Customs agents were on routine patrol two months ago at the port of Lisbon, checking cargo ships for contraband, when they heard muffled voices drifting up from a cargo hold.
At first glance it appeared empty. But hidden behind a canvas tarp the agents discovered more than 30 Chinese crammed into a dingy, sweltering corner of the hold. The "boat people" had been traveling for two months on a trip that started in distant Macau, Portugal's colony on the southern coast of China.
The discovery was but one recent example of how Portugal has become a target for people-smuggling by Macau-based organized-crime gangs, known as triads. The groups are thought to be stepping up operations ahead of Macau's switch from Portuguese to Chinese rule Dec. 20, 1999.
"Triad groups have clearly added Portugal to their network of illegal-worker traffic," says Manuel Palos, director of the Portuguese border patrol's central district here. "They are strong and well organized."
Authorities say members of a triad known as 14K are carrying out much of the smuggling and other illegal activities, such as emerging drug operations, with the group's sources in Macau recruiting thousands of illegal workers in China, moving them to the enclave, and putting them on freighters bound for Portugal.
That traffic is swamping Portuguese immigration officers, putting a strain on police, and heightening fear within Portugal's Chinatowns. More immediately, it is stirring anxiety among the nine other European Union countries in the so-called Schengen Group, who agree to tear down internal border checks. Already coping with large numbers of illegal immigrants, countries such as Spain and France worry about an additional wave of undocumented aliens from Portugal.
"This is a serious problem, it's causing tension and will likely only worsen as the December '99 handover draws nearer," said Rui Carlos Pereira, a general director of the Portuguese Service of Information and Security (SIS), Portugal's spy agency, in a speech before a commission on organized crime last year.
For decades, the triads were based primarily in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China - a turf that later expanded to include the US and Canada.
In Portugal, the gangs are still widely considered confined to Macau, where they are waging a violent turf war connected to the gambling and vice trades. But that's quickly changing. Some organized-crime experts say the triads are seeking to diversify operations to take advantage of opportunities created by the global economy. But the traditional view holds that the criminals are fleeing an expected crackdown after China takes over the colony in December.
Unlike in Hong Kong, where people were denied British passports when the territory was returned to China in 1997, anyone born in Macau before 1981 is entitled to Portuguese citizenship.
Authorities estimate that of the 105,000 Macau people with Portuguese passports - nearly one quarter of the population - up to 4 percent are involved in triads. That means between 700 and 1,000 gang members could take up residence in Portugal.
To ease concerns about organized crime, Portugal has stepped up border surveillance. The Portuguese judicial police has also sent officers of its elite organized-crime task force to Macau to collect records of triad gangsters reputed to have moved to Portugal.
"This is the work of such an involved and sophisticated network, it's difficult to break down. With access to sophisticated technology, they can come and go effortlessly," said Fernando Negro, former director of the Portuguese judicial police.
Portuguese intelligence agents say deficiencies in language and cultural background are daunting, but their main hurdle is cash.
"The biggest problem we face is that we're dealing with huge budgets and highly sophisticated methods of smuggling people," said Mr. Negro. "It's difficult to stop them entirely. We're fighting a very big, very wealthy adversary."