Snaking Toward Death

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Belching diesel smoke, gunning their engines as they prepare to merge onto the highway that runs beneath Dover's white cliffs, more than a thousand trucks a day lumber down Dock East Road, a ceaseless testament to the commerce flowing through the vast ferry terminal that links Britain to mainland Europe. Thirty meters away stands a nondescript warehouse where last week one truck was parked that never made it out. Customs inspectors had decided to open its doors when they saw it didn't belong to any company they knew and that its driver had paid cash for the ferry crossing from Zeebrugge in Belgium. They thought they might find smuggled cigarettes or alcohol. Instead, behind some pallets of tomatoes, they found dead bodies: 54 men and four women who had been on the final leg of a four-month journey from China. In total darkness and sweltering heat, after trying to open a small air vent that had been closed from the outside, pounding on the walls with their shoes and making cries for help that no one heard, all but two of the 60 would-be immigrants suffocated as they used up all the oxygen in the sealed container that became their tomb.

The corpses that Dover ambulance drivers had to pry apart are only the latest tragic product of a booming global business: smuggling people from poorer countries to richer ones. The U.N.'s International Organization for Migration (iom) estimates that gangs earn $5-$7 billion in profits each year from human trafficking; some researchers think the figure reaches $12 billion. The supply of customers includes bona fide political refugees but is as boundless as the simple desire for a better life.

The human traffickers charge $20,000 to $60,000 to get illegal immigrants from China, South and Southeast Asia, Iran and other points to the United States, Japan, Western Europe or sometimes South America. Upon arrival, typically they are put to work in sweatshops—the women often in brothels—until their debt is repaid. Those who miss payments are beaten, or worse. Their families back home can also be targeted. Sometimes the gangs insist that families borrow to pay the fees right away, sending home a sliced-off ear or finger of a loved one to make their point.

Countries are cooperating to choke off the smuggling routes, but it's a struggle. The penalties for getting caught are often milder than for shipping drugs. Traffickers find new channels to experiment with as legitimate global commerce accelerates. "We make moves and the smugglers find new ways to get around them," says Brian Vaillancourt, a U.S. immigration official in Bangkok. "It's a new, globalized Mafia."

Its biggest players are Chinese gangs called snakeheads. Sometimes the gangs put their human cargo on regular flights with forged documents, or in the holds of ships; illegal Asian migrants to the U.S. are even walking across the U.S.-Mexico border, led by locals called coyotes, after long truck rides from landing points in South or Central America.

The dead in Dover came overland. That's the primary route for the growing number of Chinese illegals coming to Europe, drawn to Chinese communities in France (200,000) and Britain (250,000). Police won't confirm the exact journey as described by the two survivors, who were rushed to hospital and then released to a police safe house, but relatives of the victims, who had been staying in periodic touch by phone until the calls stopped coming last week, say it began in Fujian province and included Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands.

By coincidence, a group of 60 Chinese was detained by Belgian authorities in April, but quickly released because the regional detention center was full. They were put on a train, unescorted, to Antwerp, nearer to the English Channel. Fingerprints now prove they weren't among the dead in Dover. Belgian officials had instructed the Chinese only to stay out of the E.U.'s so-called Schengen states, which share a no-passport zone. Britain isn't a Schengen member and last week its officials were furious at Belgium's willingness to pass the buck.

The final journey of the doomed Chinese began when they boarded a truck working for van der Spek Transporten. The company was registered only the previous week. Its owner is Arjen van der Spek, a 24-year-old whose nickname Spekkie refers to the Dutch word for bacon and also to a popular marshmallow candy. The moniker is apt: neighbors in his smart Rotterdam suburb describe the heavily built farmhand as easily led, ineffectual and gullible. The bartender at his local pub, where patrons once racked up a $1,700 bill on his tab before he wised up, says van der Spek "gets lured by easy money, but he is not smart enough to know what he is letting himself in for."

Before starting his company he had shown no interest in trucking. He has no commercial driving license and his mother doesn't know whether he even has a regular one. His lawyer confirmed that van der Spek had been convicted in Spain for shipping marijuana, but said he knew nothing about the Chinese on his truck and "is horrified by what happened."

British police charged the driver of the truck, Perry Wacker, with 58 counts of manslaughter and related crimes. Neighbors describe the 32-year-old Rotterdam resident as "a weird guy" and a "wheeler-dealer." A trucking company Wacker set up went bankrupt in 1998. His uncle Ronald said, "Perry can't have known there were people in his truck." A 38-year-old Chinese chef, You Yi, and an interpreter, Guo Ying, 29, were charged in Britain with conspiracy to smuggle illegal immigrants.

Hundreds of detectives and intelligence agents from Britain, Holland and other countries are now working to follow the snakeheads' network back to its bosses. China said it was "shocked" by the Dover tragedy and declared that it too had been cracking down on the traffickers, arresting 800 last year. But even honest officials will be daunted by the task of damming the human tide. The streets of Cangxi, in Fujian, where many of the Dover victims are thought to have lived, are sprouting fancy houses built with hard currency sent home by previous migrants. China's state media don't like to admit the scale of the emigration so its dangers are not publicized. "If you're only getting paid $20 a month and you're watching American soap operas," says Arthur Bowring, director of the Hong Kong Shipowners' Association, "the temptation is there." And until all countries become equally developed, or legal immigration becomes much easier, it always will be.

—With reporting by Jaime FlorCruz/Beijing, Robert Horn/Bangkok, Wendy Kan/Hong Kong, Theodora mac Ruair’/Rotterdam and Jane Walker/Madrid