Snakes in the grass

Human smuggling is a lucrative business. Despite the best efforts of customs officials around the globe, smugglers remain in business, in part because of their access to capital and law enforcement’s reluctance to use some of the most advanced tools on the market.

Smuggled Chinese arrive in the United States by land, sea, and air. Some travel directly, while others transit through Mexico or Canada and then cross overland illegally. Although exact figures are unavailable regarding how many Chinese are smuggled into the United States every year, credible estimates put the number at 50,000.

The number of Chinese smuggling groups worldwide is not known, with estimates ranging from seven to 50. The Chinese use the term “snakehead” for smugglers and “human snake” to describe those being smuggled. These terms stem from the idea of slithering from point to point along clandestine routes.

Smugglers reportedly prefer to be paid in full before they depart. If human snakes are unable to pay up front, when they arrive at their destination, the snakehead’s organization contacts their relatives. If the family refuses to pay, the human snakes are often sold; men are forced into hard labor and young women to prostitution rings, until payment is made in full.

One of the biggest players in the Chinese-American human smuggling industry wasput behind bars in 2006. Chen Chui Ping, also known as Dajie Ping (Big Sister Ping) was widely known as the “mother of all snakeheads”. She was convicted of conspiracy to smuggle aliens into the United States, hostage taking, money laundering, and trafficking in ransom proceeds, among other charges. Over the course of her smuggling career, she is reported to have netted more than US$40 million. This money was effectively laundered using international banks and the informal financial sector.

Sister Ping, of course, is only one example of a criminal who successfully smuggled thousands of people across international borders. But what most law enforcement and customs officials miss is that Ping – along with other smuggling enterprises worldwide – was able to sustain her operations as a direct result of her ability to move money internationally.

Ping used a money remitting business and a restaurant to launder the proceeds of her smuggling activities and facilitate her operations. Located in New York City’s Chinatown, her money laundering operation was directly across the street from a branch of theBank of China. Her underground banking system was reportedly so effective that it eventually became one of the Bank of China’s principal competitors.

One female immigrant who used Ping’s services told reporters, “The Bank of China took three weeks, charged a bad foreign-exchange rate, and delivered the cash in yuan. Sister Ping delivered the money in hours, charged less, and paid in American dollars. It was a better service.” According to New York City police, Ping’s money remitting service allowed snakeheads in China to lend money to those who could not afford to pay for the trip to America, or who did not have US-based relatives to sponsor their trip. Ping reportedly charged 30% annual interest on such loans.

There are steps law enforcement officials and governments around the world can take to combat human smuggling. Following the money is a good place to start, but law enforcement agencies must aggregate and sort through financial intelligence in a smarter way. In the US alone, there are approximately 18 million financial intelligence reports filed annually with the Treasury Department. In addition, there are countless other pieces of financial information filed internationally by a wide variety of sources, including banks, money service businesses, and individuals.

Law enforcement and intelligence analysts must get the proper training to become proficient in the innovative intelligence and financial tools developed in the last decade, including geospatial and network analysis tools, to attack various networks and uncover financial links.

Palantir, Analyst’s Notebook, ArcGIS, and Google Earth – tools many government officials do not use on a daily basis and often are not even aware of – make it easier to manage and sort through vast reams of data. They also facilitate the tracking of financial flows and smuggling routes. Ignoring these innovations hampers our ability to capture and put behind bars members of international crime syndicates, Chinese gangs known as triads, and other illicit actors.

The global industry in human smuggling is worth an estimated $7 billion per year, with Chinese traffickers alone reportedly making between $2.4 billion and $3.5 billion. We have the analytical tools and the intelligence to fight more effectively. It is time to start using them.