CCP’s Drug Warfare and Other Illegal Activities in Latin America

July 11, 2022 Updated: July 19, 2022


The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) called out the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for its many nefarious and insidious activities against the United States and the Western Hemisphere, including transnational criminal organizations and Chinese fentanyl traffickers.

“Transnational criminal organizations—including gangs and cartels—perpetuate violence and corruption and threaten the stability of Central American states, including Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador,” the NSS report reads.

Chinese fentanyl traffickers, along with drug cartels, feed the illicit opioid epidemic, which “kills tens of thousands of Americans each year,” according to the report.

(Note: The Biden administration hasn’t published an NSS yet.)

This article will explore a few current examples of CCP illicit activities through Chinese criminal cartels in Latin America and the implications of these illicit activities for the United States, Latin America, and the rest of the world.

Legal Trade: China Versus US

The CCP has made major inroads into Latin America, literally. Of the 31 Latin American countries, 20 are part of the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative’s $160 billion investment. In 2021, China’s Latin American trade exceeded $400 billion, compared to just $295 billion for the United States.

During the June 6–10 botched Summit of the Americas, the Biden administration offered $617 million in aid for the 31 countries in Latin America, which averages less than $20 million per country. Meanwhile, the administration seeks to give $40 billion in military aid to Ukraine. At a May Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit meeting, the administration offered $150 million for the 10 ASEAN countries; China offered $1.5 billion.

Latin America is rich in natural resources. It includes the Amazon region—the world’s largest forest and jungle. Many Latin American countries depend on mining as a major source of exports.

An undated picture of the gold mine Yanacocha, in Cajamarca, 621 miles (1000 kilometers) northeast of Lima, Peru. The biggest gold mine in Latin America, located in the north of Peru, has been crippled by protests from locals who believe activity there has polluted the water supply. Production at the mine, which is run by a subsidiary of U.S. mining group Newmont, the Yanacocha company, was suspended on Aug. 29, 2006. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
An undated picture of the Yanacocha gold mine in Cajamarca, Peru, 621 miles northeast of Lima. The biggest gold mine in Latin America was crippled by protests in 2006 by locals who believe activity there has polluted the water supply. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The CCP is leveraging its superior economic influence in Latin America to demonstrate that it’s winning Latin American hearts and minds, as well as capturing their elites politically and economically.

In recent interviews, U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.) said, “This is our hemisphere that we’re talking about. China is literally eating our lunch.”

And Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said, “China has a plan. We don’t have a plan.”

Not only is the CCP “eating our lunch,” but the CCP also aids and abets Chinese criminal groups in Latin America that conduct drug warfare against the United States.

China’s Organized Criminal Group Activities

Maria Zuppello recently wrote an article in Militant Wire documenting many illicit activities that Chinese criminal groups conduct throughout Latin America. She described the breadth and depth of the illegal drug trade in fentanyl, marijuana, and the emerging market of “non-fentanyl synthetic opioids such as nitazenes, also known as benzimidazole opioids such as the synthetic opioid derivative isotonitazene (ISO), which are 20 times more potent than fentanyl.”

I interviewed her about her research and its implications. The Chinese Mafia is known throughout the region generically as Red Dragon. Some of the more prominent groups (Chinese triads) are A.C., Pi Xiu, Panda, Wan Ke, and Xin. Some gangs have Spanish names, such as “Amistad” (Spanish for “friendship”). In the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, Chinese gangs Fuk Ching, Flying Dragons, and Tai Chen engage in human trafficking.


Fentanyl is the leading cause of death among U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 45. Fentanyl has killed more Americans in this age group than COVID-19.

According to U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.) (the only serving member of the House of Representatives who’s a surgeon), from April 2020 to April 2021, the following deaths were reported in the 18-to-45 age range:

  • Fentanyl deaths: 40,010
  • COVID-19 deaths: 21,335
  • Cancer deaths: 17,114
  • Car accidents deaths: 22,442
  • Suicide deaths: 21,678

Fentanyl and drugs mixed with fentanyl (such as cocaine and methamphetamine) caused the deaths of more than 64,000 people out of the more than 100,000 overdose deaths in the United States. In other words, fentanyl and drugs mixed with fentanyl cause more deaths than the combined deaths caused by COVID-19, car accidents, and suicides of the same age group!

Had the CCP enforced its own laws on trafficking illegal narcotics against Chinese crime groups smuggling fentanyl or its precursor chemicals to Mexico, the CCP could have prevented many of these fentanyl-related deaths.

Epoch Times Photo
A Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chemist checks confiscated powder containing fentanyl at the DEA Northeast Regional Laboratory in New York on Oct. 8, 2019. (AFP via Getty Images/Don Emmert)

Why Do Criminal Cartels Prefer Fentanyl, ISO?

Drug cartels are profit-maximizing organizations; drug potency and production costs are key factors in choosing which drugs to produce and distribute. Fentanyl is cheaper than heroin to produce, and is 50 times more potent than heroin. Drug cartels have smuggled so much fentanyl into the United States that the price has dropped by 50 percent since 2020.

The Biden administration’s policy to relax or eliminate restrictions on transit between Mexico and the United States has also benefited drug traffickers. In 2021, the Drug Enforcement Agency seized “11,201 pounds of fentanyl—a 134 percent increase from fiscal year 2020, and a 400 percent increase since fiscal year 2018,” Murphy wrote in an op-ed for The Daily Advance.

ISO is a synthetic opioid derivative that’s 20 times more potent than fentanyl and is the newest poison that drug cartels are smuggling into the United States. This means that ISO is 1,000 times more potent than heroin!

Chinese Criminal Groups

The leading money laundering entities in Latin America are Chinese-organized crime groups. Zuppello noted that these Chinese criminal groups are a greater threat to Latin America and the United States than non-Chinese organized criminal groups. Chinese gangs operate within a global framework that combines crime, politics, corruption, and economics and allows them to operate in many different countries. Other organized criminal groups don’t have a global framework or have the support of a superpower.

The CCP supports both licit and illicit activity in Latin America. As the region’s electoral politics move left (as seen recently in elections in Colombia and possibly in Brazil this fall), the CCP gains a stronger foothold. In effect, Latin Americans who prefer the United States over China find it difficult to oppose CCP penetration into Latin America’s political, economic, social, and illicit systems.

The following are selected reports of activities cited by Zuppello of Chinese-organized criminal groups in Latin America.


“Chilean officials arrested thirteen Chinese nationals in Santiago in September 2021 for cultivation and trafficking, confiscating over 1,600 marijuana plants,” Zupello wrote. “The network operated between Valparaiso and the capital. A few months earlier, authorities had uncovered over 1,500 plants and 250 kilograms of product in San Antonio, Valparaiso.”

She noted that Sergio Muñoz, head of Chile’s civil police, said, “We also found guns, cocaine hydrochloride, cocaine paste, and ecstasy and uncovered a vast array of offenses associated with this network, ranging from prostitution to money laundering.”


Zuppello pointed out that “Brazilian police investigation revealed that the First Command of the Capital (PCC) used a Chinese accountant and Chinese smugglers to launder money through front companies that were continuously opened and shut. In 2015, Brazilian authorities uncovered that the PCC transferred over $20 million to bank accounts in the U.S. and China.”


Zuppello noted that “in October 2020, the US Justice Department unsealed an indictment accusing six Chinese nationals of laundering approximately $30 million for Mexican drug traffickers over 12 years. US authorities convicted Chinese national Xianbing Gan, a resident of Guadalajara, Mexico, to 14 years in prison in April 2021 for laundering more than $500,000 from Mexican cartels into Chinese banks. However, according to the judges, Gan handled a larger sum, between $25 million and $65 million over a period of two years.”

Other Illicit Activities

Zuppello reported that “cigarettes manufactured in China are the most trafficked items in almost all of Latin America.”

These criminal groups also illegally fish and loot natural resources in the region, including timber (rosewood), wild animals (jaguars), reptiles, sharks, sea cucumbers, totoaba, and abalone. Chinese criminal groups smuggle these items into China.

Epoch Times Photo
Illegal fishing by the Chinese regime in distant oceans is plundering global fisheries resources and destroying the traditional livelihoods of many countries. The picture shows a Chinese fishing vessel operating illegally in Argentina’s exclusive economic zone on May 4, 2020. (Handout/Argentina’s Navy Press Office/AFP via Getty Images)


The CCP has several faces it shows to the world. The most common is that of an aggressive expansionist state that exploits the natural resources of other countries, builds infrastructure to extract those natural resources, and transports them to China. The CCP’s connection to criminal groups and illicit businesses is less known. These two faces allow the CCP to coerce global elites to comply with the CCP’s strategic objectives.

Zuppello’s assessment of the Chinese organized criminal groups highlights a problem for democratic governance in Latin America:

“The left-wing political momentum in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, and most likely Brazil following their 2022 presidential elections, will boost anti-US sentiments and, conversely, strengthen commercial and political ties with China. As a result, some Chinese criminal elements will increase their penetration into local economies accompanying the more legitimate and legal Chinese commercial activity.”

In late June 2022, Colombia elected a left-wing government; its leader is a former member of M-19 (an international criminal cartel).

“Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, Unknown Knowns”

“Known” examples of Chinese organized criminal activity encompassed the material discussed above. Yet the known knowns of organized illegal activity entail only a portion of Chinese organized criminal activity. Disguised and hidden Chinese criminal activity make up a significant component.

Known unknowns:

  • Ongoing criminal investigations that aren’t publicly known.
  • Cooperation with illicit organizations, such as Mexican drug cartels and terror organizations such as Hezbollah and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Unknown knowns:

  • Corruption, for example, illegal deals to extract natural resources from Latin America, and political manipulations through illicit means, extortion.
  • Cooperation among authoritarian governments, such as Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Russia, and Cuba.

Unrestricted Warfare

Chinese organized crime is one of the CCP’s tools to achieve global dominance. In the 1999 book “Unrestricted Warfare,” two People’s Liberation Army Air Force colonels said drug warfare, one of 24 types of warfare, is “obtaining sudden and huge illicit profits by spreading disaster in other countries.”

The CCP executes this drug warfare to achieve the objective of spreading disaster in the United States and other countries, such as killing more than 64,000 young adults every year through fentanyl. Since 1999, the CCP has found many means to conduct illicit warfare.

We should take note of their nefarious activities and act to counter them. The Biden administration has no feasible plan or strategy to keep Latin America from the CCP’s licit and illicit designs and no plan to curtail the murderous drug trafficking occurring on our southern “open” border. Let’s hope this is a temporary problem and that a “reset” will happen soon.

Other countries worldwide should be aware of communist China’s use of illicit criminal groups to achieve its strategic objectives. These Chinese criminal groups pose more than a law enforcement challenge—they’re a national security threat to any country.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Guermantes Lailari is a retired U.S. Air Force Foreign Area officer specializing in the Middle East and Europe as well as counterterrorism, irregular warfare, and missile defense. He was a USAF attaché in the Middle East, served in Iraq, and holds advanced degrees in international relations and strategic intelligence. He will be a Taiwan fellow in Taipei during 2022.