Many would-be emigrants will do almost anything to get out of oppressive countries, and those who have money will pay almost anything. The combination of desperation and cash is like a beacon to con artists.

Some residents of Hong Kong were hoodwinked into buying bogus visas to nonexistent islands in the Pacific. They want to get out of Hong Kong before China takes it over in 1997, but the only place they were taken was to the cleaners.

Some Hong Kong residents thought they had bought their way into Venezuela. But in February, Venezuela's top immigration official, Felix Arroyo, was fired after Chinese immigrants began appearing in his country carrying fake visas with his signature on them. According to local police, more than 1,000 people had bought fraudulent visas for nearly $10,000 each through the Venezuelan consul in Hong Kong.

The immigrants are now being detained in Venezuela as the investigation into the multimillion-dollar racket continues. Sources tell us that Arroyo was the second Venezuelan immigration chief fired for falsifying documents.

Venezuela isn't the only place with a visa problem. Last year, authorities in Paraguay issued arrest warrants for four former cabinet members known as the "golden quartet." Among their many crimes under the rule of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner was the sale of Paraguayan immigration papers to high-bidding foreigners.

High-ranking government ministers have been fingered, but the local authorities lack the stomach to investigate the charges.

Ciro Noriega, the consul general of Panama under his uncle Manuel Antonio Noriega, has also been accused of running an illegal passport ring in Hong Kong. Panamanian immigration officials estimate that since 1985 people in China and Hong Kong paid between $10,000 and $15,000 each for papers to enter Panama.

The profit from a single document sale amounted to more than the annual salary of many of the Panamanian bureaucrats involved in the scam. Panama has allowed many of the unfortunate immigrants to stay, but about 1,200 have been sent back home.

Cubans trying to get away from Fidel Castro have met a similar fate at the hands of Noriega and his minions. Over the years, Panama has had a deal with the United States and Cuba to allow Cuban emigrants to stay in Panama while they apply for U.S. visas. In reality, the halfway house concept has been hell for the Cubans. Thousands of them were stranded in Panama for nearly a decade and harassed by the Noriega regime.

Noriega's people would routinely seize the Cubans' passports when they arrived and then charge the Cubans $300 to get their own documents back. Other Panamanians specialized in preying on the Cubans by selling them fake documents.

Roberto Diaz Herrera, a former aide to Noriega, is reported to have made a personal fortune off the Cubans. The new Panamanian government estimates that over the past five years, about 30,000 Cubans have paid corrupt Panamanian officials as much as $15,000 per bogus document.