The Snakehead 

How the FBI Brought Down Sister Ping
New books dissected over email.
July 23 2009 12:12 PM

The Snakehead 

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

1_123125_122982_2212516_2223108_2223109_090720_book_snakehead

Hey, Sudhir,

I'm glad you steered us in this direction for our final exchange, because The Snakehead is in some ways the story of law enforcement's gradual learning curve in confronting Fujianese human smuggling and, more broadly, in grappling with the globalization of crime.

Advertisement

When large numbers of undocumented Fujianese began arriving in the 1980s, the NYPD and the FBI suddenly needed Fujianese speakers. As the snakehead trade and the attendant kidnappings, beatings, and gang clashes escalated, they started plucking Fujianese cadets out of the academy just to work these cases. During Sister Ping's first brief stint in jail, in 1990, the Feds wanted to send an agent to see if she might cooperate. The best they could do was a Cantonese-American rookie, Peter Lee.

Still, even as the authorities wanted Fujianese recruits, they were also wary. The Fujianese community in America was so close-knit, and the ongoing connections to the old country so extensive, that some feared a Fujianese-American cop with a vulnerable family still in China might be co-opted with threats by street gangs looking for a source inside the department.

This might seem paranoid, but the FBI, INS, and NYPD were all confronting the limits of their own jurisdictions whereas their adversaries were playing a truly global game. New York cops would get panicked phone calls from Chinatown residents who had received ransom demands from Fujianese gangsters. But the people being held hostage were in China, and the instructions were to remit the ransom payments to China (using services like Sister Ping's). So the police were hamstrung.

Sister Ping's operation involved associates in dozens of countries, and corrupt officials in a string of strategic entrepôts. In the early '90s, she funneled passengers through Bangkok, Thailand, where corrupt airline inspectors turned a blind eye to phony documents. By the late '90s, she was sending ships full of migrants to the shores of Guatemala, from whence they could proceed overland through Mexico. She didn't need to worry about the Guatemalan navy. She had them on the payroll.

This was one of the most surprising (and daunting) themes to emerge in my research: If criminal organizations, like multinational corporations, are mobile and opportunistic and can migrate wherever they like, engaging in a kind of jurisdictional arbitrage and seeking out an optimal environment in which to do business, then all it takes is one spoiler country, like Thailand or Guatemala, to render them virtually untouchable. When Sister Ping fled the United States after the Golden Venture incident, she settled in her home village in Fujian Province, where she enjoyed the protection of the Chinese authorities and proceeded to continue running her business for six long years. The FBI knew exactly where she was. But when they asked China to extradite her, Beijing brushed them off.

At least she was confined to China, you might say. But she wasn't. She traveled all over the world during those years—even, amazingly, to the United States. How? When she was finally arrested in Hong Kong in 2000, she had a passport with her picture and someone else's name. It was issued by Belize, a classic spoiler country.

Another fascinating hurdle for law enforcement was that whereas the Italian mob was hierarchical, with a leadership pyramid you could diagram on a cocktail napkin, the snakeheads were more networked and fluid in their associations. A group of smugglers and gangsters might come together in a temporary joint venture, then split up and go their separate ways. There were no oaths of loyalty, and few enduring partnerships—the whole ethos was more mercenary and business-minded. For the same reason, people tended not to hold grudges. Sister Ping developed a fateful association with a ruthless gangster named Ah Kay, but only after Ah Kay robbed her family at gunpoint—twice.

"That's what happened in the past," she told him when she proposed they cooperate. "We're talking business now."

But here's where it gets really interesting: The sometimes hostile, sometimes cooperative relationship between criminals and cops that you mentioned eventually came to play a major role in Chinatown. What Ah Kay didn't know when Sister Ping so readily forgave him is that she had already taken a quiet revenge. She had been secretly cooperating with the FBI, and had given information about Ah Kay to the agent who visited her in prison, Peter Lee. In a criminal universe this opportunistic, loyalty has no place, and you're as likely to find a temporary symmetry of interest with the Feds as you are with a thug who robbed you. Ratting on Ah Kay was the expedient thing to do.

The irony for Sister Ping is that this same expediency would ultimately be her downfall. When Ah Kay was arrested following the Golden Venture incident, he immediately returned the favor, telling the FBI, in so many words, "I can give you Sister Ping." Ah Kay became one of the most valuable cooperators in FBI history, assisting in more than a dozen federal cases. One official told me it was "like having a good Fujianese FBI agent on the case." It took more than a decade, but he would ultimately be the star witness in the government's case against Sister Ping.

In fact, at different points in the story, every major criminal figure in The Snakehead ends up secretly cooperating with the feds. Unlike the situation you encountered in Chicago, or the familiar Hollywood scenario—Die Hard's Johnson and Johnson ("No relation") being my personal favorite—the FBI in this story ended up developing very good sources and becoming plugged into the Chinatown community.

And there might be one simple reason for this: They were already in the neighborhood. New York's FBI field office literally overlooks Chinatown. Sister Ping's restaurant was always just a couple of blocks away.

I've really enjoyed this conversation about immigration, underground economies, law enforcement, and the shady side of getting by in America. Thanks so much for doing it, Sudhir.

  Slate Plus
Working
Dec. 18 2014 4:49 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 17 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a middle school principal about his workday.