Chilean officials conspired to bring hundreds of Chinese migrants into the country illegally, leaving the country to face its largest-ever human trafficking ring and scrambling for a response.
In late May, Chile charged 11 people for bringing at least 381 Chinese citizens into the country illegally. These charges revealed the existence of a sophisticated human trafficking ring in place since 2016. Government officials implicated in the ring included Alex Brito, an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Patricio Trigo, former governor of Choapa state; and Mauricio Navarro, ex-mayor of the city of Los Andes, near Valparaíso.
Along with a number of associates in China, this ring sent fraudulent invitation letters, complete with fake signatures from Chilean mayors and governors, to the Asian country. These were then used to pass off migrants as tourists or businesspeople, allowing them to enter Chile freely.
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The operation to bring down this ring had been in place since mid-2018. It found that the Chilean officials involved received $4,900 for each migrant, with the total amount sent from China totaling over $1.1 million.
While the officials involved have been arrested, the Chinese migrants have received fair treatment. Chile has legalized or is in the process of legalizing the resident status of 203 of the migrants, while 178 have crossed into Argentina legally. Some have reportedly already found work among the Chinese community in Chile.
In recent years, Chile has been a destination of choice for migrants from around the world, especially Venezuela and Haiti, with 1 percent of the Caribbean nation’s population now reportedly in Chile.
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Being one of Latin America’s wealthier and more peaceful countries, coupled with its traditional welcoming of migrants, has made Chile a prime target for human traffickers.
Reports from across the region show that the Chinese migrants are fleeing extreme poverty. Despite China’s much-touted record at reducing poverty, rising unemployment and worsening economic prospects are forcing some to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
In recent years, Chile has also become one of China’s foremost partners in the region. As the first South American country to sign a free-trade deal with China, it has become a major port of entry for Chinese goods and numerous Chinese companies have presence there. This makes it a natural destination for Chinese migrants.
In recent years, however, Chile has made significant progress in combatting human trafficking. The overwhelming majority of illegal migrants in Chile come from Latin America but the country has strengthened anti-trafficking measures overall, rating it a Tier One ranking in the US Trafficking in Persons Report.
But the trafficking of Chinese citizens into Latin America is nothing new. A 2016 report estimated that 80 percent of Argentina’s Chinese population had entered the country illegally, often through land borders with Brazil, Chile and Bolivia.
And a two-year investigation which ended in November 2018 saw the dismantling of a human trafficking ring which took Chinese citizens to Costa Rica and Panama through South America, where they were either smuggled to the United States or Canada or “sold” into cheap labor jobs.
The US government’s Trafficking in Persons 2018 Report estimates that Chinese people are subjected to forced labor in at least 57 countries worldwide.