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Human trafficker's last days of freedom

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 29 June 2003

"I dream I'm returning to China and I am being arrested by the police. I am always having nightmares."

These are the words of Sister Ping who was jailed in the Netherlands last week for smuggling people from China into Britain.

It was her gang that was responsible for the ill-fated operation in which 58 people suffocated while hidden in a truck bringing a cargo of tomatoes through Dover.

But what emerged from the trial was the sheer scale of Sister Ping's human trafficking. It's estimated that she could have been responsible for more than a quarter of all Chinese illegal immigration into Britain.

Adrian Gatton gained exclusive access to the police phone taps of Sister Ping and reports now on how she made, and lost, a fortune trading in misery of others:

The female voice on this tape is that of Sister Ping, thought by law enforcement agencies to be one of Europe's biggest human smugglers.

Phone Tap

Woman: What's the problem?

Man: There's a problem with the flight

Woman: I see. So it's the flight, not the documents.

It's one of over 12,000 phone intercepts made by Dutch police investigating Chinese human smugglers - known as snakeheads. The principal target of their operation was Sister Ping.

Remco van Tooren, Dutch Prosecutor:

"As far as our information gives us insight you could say that she is a big one, absolutely one of the biggest."

On Friday, Sister Ping, real name Chen Jing Ping, was convicted in Rotterdam for leading a criminal organisation and human smuggling. She was, however, acquitted of direct involvement in the Dover transport in which 58 Chinese died.

Police spent three years trailing Ping's international operations. At the time of Dover, she had already been under surveillance for eighteen months. But it was not until May last year that police had enough evidence to arrest her.

Remco van Tooren, Dutch Prosecutor:

"The Chinese community has been for long time and still is I think a very closed community in the Netherlands so she could do a lot of things without a lot of people in Dutch society knowing about it."

In a leafy Rotterdam side street, we found one witness who's been deep in the city's Chinese underworld.

Kuo Lee Ah - she worked for Ping and has served time in jail for human smuggling. She told us how violent Ping could be.

Kuo Lee Ah:

"Just the name Sister Ping sends cold shivers down my spine. If she needs you then she has a way of talking and you just do what she wants. She's very charming, you can't refuse her."

The Orient restaurant in Rotterdam's Chinatown district was Sister Ping's headquarters and it was here that she established her monopoly for smuggling clandestine Chinese from Europe to Britain.

But it was also in 1998 the scene of a ferocious attack on a snakehead, whom she believed was trying to muscle in on her business. It took place up there on the first floor.

Lam Chee Ming was eating dinner when five men attacked him with hammers, an axe and a pistol. According to Ms Kuo, Sister Ping directed the assault from her mobile phone.

Kuo Lee Ah:

"Someone stuck a pistol in his mouth and turned it round deep in his throat. A horrible noise, that will always stay with me."

Lam was unable to eat solid food for weeks.

Kuo Lee Ah:

"I was sitting against the wall. I didn't dare watch. I looked the other way. I only heard the screams."

So just exactly what is it that motivated Sister Ping?

Her origins are obscure. But it seems the smuggler was herself smuggled from Fukien in south east China twelve years ago.

Her trade grossed more than £15m in five-years. It fuelled a hard-living lifestyle including ecstasy, men, clothes and gambling.

She was addicted to mah jong. A casino source told us she blew three quarters of a million pounds on Rotterdam's gaming tables.

Kuo Lee Ah:

"She once told me she spent 40,000 guilders on clothes in one week."

Remco van Tooren, Dutch Prosecutor:

"We think that greed has brought her to bring more and more people from China to the Netherlands, to smuggle more and more people because we cannot find any other motivation in the file for her actions."

The Dutch police phone taps provide an extraordinarily detailed picture of the extent of Ping's criminal trade.

By June 2000 the numbers being smuggled were reaching record levels. Just six-days before the fatal Dover convoy, she was heard negotiating with another snakehead.

BEFORE DOVER

Sister Ping calls Zang Fen Mei, 12 June 2000 at 7.09 pm

Sister Ping:

"You name the price, I have a future with you and then you can do the business."

Zang Fen Mei

"Where is your business - in England?"

Sister Ping:

"Yes, it's between 100 and 200 a month."

Zang Fen Mei

"100 to 200?"

Sister Ping:

"Not always 200 but at least 100."

And then her accomplice reveals one of their biggest problems.

Zang Fen Mei

"Everyone is stranded here, I have to feed them and it costs me a lot of money."

Sister Ping:

"Me too, more than a 100 people. It's costing me more than a hundred thousand guilders."

Seven days later Ping's gang loaded 60 Chinese into the back of a truck bound for Dover. Only two came out alive. The deaths sparked a worldwide police investigation. But Ping wasn't about to retire. As the Dutch investigation shows, she remained in control behind the scenes.

Remco van Tooren, Dutch Prosecutor:

"She was in the background, she's pulling strings. So therefore people talk about her that it was her organisation and her transport but not in the sense that she is actually doing things."

The brothers, Wu and Liu, ran the day-to-day smuggling. They were both convicted of organising the Dover convoy. But even two years after Dover, they were taking instructions from Ping. It was business as usual.

In May last year police raided this safehouse. The phones were crackling. Wu and Liu called Sister Ping. They used code - referring to the migrants as 'things' or 'children'.

THE SAFEHOUSE: 1

Wu calls Sister Ping, 4 May 2002

Wu

"Something's happened there."

Sister Ping:

"Where? Our house?"

Wu

"There are more than 40 things . It happened today in Rotterdam."

Sister Ping:

"Had you been making a noise?"

Wu

"The children didn't make any noise. they were all locked up upstairs."

Sister Ping:

"OK don't talk any more. I'll talk to your brother."

THE SAFEHOUSE: 2

Liu calls Ping

Liu

"Sister?"

Sister Ping:

"Is something wrong?"

Liu

"No."

Sister Ping:

"You're talking crap. Get me the real story, I want to know what happened."

So did Sister Ping have a conscience? This is a late-night call with another snakehead, as the police net tightened.

THE NIGHTMARES

Zhi Ming calls Ping, 19 March 2002 at 10.00pm

Sister Ping:

"If I wasn't playing mahjong then I would have nightmares at night about people that are looking for me."

Ze Ming

"Are you that bad at accepting those things psychologically? That can't be."

Sister Ping:

"Yes, I really don't feel good. Everything's rotten, a lot of worms come out. I pass the people and try to run by them and I can't make it. I dream I'm returning to China and I am being arrested by the police. I'm always having nightmares. I don't when I'll get rid of them."

The two snakeheads go on to search for justification for their years of smuggling.

Ze Ming

"We only wanted to make a bit of money. We're not criminals, we have a good heart."

Sister Ping:

"Yeah, that's right ... you know the old proverb 'I didn't kill that person with my bare hands but I'm responsible for the death of that person'."

Ze Ming:

"In our hearts we're good."

Sister Ping:

"We're doing business, but we also helped a lot of people."

Ze Ming

"Yeah, that's right."

Sister Ping:

"We helped a lot of people, didn't we?"

Sister Ping is in jail now. But what is her legacy?

She's thought to have smuggled around 7,000 people from her home province to Britain - that's about a quarter of all mainland Chinese living here. The irony is that the criminal Sister Ping, has created a thriving new community in Britain that's here to stay.

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