Murder in the mines

An extraordinary murder and blackmail scheme in China has highlighted problems with the country's illegal and unregulated mines.

Late last week, China’s Xinhua news agency reported that police had uncovered a deadly con game in Sichuan province in which mentally disabled people are kidnapped, transported to coal and iron mines and murdered. The perpetrators make the deaths appear to be mine accidents, then, posing as members of the victims’ families, attempt to blackmail the mine operators by threatening to report the deaths to the government. This not-uncommon scam usually involves migrant workers, and this is the first time STRATFOR has seen the mentally disabled victimised.

China’s mining operations are cited often as the most dangerous in the world. In 2007 and 2008, between 4,000 and 5,000 miners reportedly were killed in accidents each year in Chinese mines, though many deaths go unreported, and human rights groups suspect that as many as 20,000 are killed each year. The central government is trying to tighten mine-safety regulations, but many mines are illegal and unregulated, and the problem is worsened by bureaucratic corruption. A 2007 report claimed that 4,500 government officials held stakes in illegal coal mines and are quick to cover up any injuries or deaths.

As part of China’s economic restructuring, Beijing has tried to consolidate the mining sector, and many small mines with the proper permits have been deemed inefficient and shut down. Beijing has closed more than 12,000 small coal mines since 2005, according to China Daily. Many such mines are major sources of income for local governments, and even when they are "closed” by the central government, local officials allow them to continue operating.

In late November, nine people were arrested in Sichuan province in the Liangshan Yizu Autonomous Region for trafficking people to mines in Hebei, Fujian, Liaoning and Sichuan provinces in a murder-blackmail scheme. Xinhua cited one example of three of the suspects beating a mentally disabled person to death with a rock in an iron mine in eastern Fujian province on April 28, 2009. One of the suspects then approached the mine owner, posing as a family member of the victim. The group has allegedly killed 17 people – all of whom were mentally disabled — in nine different provinces since 2007. The report also says "dozens” more victims have been rescued from the group.

The first arrest in the case was made on May 13, after the murder in Fujian province. In that case the extortionist was arrested, probably after the mine owner suspected something, but the rest of the group was not apprehended until late November.

In a related case, a miner named Huang Suoge, from the same area in Sichuan, died on November 23 in a "mining accident’ two days after starting work at a coal mine operated by Chengui Mining Group in Daye city in Hubei province. On November 28, three more people claiming to be relatives of Huang demanded 200,000 yuan (about $29,000) in compensation from the mine owner. The chairman of the mining group said they discovered that the real Huang Suoge had committed suicide three years before. Investigations after this case revealed the network in Sichuan. The fact that the Chengui mine was a legal operation may explain why the criminal network was uncovered and reported by the media.

The Sichuan case likely is due to the lack of development and jobs in the mainly rural and mountainous province. Families and schools for the mentally disabled simply may have neglected the people in their care, or they may have been convinced that the network was finding meaningful employment for them. It also is possible that disabled family members were sold to the network.

The criminal activity can go both ways. To avoid being reported to higher-level governments, the owners of illegal mines will go so far as to bribe journalists not to report accidents. In one instance, a journalist from the Farmer Daily was sentenced to 16 years in prison on December 31 for accepting 200,000 yuan not to report a mine accident that killed 35 people in Hebei province. Such a fertile environment for criminal activity may see more infiltration by organized crime groups in protection schemes, and mine owners may have to find more effective ways to counter the extortion threat.

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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