TWO rickety, barely seaworthy fishing boats were captured early this year off Guatemala's southern coast carrying hundreds of illegal immigrants from mainland China.
This small interception highlights what officials in the United States say is a growing problem: Asians who pay smugglers to take them to Guatemala, through that country's porous border with Mexico, and finally to the US.
With its long coastlines, craggy highlands, and the large, mostly unoccupied northernmost Peten State, Guatemala has emerged as the base of a smuggling ring that reaches into Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and parts of South America, US immigration officials say.
The number of Asians illegally passing through Guatemala has risen to several thousand a year. In 1991, Mexico deported 130,000 immigrants to Guatemala, including Asians as well as South and Central Americans.
"The ring has a core of about 10 Chinese smugglers here in Guatemala," says Kenneth Grasty, consul at the US Embassy in Guatemala City. Because such smuggling is not illegal in Guatemala, he says, "there's little more that I can do except refuse their visas [to the US] based on their smuggling activities."
The capture of the boats, and the subsequent freeing of them a few weeks later, illustrates the relatively free hand with which this international network of "people smugglers" operates. Once caught, illegal immigrants are simply instructed to leave the country within 72 hours, an order rarely heeded.
This latest saga began on Jan. 28, when Guatemala's Navy intercepted radio signals between one of the boats and four smugglers - three Chinese and a Guatemalan - waiting on shore. The Lo Sing, sailing under a Chinese flag with 240 illegal immigrants on board, was seized in the Port of Quetzal.
Only the boat's captain and three others who allegedly masterminded the smuggling scheme were arrested. Each was released after paying a $5,000 fine.
A second boat, the Chyun Fong, was seized on Feb. 7 when crew members signaled for help after running out of gas. On board were nine sailors from Taiwan and piles of canned food, suggesting that 100 to 200 immigrants had likely disembarked somewhere along the coast.
"These people, or their relatives, pay $30,000 to smugglers to get them to the States," says William Yui, a Taiwanese diplomat in Guatemala City. "When they get into the United States, they become slaves to pay back the money.... Many of the women become prostitutes." Chinese immigrants pay $3,000 for Taiwanese passports, he adds.
Those aboard the boats had been traveling for more than 60 days when they were detained. The boats had no bathrooms, tiny kitchens, and a few tents under which passengers shielded themselves from the sun. Two passengers were severely dehydrated and received medical care from a Navy hospital. No one was willing to pay for the immigrants' passage back to China, so authorities followed the two boats 15 miles out to sea and let them go on Feb. 29 with only a warning.
"I just told them that they'd better go back to China, but I don't know what they will do," Mr. Yui says. "They could be on their way to El Salvador or Belize ... I don't know where."
The increasing use of ships to smuggle immigrants is, ironically, the result of US and Guatemalan immigration officials' success in stopping the influx of immigrants by air. Guatemala closed its Hong Kong consulate last summer amid allegations that in exchange for huge sums of money the diplomatic staff was providing false documentation, including letters of invitation, that allowed thousands of Chinese citizens to take chartered flights to Guatemala or Belize, then cross through the Peten and on through
Some of the Asians reportedly paid up to $40,000 each for a visa. But now, because of increased cooperation from Guatemala's military, immigrants are unable to make their way through the Peten and must search for a new route. Immigration officials say they now travel by ship to the Guatemalan coast, then by foot or bus to Tecun Uman, a border crossing into Mexico on the western edge of Guatemala.
Defense Minister Jose Garcia Samayoa says the military is stopping people to ask for identification as part of their patrols, especially in the Peten.
"Apart from the area adjoining Belize, there is really no border control in the Peten, especially on the western side ... which has made it very easy for these people to get through," Mr. Garcia says. "When we are patrolling or operating around the military bases, we conduct periodic document checks and have intercepted a lot of Asians and South Americans trying to get through. We are increasing this sort of activity, on the Atlantic coast as well as on the Pacific, and the results have been fairly good. "
Taiwan is also working closely with US immigration authorities to stop the flow of Asian immigrants. Taiwan recently ordered all fishing boats to report their destinations to local authorities before leaving shore in an effort to prevent the boats from meeting other ships carrying illegal immigrants from mainland China.
"This is a big international operation and so we're all trying to be on alert," says Yui, the Taiwanese diplomat. "But it is going to be difficult because the Mexican border is just too long, and you are never going to be able to watch everything at every single moment."