Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Terrorist hoax exposes little-known Chinese smuggling route

By ELLIOT SPAGAT, Associated Press Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2005
(02-05) 12:12 PST MEXICALI, (AP) --

About two dozen Chinese immigrants take Spanish class five mornings a week before going to work at one of the hundreds of Chinese restaurants scattered throughout the city. The classroom — at the offices of the 86-year-old Chinese Association of Mexicali — is in the heart of a quiet, decaying downtown where Cantonese is heard on narrow sidewalks.

Patricio Gamez says 28 of his 31 neighbors in a graffiti-covered building speak Chinese. "They never have birthday parties, never get drunk, never make noise," the retired wrestler says.

That quiet life was jolted last month when a phony tipster in Mexicali said he smuggled Chinese nationals across the border who were preparing a terrorist attack in Boston. The FBI declared a false alarm, but the episode led the Department of Homeland Security to begin an investigation of networks that sneak Chinese immigrants into the United States.

Mexicali — a sprawling industrial city of about 800,000 people 120 miles east of San Diego — may seem like an unlikely stop for Chinese border crossers. It lies across the brackish Colorado River from Calexico, a California border town of 30,000 people in a sparsely populated agricultural region. Tree-covered mountains rise 4,000 feet to the west; hundreds of miles of desert lie east.

But Mexicali is part of an elaborate smuggling route that starts in China and ends in U.S. coastal cities, where Chinese find work at restaurants, garment shops and other places where they blend in easily, U.S. law enforcement officials say. Calexico is one of the largest points of entry for Chinese immigrant smugglers, along with Los Angeles, New York and Seattle.

Chinese have been drawn to Mexicali since around 1900, after the United States halted Chinese immigration and cotton growers began looking for cheap labor. Eduardo Auyon Gerardo, president of the Chinese Association, estimates the city has 35,000 people of Chinese descent today. About two dozen community groups help new arrivals get settled.

The absence of language barriers and the ease of finding work and new acquaintances explains Mexicali's appeal, said Michael Unzueta, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau in San Diego.

The trip from China to the United States typically costs $30,000 to $50,000, U.S. law enforcement officials say. Flights stop in Milan or Paris, then Mexico City, then Tijuana or Mexicali on the U.S. border.

Two recent cases offer a window into how the smuggling networks operate. In June, federal agents were tipped that a Cessna ferrying illegal immigrants was about to leave Imperial Valley Airport, 15 miles north of Mexicali border crossing. They found five Chinese nationals — ranging in age from a 17-year-old girl to a 51-year-old man — after the plane landed at El Monte Airport, near Los Angeles.

In October 2003, federal agents arrested eight people from southern China's Fujian province aboard a 21-foot boat near downtown San Diego. One man headed for New York told federal agents that he was flown from China to Tijuana, via the Netherlands and Mexico City.

A woman said she agreed to pay $67,000 to a Beijing smuggling ring upon arrival in the United States, according to an agent's affidavit in federal court. She flew from China and to Tijuana, via Ecuador and Belize. She was locked in a shed for nine days in Tijuana.

"A lot of it is probably put in place before they even leave China," Unzueta said.

The Border Patrol refuses to say how many Chinese are arrested, but the number is small. Mexicans accounted for 94 percent of the 1.1 million arrests last year, and much of the rest are Central Americans. Mexicans accounted for 99 percent of the 75,000 arrests in the Border Patrol's El Centro sector, which includes Calexico.

But the Chinese gained attention after a Mexicali man warned of a terrorist plot in Boston Jan. 17. A week later, Jose Ernesto Beltran Quinones admitted calling 911 from a cell phone to report the fake threat, Mexico's federal attorney general's office said.

One of 13 Chinese nationals who were briefly sought for questioning about the alleged plot has been in a federal immigration jail in San Diego since Nov. 11 after being arrested in Calexico. Investigators said Mei Xia Dong, 21, paid a human smuggler to enter the United States through Mexico and that she came for economic reasons.

It's easy to understand why a Chinese person might stop in Mexicali en route to the United States. An orange, gold and green pagoda — a gift of its sister city Nanjing — decorates a tiny downtown plaza at one of the city's two border crossings.

Chinatown — called "La Chinesqua" — has been losing its luster to air-conditioned malls but the downtown cluster of one- and two-story buildings still boasts a few dozen Chinese restaurants. Cantonese is spoken at the Monte Alban apartments, four monstrous cinderblock buildings surrounded by a dirt road and abandoned cars. Writing on the gravestones of a downtown cemetery is Chinese.

The Chinese Association's two-story building occupies nearly a half-block of Chinatown. On weekends, 90 children learn Chinese there. During the week, about two dozen new arrivals learn basic Spanish to survive at their jobs, typically at restaurants or shoe repair shops.

Mexicali has more than 300 Chinese restaurants, according to Maricela Gonzalez, a historian at Universidad Autonoma de Baja California. The largest can seat around 2,000 people.

Luis Wong, who teaches Spanish to new Chinese arrivals, says most of his students come to Mexicali because they already have family here. Wong, 80, was once one of them. He left southern China's Guangdong province in 1940 to meet his father, a miner who moved to Mexicali from the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa in the 1930s to escape anti-Chinese sentiment there.

Auyon, a watercolor painter who has been the Chinese Association's volunteer president since 2000, moved from Macao 44 years ago to meet his brother, a Mexicali cop at the time. He helps when municipal authorities close restaurants for health violations or when new arrivals need work permits.

Auyon, 69, said the Mexican government has increasingly been allowing Chinese nationals to work in restaurants.

He brushed aside questions about the terror hoax, saying he hadn't followed the story closely.


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