The Case of the Snakehead Queen
The Case of the Snakehead Queen
Chinese Human Smuggler Gets 35 Years
Cargo ship used for human smuggling
She was once one of the most powerful underworld figures in New York. To her associates and followers, she was “the Mother of all Snakeheads” (that’s criminal slang for human smugglers). In Chinatown, she was affectionately called “Sister Ping.” Now, following Thursday’s sentencing in a U.S. District Court, Cheng Chui Ping faces 35 years in jail.
Her crimes? Extensive…and lucrative. For more than a decade, Cheng smuggled as many as 3,000 illegal immigrants from her native China into the U.S.—collecting more than $40 million from immigrants by charging upwards of $40,000.
Her methods? Brutal. Cheng allowed some customers to pay part of their fee, but once in the U.S. they were held or threatened with violence until the balance was paid. Cheng often employed the notoriously violent Fuk Chin Gang for muscle.
Conditions aboard the smuggling vessels were often inhumane. In June 1993, a rickety cargo ship named the Golden Venture (pictured above) carrying some 300 illegal immigrants ran aground off the coast of Queens, New York, after a miserable three-month voyage. Ten immigrants, including one of Sister Ping’s customers, drowned while trying to swim to safety.
We knew about Cheng before the Golden Venture tragedy. In fact, she had been arrested for alien smuggling and had been an informant against other smugglers. All the while, she continued to run her own operations. It was our efforts to break the Fuk Chin Gang that led to Cheng’s downfall. Some members of the gang cooperated with our investigation into her activities, leading to her indictment in 1994.
Cheng—once an illegal immigrant herself—started her smuggling service shortly after she entered the U.S. in 1981. Her business flourished and she joined with other snakeheads to buy ships that could carry more desperate immigrants at a time. During the early 1990s, she ruled her enterprise from a variety store in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Using her illegal proceeds, she also ran a legitimate travel agency and real estate company. Many customers were illegal aliens she’d smuggled into the country. At the height of her operations, she owned restaurants, a clothing store, and real estate in Chinatown, as well as apartments in Hong Kong and a farm in South Africa.
After her indictment, Cheng fled to China, where she continued to run a smuggling operation. In April 2000, Hong Kong police on the lookout for the FBI arrested her at the airport. Cheng fought extradition to this country, but was eventually delivered to the U.S. in July 2003. By the time she arrived here, we had put together a witness list of 25 people for her trial from around the world, including Guatemala, Canada, the U.S., and Hong Kong. She was convicted in New York less than two years later on multiple counts, including money laundering, conspiracy to commit alien smuggling, and other smuggling-related offenses.
Thanks to the work of the Hong Kong Police, our New York field office, our Legal Attaché in Hong Kong, and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, justice has finally been served for the many victims of Sister Ping.