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Five Indicted in Chinatown Dollar-Van Extortion

August 31, 2004. World Journal, pg. 1.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office announced the indictment of five men in Chinatown dollar-van case, accused of terrorizing and extorting money from van drivers.

They face 47 counts, including grand larceny and coercion. The action is widely seen within the community as a sign that the authorities are determined to crack down on this problem afflicting the alternative transportation business in Chinatown.

However, some van drivers say that the extortion is simply a symptom of increasing business competition and that it has nothing to do with gangs. Like many other things in Chinatown, it is difficult to verify whether this is true or false.

The assistant district attorney assigned to the case stated in court that the alternative transportation business is a very lucrative, therefore fiercely competitive.

Unfortunately, bad elements have infiltrated the business and cause a lot of trouble, he said. This is why too much competition ends up in bloodshed.

Since the violence of the dollar-vans running between East Broadway and Brooklyn broke out, Chinatown's 5th Precinct has been working very hard to apprehend all suspects, including initiating a joint search with the Brooklyn's 62nd Precinct, which resulted in the arrest of three suspects in Brooklyn. According to a spokesperson from the 5th Precinct, there are still outstanding warrants for the arrest of other suspects.

The police believe that the incidents leading to the indictment and arrest of these individuals is just "the tip of the iceberg." Violence surrounding the competition of the dollar-van companies and long-distance bus companies has resulted in bloodshed several times. To ensure the safety of both drivers and riders, the police stepped up the patrol of the Chinatown area and conduct road checks from time to time. Police do not rule out the possibility that gangs have infiltrated the bus companies. They also believe that there are victims who have not come forward because they are afraid of the consequences of speaking out.

A dollar-van driver, who is believed to be on the prosecutor's witness list, told a reporter that since the police crackdown, it is much safer for both drivers and riders. The "management fee" that drivers have to turn over to the delinquents has gone down to a more manageable $250. But he also points out that gang members have threatened their family members in China before, so they worry for their safety if they speak out.

However, not all van drivers are happy about this recent development. Several of them went to court during the arraignment to voice their support of the defendants. As it turned out, they didn't have a chance to speak out in court, but they were not deterred from telling their side of the story to anyone who would listen. One driver, who would only give his name as Lee, said that he turned in the "management fee" willingly and not under threat. He said that the "Boss" provided walkie-talkies and hired two English-speaking secretaries to help them dispute traffic tickets. "It is reasonable that he should have money for all these services he provided," said Lee.

Lee also put the blame on drivers of the "other faction," as he called them. He said that the so-called "victims" were actually drivers who have caused the most trouble. They argue with riders all the time. Lee said that after riders complained, the "Boss" asked the offending drivers to hand in a copy of their driver licenses. But these loquacious drivers not only refused to do so, they conspired with other van operators to smear the "Boss," hoping to take control of the business, according to Lee.

The Lee story has its sympathizers. Some people think that the real situation is more complicated than that painted by the authorities. One example is the case of the defendant Ching Hui Cheung. The police found $6,000 on him when he was arrested. The prosecutor says that the money represented "protection fees" he extorted from drivers. But a woman, who also showed up in court during the arraignment, said that the money had nothing to do with extortion. The woman, who owns a restaurant in Florida, claimed she had given Cheung the money to purchase supplies for her, something she had done several times before. She went to court to explain the situation, because she "felt guilty that Cheung ended up in this situation." She also admitted that she wanted the court to give her the money she claimed is hers.

(Translated from Chinese by David Hsieh)


Copyright 2004 Inter Press Service/Global Information Network.

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