After a flurry of raids and arrests in Chinese restaurants and corner stores across the Central Valley last week, authorities have taken into custody seven alleged members of an organization dedicated to trafficking Chinese people into Costa Rica.
At a press conference announcing the operation Jan. 11, Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal and other officials said they expect ongoing investigations will likely indicate that high-up Immigration officials from former administrations accepted bribes by the organization, dubbed the Mafia China by authorities and national press.
Investigations following the arrests have revealed the group brought Chinese immigrants to Costa Rica, arranged visas and then forced the immigrants to work for free in a variety of locales to pay off what the organization said it was owed.
Officials with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) and the Immigration Administration had been monitoring the group since late in 2006 following an attempt by representatives to bribe Immigration Director Mario Zamora, offering him $5,000 per visa approved for a Chinese passport. In total, the organization offered Zamora $25 million in the long term for 500 visas. As officials and an undercover agent negotiated with the organization, Mafia China intermediaries made threats against Zamora and death threats directly against the undercover agent.
In cooperation with judicial investigators, Zamora began accepting the bribes, which were deposited into a bank account and totaled nearly $20,000 last week when authorities decided to act. In a telling twist, the intermediaries demanded exclusive bribing rights to Zamora over another four organizations also dedicated to trafficking Chinese citizens to Costa Rica.
On Jan. 11, OIJ agents arrested a Chinese woman identified by the last name Tan – alleged to be the leader of the group – and a Costa Rican Legislative Assembly employee identified by the last name Garita outside a the Chinese restaurant Wong’s, on Cuesta de Moras, near the Legislative Assembly in downtown San José. Police seized 30 passports from the vehicle Garita and Tan arrived in, and arrested six undocumented Chinese inside the restaurant, believed to have been waiting for their passports.
Officials also raided several locations in San José, La Union east of San José and San Carlos, in north-central Costa Rica, making more arrests and seizing 60 passports – five of which had been altered – and $140,000 in cash, the daily La Nación reported.
“Today, we managed to bring the first part of this investigation, chapter one, to a close,” said Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese during the press conference held later that day. “This reveals a modus operandi…that has been in Immigration for a long time and simply needed to continue recruiting new officials to give it a new air in a new administration.”
Dall’Anese praised Zamora, saying that “if all public officials were to act as Mario Zamora in this case, the country could be saved from being taken over by organized crime.”
Berrocal echoed these sentiments, saying Zamora “risked more than his morals and ethics, he risked his life.”
The Public Security Minister, growing visibly angry throughout the press conference, added that “this was how it worked in recent years,” and the case “has many, many implications.” While declining to name names, Berrocal said he was “100% sure” that former, high-up Immigration officials were on the take.
In a surprising move, Berrocal issued an apology for the statements Monday, saying, “I lament that the declarations I made last Thursday at the press conference … could have hurt honest officials from previous administrations,”and that “the fight against corruption should be a commitment to national unity and should not be politicized.” Berrocal and Dall’Anese declined to name which former Immigration officials are under suspicion, or being investigated.