Pablo Tognetti investigates the mob’s modus operandi in Argentina.
‘My life remains valuable.’ Cheng Chui Ping (known as Sister Pig) insisted, during the sentencing phase of her trial. Last April she died of cancer. She was serving a thirty-five-year sentence for operating a sophisticated immigration-smuggling ring that transported thousands of undocumented migrants from southeast China to the United States. Ping was born in the poor farming village of Shengmei in northern Fujian province, China
Fuijan has a population of almost 36.000.000 people. Mostly mountainous and traditionally described as ‘eight parts mountain, one part water and one part farmland.’ Rice, sweet potatoes, wheat and barely are the main crops. The province is separated from Taiwan by only 180 km. There is a famous expression that says ‘if you drive 10 km in Fujian the culture changes, and if you drive 20 km, the language does.
Chinese immigration to Argentina
Argentina receives a considerable number of people from Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay that are looking for Argentine citizenship. Quite obvious when you have the opportunity to know their lifestyles and minimum career opportunities for non-educated people. What makes people travel 19.000 km to the unknown? To the other side of the word, where customs, values and ethics are so different.
According to the latest population census, Chinese community is the biggest Asian immigrant group in Argentina, consisting of over 120.000 citizens. And this influential community is helping to shape a new and more varied country. With their different perspectives on life, time, business and education.
According to Ana Kuo, director and co-founder of the Chinese-Argentine Cultural Association, since the beginning of the 20th century there have been three Chinese immigrants’ waves who came to Argentina looking for a better life. The first came from small coastal towns between 1914 and 1949, but the quantity was considered so insignificant that the National Migration Office doesn’t have any official figures available. The group mostly established in rural areas in the city of Buenos Aires and worked in horticultural cooperatives, together with the Japanese community
The second wave began in the 1980s and it was mainly composed of Taiwanese families who had escaped the mainland Communist regime. The majority of them with enough capital to set up their own businesses. There was also a considerable amount of immigration at this time from Hong Kong and the southern coastal region of China, with many trying their luck at opening restaurants in Belgrano. One of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires. In the 1990s’ a third wave began with immigrants arriving from the less developed and poor province of Fujian. It is this community that turned toward managing small supermarkets. At the present time, there are almost 15.000 Chinese supermarkets, which employ around 25.000 Chinese citizens, according to official figures from the Federation of Chinese Supermarkets and CCR (the biggest audit company in Latin America). the
Moving from China to Argentina
Imagine you are a young Chinese living in Fuijan. Having a tough life working endless hours on a farm and with no access to education. You are meant to live a miserable life. That is why, every year, more and more Chinese decide to move. Looking for a new life.
In Argentina an illegal group (Chinese and Argentinians known as the “mob”) controls the whole process for those ones looking for a new life. Basically they are businessmen with political contacts. Most of their businesses are illegal and they require to laundry their profits. Those illegal profits function as a loan for any Chinese who wants to launch a commercial activity in Argentina. There are only two essential conditions: cancel the debt (plus interests) in the next five years. And reach certain profitability objectives. In exchange, they would help them to find a good location for the supermarket and would take care of the citizenship’s process as well.
The life of a Fujianese in Buenos Aires
Menglin Zhang is a 37-year-old Chinese businessman who has lived in Buenos Aires for the last 12 years. He got married in Argentina and now they have two beautiful daughters, both of them attending the same primary school in Belgrano’s neighbourhood. He was born and raised in Fuijan and when he was 25, he embarked in a journey that changed his life forever.
Her sister and husband were already living in Argentina when he arrived at Buenos Aires’ airport. Back in China, he worked for a brewery company and then for an advertising agency. One day, he received a phone call from this brother in law, Li, asking him if he was keen to travel to Argentina to develop a business with him. He was looking for a business partner. The first two years in Buenos Aires Menglin worked in Li’s store and after that they opened a new store. Offering natural and healthy Asian products.
But how does it feel being a Chinese in Argentina? How does he manage the cultural clashes? The Spanish name for Menglin is León (lion in English). Spanish speakers do not have an outstanding pronunciation for Asian names, that is why they create an alias. To simplify communication. When León arrived to Argentina, he went for three weeks to a Spanish institute. Then he took particular lessons and finally he decided to continue with his learning on his own. Listening to the radio, watching TV, reading the newspaper and with a dictionary always in his bag. He used to think ‘Why being afraid of speaking in Spanish if Argentinians don’t know how to speak Chinese.’
I asked him what he really likes about Argentina. “I love the warm weather and the meat. Here ‘asados’ (the south American version for a barbecue) are a central aspect of life and friendships. The passion of soccer fans is something incredible, something that still surprises me.” But not everything in life is a fairy tale, and Argentina is not an exception. He criticizes the Argentinian “lack of patriotism”, “immaturity” and “complete absence of credibility and sense of responsibility.” We are talking about a country were the corruption is a major issue. According to a latest research by the University of Vanderbilt in Tennessee: 20% of Argentinians, who participated in the survey, assure that during the last twelve months they have experienced bribery. Bolivia, Haiti and Ecuador rank at the top with almost a 40%.
León believes that Argentina needs to decrease their levels of corruption and insecurity. He has been robbed twice in his store, both with guns aiming at his head. Menglin is not planning to move back to China. He has learnt to appreciate and love the country.
The life of a Chinese student in Argentina
Lian Xiari (summer sun in English) is 24 years and moved to Buenos Aires 10 years ago. His Argentinian alias is Marcos. Originally from Fuijan and now studying architecture at the University of Buenos Aires. His parents moved when he was a kid, so he used to live with his grandparents. ‘I still remember heaps of people back home and plenty of noise everywhere. We used to live in the suburbs where the houses are really small and old-fashioned. We weren’t a rich family at all. I helped my grandparents in the farm, taking care of the potatoes, rice and jasmine plantations.’ When Lian arrived to Buenos Aires he was 14 years old and he went straight to high school. Meanwhile he had to work in his parents’ supermarket. ‘I wouldn’t say I had to work, I just helped my parents. It’s my duty as a son. They have always looked after me. I didn’t have a salary, but they used to give me some money. I can’t complaint, they buy me everything I need.’
Marcos was lucky that his parents didn’t force him to do something that he really didn’t want to. It is a Chinese tradition to obey your parents’ wishes and desires. Now Marcos has decided that he wants to stay in Buenos Aires and live in a house designed by him. On the other hand he knows that his family is going to return to China soon. Their aim is no to stay in Argentina for the rest of their life. They need to go back to their roots. To their land
How the Chinese’ mob operates in Buenos Aires
Christian Gallo is the owner of the biggest food & beverage distributor in Buenos Aires (DICAMI). His company has direct business contact with almost 300 Chinese supermarkets and he knows the community in depth. For the last 13 years he has had the opportunity to build business and personal relationships with his bigger clients. And had access to vital information regarding mob’s method of operations.
He says ‘Once the supermarket is running, managers are going to receive a visit from the clan that manages the area where the store is locates. And they will be encouraged to pay a semester fee. The amount depends on the neighbour and on the size of the store. The biggest Chinese supermarkets used to pay U$S 100.000 a year. In exchange, the clan will provide three things. Protection. The certainty that no other supermarket is going to open nearby. And the promise you will not get killed.’ Now the supermarket has the clans’ signature. Usually they paint the front doors with a special colour, in order to communicate that the store is already being protected
During 2012, there were twelve different clans operating simultaneously in Buenos Aires. The strength of them was defined by their firepower. This means by the number of killers working for the clan, most of them Colombians, Peruvians and Argentinians. ‘The payment was attached to the kind of mission. For example: shooting to someone’s legs costed in between $5.000 and $8.000. Shooting to someone’s chest in between $10.000 and $15.000. And shooting someone to death in between $20.000 and $50.000. Paying was always the best alternative for Chinese supermarkets. They know this is not a joke.’
Recently there have been dozens of cases of Chinese citizens being smuggled from Uruguay and Bolivia into Argentina, the government official alleged. To make matters worse, Chinese supermarkets have been hit by a series of mafia-style killings that have targeted the store’s managers. In the last five years a total of 31 murders have taken place, a recent investigative report published in La Nación’s newspaper. This year alone there have been four supermarket managers killed because they refused to pay bribes.
In order to combat the rise in crime within the community, since 2010 the Argentine federal police have hired dozens of Chinese intelligence operatives and interpreters from Fujian province. In the last two years there have been 12 Chinese citizens deported and 14 are serving jail sentences. Nowadays, according to police records, there are only seven clans active in Buenos Aires.
On top of the rise in crime, the current economic crisis has also hit the Chinese supermarket sector hard. Inflation, currency controls and a plunge in purchasing-power has forced around 500 Chinese supermarkets to close in the last four months alone. Most of them are going back to China or moving to new businesses. How is the Chinese mob going to adjust their structures to Argentina’s crisis? A new chapter is going to be written. Wondering if it is going to be a peaceful one.