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Characteristics of Chinese Human Smugglers, Research in Brief

NCJ Number
Date Published
August 2004
19 pages
Publication Series
This study examined the operations of Chinese human smuggling organizations through field observations and face-to-face interviews with self-identified human smugglers in the United States and China.
The nature and characteristics of human smuggling organizations are unclear because it is a hidden illegal enterprise and because illegal Chinese immigrants represent a largely invisible population, rendered so by linguistic and cultural barriers present in Chinese communities within the United States. Organized Chinese human smuggling into the United States is a long-standing criminal enterprise. Chinese human smugglers are known as “snakeheads” and they have remained elusive figures to study. The current research sought to discover who snakeheads are, the types of arrangements found in their business, the types of associates they deal with, and the power structure of the smuggling organization. Three sites were selected for data collection: New York City, Los Angeles, and Fuzhou, China. A total of 129 interviews were conducted in both countries with self-identified human smugglers through the use of the snowball sampling method. Field observations provided first-hand data. Findings indicate that Chinese human smugglers have diverse backgrounds and appear to be otherwise normal citizens whose social and business networks allow for the alliances and resources to conduct a profitable trade in smuggling human cargo. More than half of the respondents were initiated into the business by relatives, friends, or business associates. Money was the primary motivation in 92 percent of the cases; only 8 respondents indicated their motivation was to help friends or relatives. While researchers often consider Chinese human smugglers as a well organized global crime syndicate, the respondents viewed themselves as free agents and did not view themselves as part of an organization. Moreover, although little hierarchical organization was uncovered, the division of labor among the smugglers was found to be well developed; most respondents reported that all smugglers had particular roles. None of the respondents considered themselves criminals although they expressed awareness that their activities were illegal. As far their connections to traditional organized crime groups, researchers found little evidence that the vast majority of smugglers have anything to do with traditional organized crime groups. Limitations of the study include its use of snowball sampling. Policy implications focus on law enforcement functions.

Date Published: August 1, 2004