A sign in Buenos Aires' Chinatown

A transitional police operation has resulted in the arrest of several Chinese nationals accused of running an extortion racket in Argentina, highlighting the presence of immigrant criminal groups inside the Southern Cone country.

The group, which called itself "The Eternally Prosperous," "Perfect Fountain" or "Flowering Visitor," is accused of extorting "protection quotas" since 2011 from supermarkets run by Chinese immigrants in Argentina, according to news agency EFE.

The joint operation between Chinese and Argentine police has already recovered more than $1.6 million taken from supermarket owners.

A group of suspects allegedly involved in the scheme, believed to have recently fled from Argentina, were detained by police in Fujian province, eastern China.  

As a follow-up to the operation, the Chinese Security Ministry will set up a joint office of Chinese and Argentine police dedicated to combating crime committed by Chinese criminals in the South American nation, according to EFE's report.

InSight Crime Analysis

Reports of Chinese "mafia" threatening Argentina's significant Chinese population (around 70,000) and committing violent crimes have become increasingly common in recent years. 

According to an investigation by La Nacion and a report by magazine Clarin, both published in 2010, Chinese gangs hire local hitmen to enforce highly profitable extortion rackets within the immigrant community. InSight Crime reported on the arrest of one such group in Buenos Aires in 2011.

Chinese-owned grocery stores have become a popular target. Such supermarkets have become common in Argentina since the nation's economic crisis, selling household products at prices cheaper than the big chains, and employ a large proportion of the country's Chinese population.

Police and judicial sources told La Nacion that every Chinese citizen opening a supermarket in Argentina is forced to pay Chinese mafia between $40,000 and $60,000. The Chinese gangs are also accused of human smuggling and trafficking, charging Chinese citizens thousands of dollars to be illegally brought into Argentina.

While reports of crimes are common, reports of arrests are far less so. According to a 2011 Clarin investigation, the language barrier, lack of police investigation, and the proliferation of victims unwilling to speak out have created an environment of near total impunity for Chinese criminal organizations in the South American nation. The announcement that China and Argentina may soon increase their collaboration in tracking organized crime is thus welcome news.