The Tijuana smugglers were moving valuable goods: two dozen Chinese immigrants.
Intercepted recently by U.S. Border Patrol agents as they crept through a crossing zone known as Goat Canyon, the smugglers yelled insults at the approaching agents in Spanish and yelled commands at the fleeing immigrants in Chinese.
The multilingual smugglers serve as foot soldiers in the increasingly notorious global network behind the illegal influx of Chinese into the United States. On Friday, President Clinton announced a multi-agency federal offensive targeting criminal syndicates that traffic in immigrants.
Although desperate landings of crowded, squalid vessels on U.S. coasts have drawn international attention, law enforcement experts say the boom in illegal immigration by sea from China's Fujian province has prospered largely because of an alliance between Chinese and Latin American smuggling rings.
These ties have created a clandestine corridor linking the villages of Fujian, the shores of Mexico and Central America, and suburban safehouses in the heavily Chinese enclaves of the San Gabriel Valley, where Asian organized crime has become entrenched. The Southwest border route is the busiest and "most successful" for illegal Fujianese, according to Bill Kerins, anti-smuggling chief of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and other officials.
"More come through the underbelly than directly by boat to the East and West coasts," said veteran INS special agent Wayne McKenna, coordinator of a multi-agency task force on the Chinese. "I think it's been heating up in Mexico."
Smugglers transport the human cargo via the same land pipelines that bring hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans across the porous international boundary each year. The Border Patrol has arrested more than 500 Chinese this year, at least 400 of them in San Diego, officials said, compared to 34 in San Diego last year. Thousands of Chinese elude detection, officials said.
On June 8, immigration agents at Los Angeles International Airport caught 20 nervous young Chinese waiting for a night flight to New York. They had arrived earlier this month by ship, were ferried by fishing boats to the rocky coast of Baja California and were driven across the border and then to a Chinese-owned hotel in Alhambra.
Criminal gangs in the San Gabriel Valley provide shelter and phony documents and arrange flights to New York, the predominant destination--although Chinese immigrants increasingly remain in the Los Angeles area, according to law enforcement and INS authorities.
In a sparsely furnished house in Rosemead linked to a Taiwan-based crime syndicate, authorities found a tattered diary left in a desk drawer by a fleeing immigrant. At the same house, police found 17 immigrants who had been held as virtual hostages in barracks-style quarters in the back yard.
"I am sacrificing everything to come here seeking love," the man wrote. "The whole world is barren, like a desert with no spirit. Hopefully, in America, there is a better world. Perhaps I have something to look forward to. Maybe my fate has changed."
His diary recounted months at sea followed by a trek through Mexican mountains and a dash into the United States; a passage made possible by a web of corruption in Fujian and Latin America, according to knowledgeable government sources in the United States and Mexico.
"You can't move 300 Chinese through Baja California without knowledge of the authorities," said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, the human rights prosecutor for the state of Baja. "We don't have any other choice than to believe there is responsibility on the part of federal authorities."
This spring, Mexico took unprecedented action against surging Chinese immigration. Federal agents near Ensenada arrested 306 immigrants hiding at a ranch in April and arrested five Mexican smugglers. Last month, a Mexican navy cruiser turned back the Lucky Golden Dragon, a Taiwanese fishing trawler with about 200 passengers, who then surrendered to the U.S. Coast Guard off San Diego.
Yet officials acknowledge that, at best, the border onslaught has been slowed. Perez and other critics who question the aggressiveness of the Mexican crackdown cite the strange escape by some of the immigrants arrested near Ensenada. While awaiting deportation at the Mexicali airport May 14, more than 100 fled from police guards into the desert and across the border.
Escapees later told Charles T. Matthews, a lawyer who interviewed them in a Los Angeles detention center, that Mexican authorities allowed them to get away in exchange for a bribe. A Mexican government source also said the escape was the product of an arreglo --a deal. Perez said his office is looking into the case.
The director of the immigration service branch in Mexicali rejected criticism of the airport incident, saying overwhelmed guards would have had to use deadly force to stop the fleeing prisoners.
Limited enforcement resources and vast Mexican coastlines aid illegal entry by Chinese, experts said. Hundreds of Chinese are now staging in Mexico, poised to make the journey north, according to INS intelligence reports.
The bonds between the south-of-the-border smuggling infrastructure and its counterpart across the Pacific solidified during the past two years, officials say. Fujian is a coastal province with a history of migration and government-tolerated criminal enterprises. Immigrants have even reported that Chinese military patrol boats ferried them to departing smuggling ships, according to officials.
The network typically takes fortune-seekers such as Wang Bing Guan, 41, a farm worker now in U.S. custody, from the city of Fuzhou.
Wang and fellow passengers on the Lucky Golden Dragon, the ship stopped by the Mexican navy in May, saved for years to make small down payments on fees of up to $30,000. They were aided by relatives, Wang said through an interpreter, recalling the words of a cousin in New York.
"He said it was a good living situation," said Wang, a thin, deferential man who apologized during the interview for his lack of education. "Eating well, dressing well . . . America is a beautiful living situation."
Although many immigrants come from rural backgrounds, these passengers were a socioeconomic mix, said Maria Arroyo-Tabin, chief of the U.S. attorney's criminal division in San Diego. "A lawyer, teachers, nurses . . . different occupations. They were not a bunch of poor peasants or anything like that."
As in "classic Mexican alien smuggling," Arroyo said, immigrants assembled in safehouses in Fuzhou in early March before boarding the rusty 200-foot Taiwanese trawler. Former Taiwanese fishermen dominate the profitable traffic, some having switched because of the depressed fishing industry.
During the two-month voyage, the seven-man crew and four "enforcers" lived above deck in narrow, dingy quarters. Incense and candles burned at a small altar in the main cabin.
Immigrants huddled in the dank hold, previously a refrigerated storage area. There were no blankets or mattresses. Garbage accumulated. The smells and sicknesses worsened as food--mainly rice served from large pots on the rear deck--and water dwindled.
"We had insufficient water," Wang said. "One bottle had to last two or three days. . . . A lot of people caught colds. Some of the people were vomiting."
Vessels take myriad routes. Since fall of 1991, authorities have confirmed at least 14 smuggling vessels landing directly in the United States and have apprehended more than 2,300 passengers, McKenna said. Numerous U.S.-bound loads have been intercepted or have landed in nations from Japan to Haiti.
As the Coast Guard has bolstered its vigilance, smugglers have shifted south.
Smugglers in Mexico and Central America use small craft to unload at sea, then funnel the immigrants into routes also used for transporting illegal Central Americans. Authorities at the San Diego-Tijuana line have seen smugglers accompanying a group made up of both Chinese and Guatemalans.
With entrepreneurial acumen, Mexican smugglers have learned rudimentary Chinese phrases; and some Chinese enforcers--tough, streetwise men, some with martial arts expertise--speak Spanish, authorities said. Members of Baja's longtime Chinese-Mexican community are suspected of acting as liaisons, according to Mexican government sources.
Baja is a hot spot because its sparsely populated coasts are only hours from Tijuana, the gateway to Southern California.
The Border Patrol estimates that as many as two illegal crossers succeed for every one apprehended. The odds are even better for Chinese because their handlers can afford top guides, known at the border as polleros .
"They are getting better guidance, better resources," said Steve Kean, a spokesman for the Border Patrol.
As many as three polleros lead Chinese crossers, dividing shiploads into groups of 20 to 30 and favoring hard-to-police paths in rough terrain, such as the hills east of San Diego. Because of the high stakes, the smugglers seem unusually protective, Kean said, and agents are particularly wary when pursuing Asian groups. Border Patrol agents have been assaulted with rocks.
North of the line, Mexican or Asian drivers rendezvous with the arrivals and try to circumvent freeway immigration checkpoints, heading for the cluster of Los Angeles suburbs that have become key way stations.
Alhambra police, who raided the Rosemead crash-pad in February, were searching for a 25-year-old murder suspect affiliated with the Fuk Ching, a dominant force in the smuggling-extortion racket in New York. (The Fuk Ching has reportedly teamed with a Los Angeles syndicate known as the Wah Ching.)
Instead of their suspect, officers stumbled onto a closetful of 17 frightened immigrants. "They were really stuffed in there, like tuna," said Sgt. Judy Pohl.
A list scribbled by the anonymous diarist conveys anxiety about the underworld that controls his future. Instructions on calling a brother-in-law "in America" precede these words: "Tell them to contact the organized crime underground and notify them that within seven days, the money will be there."
The next entry reads: "It seems the money is not there yet. But the people here in America will take care of it for me."
The Rosemead safehouse is one of many in the area, immigration authorities say. At dawn in early April, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies responding to reports of suspicious activity in Hacienda Heights rounded up more than 50 Chinese immigrants who had scattered into the surrounding hills. The group had arrived via Mexico and Guatemala.
The ethnic makeup of these communities affords anonymity for illegal immigrants and a base for organized crime groups, which are getting rich off the new arrivals.
"Without the San Gabriel Valley's large Chinese population, a lot of this activity would be impossible to accomplish for the smuggling cartel," said Jim Hayes, INS assistant district director for anti-smuggling in Los Angeles.
In a raid last month targeting Asian organized crime in 11 cities, police burst into the Chinese Shang I Assn., a self-described benevolent organization of businessmen in Rosemead. It arrived in Chinatown late last year, then moved after its storefront was sprayed by gunfire. Authorities describe the association as a subgroup of a criminal triad that once trafficked in heroin from Southeast Asia, then made a shift from drugs to smuggling immigrants, which has become increasingly common because of high profits and lighter penalties.
Meanwhile, a growing community of Fujianese are staying in the area and working off smuggling debts rather than continuing to New York. For the first time social workers can remember, two undocumented Fujianese men walked into the Chinatown Service Center last month asking for jobs and shelter. About 10% of more than 150 Fujianese juveniles being held in Los Angeles County detention centers have relatives or contacts in the county, according to a community activist. The INS has formed a special Asian smuggling unit locally to cope with the workload.
"I don't foresee any significant slowdown in the trafficking of (Chinese) across the border in the near future," Hayes said. "There is information that additional boats are en route."
A law enforcement source in the Asian community, who asked not to be identified, estimates the number of illegal Fujianese in the San Gabriel Valley at more than 500. He has grown close to a dozen of them: men and women between the ages of 22 and 38, living harsh and secluded lives. One man drives a taxi. Several women work as hostesses in local clubs, jobs that often evolve into prostitution.
Describing Los Angeles as "the next target" for the Fujianese influx, the official said: "The San Gabriel Valley is a perfect area. They don't drive. They can walk around, buy a Chinese newspaper, buy Chinese food."