Mafia extortion of Chinese supermarkets in Argentina – Frank Beyer
In Argentina, a Chinese supermarket – supermercado chino, súper chino, argenchino or even just un chino – is not a store catering to Asian expats. The target market of these shops is the general population. In addition to several aisles of food and alcohol, there is usually a counter to buy meat, cheese and cold-cuts, and a fruit and vegetable stand. An Argentinian might be behind the meat counter, a Bolivian weighing the vegetables and a Chinese attending the till.
On September 18, 2016, on Bacacay Street in the Floresta neighborhood of the Argentinian capital city of Buenos Aires, two men on a motorbike pulled up in front of a small Chinese supermarket. One of them fired two shots through the entrance. In the aftermath there was a lot to clean up, but nobody was hurt.
According to the mechanics of the Chinese underworld in Argentina, this drive-by shooting in Floresta makes sense. It was a warning that extortion money needed to be paid to the Pixiu Triad. This group, although weakened by raids on its strongholds and arrests of many bosses in June 2016, has been the most powerful Chinese mafia organization in Buenos Aires for at least ten years. The Pixiu Triad’s modus operandi is to pose as the fictitious “Chamber of Chinese Merchants, Entrepreneurs and Industries of Buenos Aires Province” and extort new supermarkets for membership fees. Typically, an A4 piece of paper is delivered, demanding payment of US $50,000.
A police photo of one of these extortion notices written in Chinese appeared in many news stories in 2016. The hand-written note reads, “Boss, prepare fifty-thousand dollars, if not the store will be burned down,” and then gives a telephone number and a name (obviously an alias). The Chinese original is: 老板准备五万美金，否则放火烧店. The Spanish translation below the Chinese text in the police photo is “Entrega 50,000 dólares o te enviamos a matar,” which contains the mistranslation “we’ll send [someone] to kill you” instead of “the store will be burned down.” Perhaps an Argentine police officer who had studied a little Chinese did the translation? This mistake aside, the malevolent intent is clear.
Generally, if the telephone number on the piece of paper is not called within five days there will be some warning shots fired, such as the case in Floresta, rather than immediate killings or shop burnings. Most owners pay up and continue to pay for the Pixiu Triad’s “protection.” Such supermarkets are reported to have a sticker of a pixiu on display somewhere, as a sign that they pay their dues to the mob.
A pixiu (貔貅) is a mythological hybrid being with a dragon’s head and a lion’s body, said to be the ninth and last son of the Dragon King, sometimes taken as a Chinese equivalent of the chimera. With female and male variants, they are said to ward off evil and attract and keep wealth. The legend even goes that Taoist masters sealed off the rectum of the pixiu so that when it eats gold, silver and precious stones – its favored diet – it takes them in but doesn’t pass them, hence its symbolism of wealth generation.
From 2009 to 2016 there were 37 mafia attacks on Chinese businesses in greater Buenos Aires, resulting in 21 deaths and twelve people hurt. The large majority of these casualties were Chinese supermarket workers. With Chinese influence and investment in South America, both political and commercial, increasing dramatically since the turn of the 21st century century, perhaps it is little wonder that Chinese organized crime has increased, too.
There are thousands of these Chinese supermarkets to extort in Buenos Aires. It is a huge grid city and there is an average of one Chinese supermarket every nine blocks. Although not as prominent, there are also argenchinos in other cities across Argentina. In other countries in the region, such as Brazil and Paraguay, extortion happens, but there isn’t such a concentration of Chinese-run stores to prey upon. The triads there are heavily involved in other activities, such as counterfeiting. The súper chinos have been springing up and prospering in Argentina since the financial crisis of 2001 that hit local businesses hard, and are largely owned and run by recent immigrants from Fujian Province.
In 2011, the newspaper La Nación reported, erroneously, that in Fujian there were only old people and children left, as everyone had left to work overseas, a good part of them in Argentina. Perhaps in some areas of the Fujian countryside this is true, and many do emigrate, but likely as not rural Fujianese are mostly making a living in the large and prosperous cities of Fuzhou and Xiamen. Argentina has fewer than 150,000 Chinese living there, hardly a drain on Fujian’s population of 39 million. La Nación had the number of Chinese supermarkets in Argentina in 2011 at over 10,000. That number has probably since been reduced, for reasons I’ll discuss later.
The report also claimed the Chinese running the supermarkets can say sí and no in Spanish, but nothing more. In my experience this is a gross exaggeration: I’ve almost never come across a Chinese supermarket worker in Buenos Aires who didn’t have at least conversational Spanish, and I’ve made hundreds of visits to such establishments. These rather hard-to-believe assertions from one of Argentina’s major newspapers are understandable in the light of the fact that in Argentina there is a strong tendency to see the Chinese as strange and impossible to understand (more so than in, for example, Australia and New Zealand, where the assumption still exists but people have been more exposed to Chinese immigrants).
Why have Chinese supermarkets been so successful in Argentina? Typically, large chain supermarkets such as Cotto, Carrefour and Jumbo are sufficient for dry goods but not so much for meat and vegetables – the prices and quality are better at a local carnicería (butcher) and vedularía (grocer). So you end up going to three different places to do your food shopping. These large supermarkets are often out of stock of many things, the lines at the cashiers are long and move slowly, and when you try to pay with 100 peso notes they sometimes don’t have change (this was a big problem before 2010, but because of inflation 100 pesos is no longer a large note). Medium-sized supermarkets like Dia, Disco, Changomás and Carrefour Express are generally terrible. There are street quioscos (kiosks), good for soft drinks, telephone cards and cigarettes but little else, and Argentina doesn’t really have convenience stores of the 7-Eleven kind.
As a one-stop shop to get your dry goods, meat, vegetables and alcohol at a reasonable price, the súper chinos have invariably been the best option. They always have change, as the Chinese owners realize that in Argentina frequent trips to the bank to change large notes into small ones and coins is a necessity. In a culture where social graces are important, locals complain that the Chinese skimp on saying buenas tardes and gracias – but it’s a small price to pay for getting your shopping done quickly. The súper chinos buy in bulk from the same suppliers, and they have been able to keep reasonable prices in a country with consistently outrageous inflation. However, some unlucky owners have been forced to buy almost-expired goods from wholesalers run by the Pixiu Triad – so it pays to check the dates on what you buy.
On the September 22, 2016, four days after the shooting in Floresta, a Chinese citizen was shot three times by sicarios when sitting in his Toyota talking to an acquaintance. The car was parked on a quiet and rather barren side street in the downtown Buenos Aires neighborhood of Balvanera. His killers, who fled on a motorbike, were apprehended not far from the scene after police were alerted by a taxi driver who heard the shots. Unfortunately for the sicarios, a Whatsapp audio message tantamount to a confession of guilt was found on one of their phones. The killers were cousins: one has been sentenced to 18 years in jail, the other to 14. Both were Argentinians – Pixiu and other triads have recently been known to hire local hitmen, whereas formerly there had been a lot of Chinese sicarios on the job.
The person killed in Balvanera, Yu Yumei, was not a simple business man. In fact, he was known to police as the contact person between local sicarios and the Pixiu Triad. He was the one who had arranged the shooting in Floresta – police had been tapping his phone and listened in on a conversation between him and Argentine sicario Nico Faeda. The transcript of the conversation makes it clear that they were planning a shooting. Of the 52 criminal cases police brought against Pixiu, there was evidence that Faeda was involved in two: the shooting in Floresta, and another case where he let off a smoke bomb in a supermarket to intimidate the owner. Faeda now is now locked up in Villa Devoto prison. Argentine news reports speculated that the hit on Yu Yumei was ordered by Pixiu’s big boss, A Di, who himself is in jail after a police operation called Dragon’s Head. Why A Di wanted Yumei dead is a mystery.
Prior to Operation Dragon’s Head, police had been consistently frustrated in their investigations of the Pixiu Triad, especially given challenges listening into conversations in Mandarin, Hokkien and Hakka. Translators from the community could be easily intimidated by the mafia. In the end a Chinese policeman attached to the embassy known as Martin was key in helping police put together the movements of Pixiu bosses.
In June 2016, as the culminlation of Dragon’s Head, police made 40 arrests in 22 raids across greater Buenos Aires. Places raided included restaurants, supermarkets and storage spaces all linked to A Di, whose father is allegedly one of the top triad leaders in the world and currently in jail in China. In the operation police seized guns, bulletproof vests, vehicles, cash and most importantly account books. Police encountered armed resistance; an officer of the Federal Operations Special Group caught a bullet in the head but was saved by his helmet. A Di himself went into hiding, but was later found and arrested at a house on Ramon Falcon Street. His number two and three were also caught; like A Di, they were undocumented in Argentina.
2017 and 2018 have brought new challenges for the súper chinos. Under immense economic pressures, Argentine families are doing more and more shopping at wholesalers. Large supermarket chains are also taking customers away from the súper chinos by offering discount cards. Carrefour has been threatening to leave the country after three years of losses, and President Macri seems sympathetic to the multinational, saying that it is being disadvantaged by Chinese supermarkets that don’t pay taxes. The market in the city of Buenos Aires is saturated, and some chinos are closing while others are moving out to smaller towns.
As for the mafia, although the Pixiu Triad’s power has been reduced, other groups are stepping up to the plate. At the end of January 2018, a Chinese supermarket owner was gunned down on the footpath outside his store, also in Balvanera. This time the assassin, of Asian appearance, got out of a van containing three others. Seven bullets were fired and one of them hit a two-year-old girl walking by with her mother. The bullet injured the girl’s leg and she was taken to hospital. The Chinese man killed was 33 and had been in Argentina since 2004.
Florencia, a resident of the building adjoining the supermarket, talked to TV channel C5N. She summed up the situation with her comments about the Chinese family who ran the supermarket, “They are great people who are always working, their rent and expenses are very high, and on top of that they have to deal with the Chinese mafia.” ∎