Jun 24, 2016 01:11 PM

Digging Up Death, Extortion in China's Mines

(Bayannur, Inner Mongolia) – The recent indictments of 74 alleged members of a crime syndicate that killed miners, used their corpses to stage fake accidents and extorted mine owners by posing as victims' relatives echoes stories of murder frequently heard in mining regions across China.

The gang has been blamed for a killing spree between 2009 and 2014 that spanned six provinces, according to a statement issued in late May by prosecutors in Bayannur, a city in northern China's Inner Mongolia.

Evidence points to at least 17 murders, the statement said. Sources familiar with the case told Caixin the gang members likely murdered many more but only a few victims were found because the killers hastily cremated bodies to cover their tracks.

The suspects have been charged with murder, fraud, extortion and concealing crimes, prosecutors said.

So far, authorities have neither identified the suspects nor released any information about the victims. Sources familiar with the case told Caixin most of the accused are farmers from Zhaotong, a city in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

While working in small groups, the suspects are said to have lured other farmers into jobs at unlicensed or loosely supervised coal mines with the goal of murder for profit.

A source close to the investigation said the earliest crimes date to 2009. In some instances, the source said, gang members obtained miner's post-mortem compensation payments from mine owners after fabricating deaths. In many other cases, though, mine workers were murdered and their death certificates used to extort cash.

Bayannur police uncovered the first clues in January 2015 while probing a miner's accidental death report. The man had supposedly died a few months earlier at a local iron ore mine.

Investigators later found that a man whose family had received a 680,000 yuan accidental death payment was actually still alive. Follow-up investigations that spanned more than a year determined that gang members had posed as the relatives of workers who supposedly died in mine accidents. Mine owners were told the "relatives" would keep the accidents under wraps in exchange for money.

The gang preyed on mine owners whose operations were not properly licensed with the government, the source said, adding that these owners would rather pay victims' relatives privately than confront government safety inspectors.

Wu Jie, chairman of a coal miners' trade union in Zhaotong, agreed many mine owners would rather pay hush money than face safety inspectors.

Chinese law says the family of a miner who dies in a work-related mishap can receive up to 1 million yuan in compensation. But a mine owner also may be fined up to 5 million yuan and have to shutter operations if safety inspectors get involved, said Wu.

The Bayannur case is the latest to expose the dangers of mining in China, where hundreds of workers die each year. The central government's work safety agency said at least 931 miners died in 2014 due to underground cave-ins or other accidents.

The Bayannur suspects are expected to go on trial in October, prosecutors said, and the list of defendants is expected to grow. Police in Zhaotong have yet to capture all of the gang members, a local police officer told Caixin on June 14.

Crime Dens

A focus of the mine-related crime is the village of Shisun in Zhaotong, population 3,000, in a mountain region where several coal mines shut down in recent years. Subsequent unemployment prompted an exodus of younger men and women who moved away to big cities, leaving the elderly and children behind.

A local official told Caixin that Shisun is among China's poorest areas, where the average worker earns less than 5,000 yuan a year. This poverty apparently drove some to crime.

Three police raids between 2014 and this year led to detentions for more than 50 villagers on charges of murder or extortion, Shisun resident Chen Shuang told Caixin.

Six members of Wang Min's family have been detained, including her father-in-law Yang Shangkang and husband Yang Lulong, she told Caixin. The husband was arrested in May for allegedly plotting to blackmail mine owners.

Also in May, three brothers from the Tao family in Shisun confessed to homicide charges.

Chen said a few of his relatives and acquaintances have also been questioned by police.

Some villagers raised eyebrows in recent years by getting rich quickly, said Chen. Some who left the village for work far away returned after only a few weeks with enough money to build a house or buy a car.

Chen said mine job recruiter Wang Qiangwen was among those villagers who hit the jackpot. A Zhaotong police statement said he was detained with three other Shisun villagers for allegedly staging the 2014 accident at the Bayannur iron ore mine.

In addition, police accused the four in connection with four deadly coal mine accidents, claiming they used the mishaps to collect compensation payments worth 2.5 million yuan. The four were arrested last August at the China-Myanmar border while allegedly trying to flee the country.

Another Zhaotong police suspect is Shisun villager Ai Wangquan. He was arrested last September as the alleged mastermind behind three mine accidents in Shanxi and Shaanxi as well as Inner Mongolia between 2013 and 2014. He allegedly swindled 1.5 million yuan.

Accidental Accomplices

A few Bayannur case ring leaders allegedly made a killing, while most of the suspects did not. Most are said to be poor, illiterate farmers over age 50 who got involved by pretending to be a relative of a mine accident victim, or let the crime gang use their personal identification to scam mine owners.

Yang Yunqing, 47, told Caixin his wife was detained on a fraud charge because she let a gang use his identification card to obtain a fake death certificate, earning some 40,000 yuan. A village official had issued the death certificate, he said.

A local official told Caixin that police in May detained a government suspect on charges of forging death certificates.

A Shisun-area coal mine manager told Caixin his company was victimized by scammers from nearly Sichuan Province after a deadly accident in 2011. Some 380,000 yuan in compensation was paid, but later police found six miners deliberately caused the accident and then extorted the cash.

In a high-profile case, a court in the northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region last September convicted 10 people on charges of using stones, shovels and hammers to kill five workers lured into coal mine jobs in Ningxia as well as Shanxi and Shaanxi between 2010 and 2013. Prosecutors said mine owners paid 2.3 million yuan to the gang, whose members pretended to be relatives of the dead.

In 2014, a court in northern Hebei Province sentenced five people to death and sentenced 16 others to prison in connection with extortion plots through which men were recruited for mine jobs and then killed.

(Rewritten by Han Wei)

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