10/05/2016 01:25 EDT | Updated 10/05/2016 03:42 EDT

Chinese Criminal Gangs Hit Argentina

Zhou's heart skipped a beat when he read a letter, written in Mandarin, demanding he pays 50,000 Argentine pesos (about USD$ 5,700) or die.

Zhou is an alias used for security reasons.

Surprisingly, Zhou, a grocery store owner in Buenos Aires, Argentina, sought protection from the police, explains his friend Christian Yu, who was with him when Zhou found the letter.

Christian, in his early 30s, emigrated from China to Argentina when he was a child. He speaks Spanish fluently.

The closest police commissariat in the Almagro neighbourhood of the Argentine capital, where Zhou's store is located, told them to make a complaint at the main federal police station, in the centre of the city. Police officers there took a statement.

Zhou "did not pay a cent," says Christian, and lived to tell the tale.

Over the past 10 years, Argentina's Chinese -- shopkeepers in particular -- have become the target of extortion, kidnapping and murder. Local media often attribute such violence to a Chinese mafia in the South American nation.

In June 2016, both the Chinese and the Argentine authorities dismantled dozens of suspects with alleged ties to this "mafia."

They are accused of blackmailing Chinese supermarket owners in Argentina and asking them an initial fee of US$50,000 to get their "protection," adding to a monthly fee of US$3,600.

Chinese criminal gangs consider that store owners are not allowed to set up their shop "independently."

Yuzhu King, a Chinese immigrant working in Buenos Aires' upscale neighbourhood Recoleta, was shot in the leg because he did not pay US$5,700 to Chinese gangs, according to judicial and police sources that commented the event to the press.

The incident followed a phone call from a Chinese man threatening Yuzhu to kill him if he did not pay an "authorization" fee to open his business and get the "protection" of the criminal group.

Chinese criminal gangs also kill.

In 2010, when the Argentine police arrived on the scene of the crime in the city of Rosario, Chinese characters read: "If you want to open tomorrow, call," on the wall next to a Chinese man's grocery shop.

Out of fear, many Chinese surrender to coercion and pay Chinese gangs.

Chinese store owners have installed panic buttons and laminated glass, and increased the number of security cameras in every aisle of their shop.

Argentina's Chinese

Chinese nationals in Argentina are the ideal prey for Chinese criminal gangs because first-generation immigrants usually do not speak Spanish well -- or at all. They also seldom seek local authorities' help because they mistrust them.

"Chinese people just work with cash and never use credit cards. We do not have any idea of how they import their products," explains Camilla S. Cabello, a federal police officer who is stationed in Buenos Aires' Chinese neighbourhood.

"We do not understand anything to what they say. Besides, the Chinese do not want the help of the Argentine police," she adds, as she patrols the area.

Although there are no reliable statistics, Chinese immigrants in Argentina are estimated to be between 90,000 and 100,000, says Ernesto Fernandez Taboada, Executive Director of the Argentina China Chamber of Production, Industry and Trade in Buenos Aires.

Chinese are the fastest growing non-Latin ethnic group in the country.

Chinese started to develop their businesses in Argentina towards the end of the 1980s.

The majority of immigrants are from China's Fujian province, says Miguel Calvete, former Executive Director of the Federation of Chinese Supermarkets and Associations in Buenos Aires. He sets the number of Chinese supermarkets at 10,402 in Argentina and 1,970 in the capital.

Emblematic of their growth since the 1980s, there is a Chinese supermarket approximately every eight blocks in Buenos Aires. They have increased dramatically since Argentina's economic crisis in 2001 as they sell cheaper products than chains.

The International Business Development, a consulting firm in Buenos Aires, sets out that Chinese supermarkets contribute to 30% of the country's retail sales. The proliferation of fusion food restaurants, in particular, has played a part in this growth because it uses Chinese products.

As Chinese climb up the economic ladder in Argentina, "[i]t is true that many shops owned by Chinese are frequently attacked and this is due to the fact criminals know that they will always find money and [since] they have few staff, they are easy to steal in quick manoeuvres," explains Mr. Taboada.

In 2013, many Chinese supermarkets in Buenos Aires closed because they were the targets of looting.

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