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Enter the Dragon: Inside Chinese Human Smuggling Organizations

NCJ Number
Criminology Volume: 40 Issue: 4 Dated: November 2002 Pages: 737-768
Date Published
November 2002
32 pages

This paper examines the distinctive features and operations of Chinese organized criminal groups that have been created for the specific purpose of conducting transnational human smuggling.


Human smugglers, or "snakeheads" as they are called both in China and in overseas Chinese communities, have been the most elusive element in the research on Chinese human smuggling. There have been only a few studies in the past decade on Chinese illegal immigration. There are no accurate figures on how many illegal Chinese immigrants enter the United States each year. American officials claim that the Chinese smuggling rings have connections in 51 countries that are either part of the transportation web or are involved in manufacturing fraudulent travel documents, or both. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (U.S. INS), more than 100,000 Chinese nationals are currently sequestered in countries around the world, waiting to complete their journeys to the United States and other Western countries. There is no doubt about the magnitude of the social and legal ramifications were the influx of illegal immigrants to continue unchecked from the world's most populous nation. The data for this study of the smuggling groups were obtained through structured interviews with 90 persons who were directly involved in organizing and transporting Chinese nationals to the United States. The sites for data collection were New York City, Los Angeles, and Fuzhou, China. Contrary to the generally held concepts of Chinese organized crime, most smugglers of aliens are otherwise ordinary citizens whose familial networks and social contacts have enabled them to pool resources to transport humans around the world. They come from diverse backgrounds to form temporary alliances for the purpose of conducting smuggling operations. With the exception of a shared commitment to making money from the smuggling enterprise, the members of smuggling groups have little in common. The smuggling organizations resemble ad hoc task forces and are constituted for specific operations. These organizations have clear division of labor within limited hierarchical structures. This paper discusses the theoretical implications of these unique organizational characteristics. 63 references

Date Published: November 1, 2002