Federal prosecutors launched a broad legal assault on two of Chinatown's most prominent organized crime groups Friday, aiming to disrupt a new wave of mobsters who thrive in a global economy by smuggling immigrants and counterfeit goods around the world.
FBI agents and police officers descended on Manhattan and Queens and arrested nearly 30 suspects, all ethnic Chinese. In all, prosecutors brought charges against 51 suspected members of the Wang and Lim crime organizations, accusing them of beating and shooting rivals and customers, operating gambling houses and smuggling illegal immigrants, two and three at a time, from China via airplanes.
Often the gangs, whose members hail from Fujian province northeast of Hong Kong, hold their human cargo hostage in dingy apartments until families agree to pay ransoms of as much as $35,000 per person.
The federal indictments -- known as Operation Panda -- mark another page in the history of organized crime in New York. While few prosecutors are ready to bid a final farewell to the Italian American Mafia families, old age and assimilation, not to mention countless indictments and violence, have taken an inevitable toll on those groups.
The new underworld increasingly belongs to more recent ethnic arrivals, some of whom work in tandem with the old Mafia lions. "As in the early days of the traditional organized crime groups, the victims were people of their own immigrant communities," said Pasquale J. D'Amuro, assistant director of the New York FBI office.
Last week, federal prosecutors in Westchester County and the Bronx announced a crackdown on the Rudaj organization, a group of suspected Albanian mobsters. Albanian mob chieftain Alex "Uncle" Rudaj and a group of Albanian, Greek, Arab and Italian soldiers presided over a domain that extended from Queens to the Bronx and the suburbs north of the city, prosecutors said. Many of these territories once were provinces of the Gambino, Colombo, Bonanno and Lucchese crime family empires.
The charges came straight from the old Mafia playbook: extortion, attempted murder and gambling.
"The newcomers have adopted the swagger and the nicknames favored by previous generations of gangsters," according to the indictment. The Chinese gangsters go by such names as "Cat Sister" and "Mustache," while the Albanians favored "Nicky Nails" and "Shad the Rooster," the legal papers show.
Police nabbed Wang Shao Feng, the alleged ringleader of the Wang organization, as he left a farewell party in Manhattan's Chinatown. He had planned to return to China, according to the World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper.
The mob leader apparently thrived by running rackets aimed at the tens of thousands of poor Fujianese immigrants who have poured into New York City in the last two decades, often displacing old-line Cantonese families and business organizations known as "tongs."
Many of those immigrants wind up selling counterfeit merchandise to tourists and bargain-seekers in Chinatown. The mobsters supply the goods and slowly draw the immigrants into a web of debt, encouraging them to take out loans and run up bills at illegal gambling parlors.
"The groups are organized not in a complex way as we have seen in the past," police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said Friday. "They hang like a cloud over this community."
The new arrivals speak a dialect that is all but unknown to many second- and third-generation American Chinese.
"The Fujianese survive in a large underground economy, and there's exploitation, and it can be a very ruthless life," said Peter Kwong, a professor in Hunter College's Asian American studies department. "They are exploited and threatened with violence, and we don't hear that much about it."