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Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 13:32 GMT
Cheng Chui Ping: 'Mother of snakeheads'
Cheng Chui Ping in court in the US
Cheng Chui Ping was extradited after her capture in Hong Kong
US authorities say the jailing of Cheng Chui Ping for 35 years puts one of the world's most prolific human traffickers - or "snakeheads" - behind bars.

Cheng was convicted for organising the voyage of the Golden Venture, which had about 300 Chinese immigrants on board when it ran aground off New York in 1993. Ten of them died after being pitched into the sea.

Cheng, 57, is thought to have been responsible for the smuggling of many thousands of illegal immigrants.

Many new arrivals to New York's Chinatown in the 1990s would have owed their passage - and a great deal of money - to Cheng.

She became one of the most recognisable and revered figures in Chinatown - known as Sister Ping, or Big Sister Ping.

Front businesses

Cheng was an illegal immigrant herself. Born in 1949 in the poor farming village of Shengmei in Fujian province, she left her husband and family behind and set out for the West, travelling via Hong Kong and Canada before ending up in New York in 1981.

She entered business straight away, opening a grocery store, and starting on other ventures, but the US authorities say many of these became fronts for her people trafficking business.

Chinese immigrants intercepted in Canada
Thousands of Chinese have attempted to reach North America

Behind her Yeung Sun restaurant at 47 East Broadway, she ran a money-transfer service that undercut high street banks, providing fund transfers for many thousands of immigrants.

Prosecutors said her smuggling network was worth $40m (23m) at its peak, and that immigrants could be charged tens of thousands of dollars for their passage.

"Aliens", as they are termed in the US, were crammed into planes, cars and trucks with fake floors, or would spend months in squalid conditions in shipping containers.

False identity

Business boomed in the early 1990s as, following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the US offered all Chinese students in the US the chance to stay. Thousands flooded in, using false papers to claim their place.

Court papers claimed she had been caught in connection with people smuggling and had agreed to work as an informant for the FBI, but that this did not put her off, and she only expanded her activities.

However, the tragedy of the Golden Venture raised the stakes, and US investigators were soon on her tail.

She returned to China in 1994, and with the FBI closing in she could not return to the US. At least, not under her real name. Officials estimate she made several trips under false identities until she was finally captured at Hong Kong airport in April 2000, carrying three different passports.

In a US court, she claimed she was innocent and only acted under threats from Triad gangs.

"I did not have the ability to arrange for them to be smuggled. When they were short of money, I lent it to them... I was taken advantage of a lot in Chinatown," she said.

However prosecutors dubbed her "the mother of all snakeheads", and said she was "one of the biggest... and most successful alien smugglers of all time".

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