RUTHLESS Chinese “Snakehead” gangs masterminded the people smuggling plot which sparked the Essex lorry horror, it was believed last night.
Trafficking gangs founded in the eastern province of Fujian make millions ferrying migrant “slaves” and prostitutes from East to West.
Their profits have rocketed in recent years fuelled by the desperation of peasants prepared to risk their lives to flee the poverty of China’s rural hinterlands.
Investigators say Chinese families of migrants dreaming of a new life in the West pay tens of thousands of pounds for their loved ones’ “safe” passage to the UK.
Gangs promise their human cargo will be gifted well paid jobs in Britain as waitresses or office clerks.
But thousands of women who fall into the Snakehead’s clutches end up as prisoners in brothels – or enslaved in nail bars and underground cannabis factories.
And their families back home never learn of their plight, but are held responsible for their travel costs and continue to pay the gangs for years.
Meanwhile, police are also reportedly focusing their investigation on three suspected Irish gang members they believe may have been involved in the smuggling operation which led to the death of the 39 migrants.
Detectives are investigating the men, who are suspected of being part of a South Armagh criminal gang with links to dissident paramilitaries, The Daily Telegraph reports.
One man has links to a Bulgarian company that owned the lorry cab which transported the refrigerated trailer the migrants' bodies were found in from the port of Purfleet, the paper claims.
Police were last night attempting to piece together the route taken the 39 doomed Chinese victims, confirmed yesterday to be 31 men and eight women.
Cops are investigating whether they were passed between different gangs at borders in Central Asia and Europe before attempting the channel crossing.
Sophisticated Snakehead operations include the use the use of stolen or altered passports, fake visas and bribes to move people from nation to nation.
But they care nothing for the safety of the people they cart around the globe like cattle.
Other tragedies have been linked to Snakehead traffickers.
In June 2000, 58 bodies — 54 men and four women — were found in a refrigerated container lorry in Dover, hidden under boxes of tomatoes and a false wooden screen.
All but two of 60 Chinese migrants loaded into the sealed truck in Holland suffocated in agony after entering the UK – like the recent victims – through Zeebrugge.
An inquest was told how the dying victims banged on the side of the container with their shoes as they ran out of air.
Dutch truck driver Perry Wacker – who closed a vent as he left the Belgian port to avoid suspicion – was jailed for 14 years for his part in the horror but Chinese masterminds cheated justice.
In 2004, Snakeheads were at the heart of another tragedy when 23 Chinese cockle pickers died at Morecambe Bay.
The slave wage workers smuggled illegally into the UK were swept away after being sent to gather shellfish on the notoriously treacherous Lancashire sands.
Gangmaster Lin Liangren was jailed for 14 years – but it was later revealed that families of the dead 5,000 miles away in China were still being chased for travel costs.
Snakehead debt collectors forced several grieving loved-ones to flee their homes and at least one woman was reported to have killed herself.
The scale of the Snakehead empire was first laid bare in 200 with the arrest of the legendary “Mother of All Snakeheads” dubbed “Sister Ping” in Hong Kong.
Ping – who died in a US jail in 2014 – is believed to have smuggled more than 200,000 men and women into the EU and was linked to the deaths of the 58 UK lorry death in 2000.
The National Criminal Intelligence Service said at the time that the organised immigration crime was one of the fastest-growing areas of the underworld.
But the vile trade is believed to have grown in the years that followed – alongside demand and the huge profits for the criminals in charge.
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