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Q&A with Te-Ping Chen: Smoking cigarette smugglers out of their holes

Q&A with Te-Ping Chen: Smoking cigarette smugglers out of their holes

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Decades of anti-smoking public health campaigns have turned into background noise. We all know smoking is bad for us, but yet we allow ourselves to get caught up in the sexiness of it when a show like Mad Men comes along. Even our president has admitted to a regular habit.

Against that backdrop, investigative reporters, working as part of the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, managed to do something impossible. They made cigarettes seem dangerous again. Te-Ping Chen was part of the team that put together "Tobacco Underground" and recently accepted the award for best multimedia project at the Association of Health Care Journalists conference in Chicago.

She focused on the exploits of cigarette smugglers with connections to China. Here's how she described Charles and May Liu in the story, "Smoking Dragon, Royal Charm":

By the time the FBI arrested them in August 2005, the Lius had led a team of agents straight into the heart of a vast Chinese smuggling network - one that sold, among other goods, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, fake $100 bills, and weapons from North Korea. And then there was their real gold mine: cigarettes. Low-grade, brand-name counterfeits. Over a billion of them, all told - more than enough to supply every man, woman, and child in America's 50 largest cities with a pack.

I reached Chen at her home office in Washington DC. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: Why cigarettes? Didn't you worry that everyone was bored to tears with stories about how bad cigarettes are for you?

A: Absolutely. We struggled with that feeling ourselves during the year and a half that it took us to do this investigation. The impetus behind this was that the consortium had done an investigation back in 2000 and found evidence of a mass network of smuggling that was being facilitated by Big Tobacco. A decade later, we wanted to see what had changed. Are companies still involved? What does the market look like? What we found was quite surprising. It had become a truly international network of smugglers that were less corporate and more involved with new organized crime, and, in some cases, terrorist groups.

Q: Had you considered other contraband? You talk about pharmaceuticals a little bit.

A: You could easily do the same story doing counterfeit medicine, counterfeit shoes, counterfeit car parts. Literally everything has been counterfeited.

Q: What were your main public record sources for this story?

A: Those were a little bit tricky. We were trying to track these commodities across borders, and there weren't a lot of public records that would provide us a paper trail. My biggest break was persuading former FBI agents to give me old documents they had. Also, court documents were a big source for us. We looked at bills of lading to track some of the shipments.

Q: How did you persuade these agents to talk with you?

A: I basically told them that if they didn't talk, they never would get credit for busting this ring. Once one of them started to open up, they all wanted to tell their side.

Q: But how did you even find them?

A: That took a lot of calls. The FBI press office wouldn't talk about the case. Even though we were talking about a smuggling bust that was two years old, they wouldn't talk about it. So I just started calling the main office that was involved in the bust, asking if I could talk to the agent involved in the case. They wouldn't talk to me, so I started calling retired agents, who in turn referred me to other retired agents who knew the guys who were on the case. They were excited that someone wanted to talk to them about these stories. Counterfeiting doesn't have the glamour attached to it that a lot of other federal crimes do. They tracked these guys for six years. It took up a big part of their professional lives. They had some pretty extraordinary stories to tell but no one yet to tell them to.

Q: Did you discover any new sources of records that you didn't know about before?

A: My best sources were human sources. That was true in China, too. There's not a lot of documentation. I did end up getting some materials from companies who have been investigating counterfeiting from a security angle or a corporate competition angle.

Q: You worked primarily in China and in the U.S., right?

A: Right. All told we had 18 reporters in at least a dozen countries.

Q: When did the terrorist connection get made? And how confident were you in that link? It's certainly something that federal agents like to throw around to justify their operations.

A: It's something that emerged quite early on. In 2004 in Michigan, it emerged that Hezbollah was receiving some funding from smuggling networks. Still, we were skeptical that terrorism was that big of an issue in connection with counterfeiting. But it became clear that terrorist groups have used counterfeit cigarettes as a particular cash cow because the profit margins are so high, much higher than shoes or DVDs or anything else.

Q: What were three big lessons that you got out of this?

A: Start with the basic, seemingly stupid questions. For our topic, the basic question was, "Why is there this odd gap when you compare the numbers of cigarettes that have been exported and the number that have been imported worldwide?" We asked that question and then we just kept going deeper. Where are these cigarettes coming from and where are they going? Who are the people selling them and how are they moving them around? Where do the profits go? I would encourage folks who are looking at these stories of counterfeit drugs or other counterfeit items to talk with some of these private counterfeit cops. Not a lot of reporters use them. In some cases they are less accessible, but there are more of them than there are real cops on the beat.

Q: Where else can reporters go when trying to track down stories internationally?

A. The International Journalists Network. To get a sense of the other reporters doing this work around the globe, look at the Center for Public Integrity's resource list. I also have to recommend the global-L listserv, through which you can connect to folks from Kenya to Romania who might be working on related projects. There are a ton of China-based investigative firms that have great knowledge on counterfeit/smuggling issues, but those might be tricky for U.S. reporters to crack. It would probably be more helpful for them to check this list from the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition. Check out the 'investigative agencies' category of companies. They're mostly U.S.-based, and can be great sources.

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