A freighter smuggling kidnapped Chinese children into the United States is commandeered by the authorities in Rocha’s debut novel.
In 1995, Phil is an Immigration and Naturalization Service senior special agent assigned to its Organized Crime and Racketeering Unit, sometimes referred to as “Strike Force.” When a Chinese freighter in the Pacific Ocean is stopped and boarded by members of the U.S. Coast Guard, they discover 160 illegal immigrants, clearly headed for the United States. Phil is sent to Wake Island to interview the passengers, and he soon realizes that about 30 young boys are also onboard who aren’t related to the adults. He quickly uncovers the dark truth: these kids were kidnapped from their families to be sold into slavery, and many have been the victims of grim abuse, including rape. Phil is able to determine who the “snakeheads,” or smugglers, are, and their leader in the United States strategically applies for political asylum in order to avoid repatriation back to China. Much of the book reads like an official governmental record: there are the transcripts of testimony given by the kidnapped boys (in Chinese and English); transcripts from an asylum hearing for one of the snakeheads; notes from the interviews with the passengers; and even grainy black-and-white photographs. There’s also a subplot that follows a Russian spy who offers Phil (and Sharron, an FBI agent and Phil’s good friend) information about the sale of a nuclear bomb by the Russian Mafia. Rocha spent 30 years doing exactly Phil’s job, and so he confidently writes about both the nature of human trafficking and its investigation. The plotline about the smuggled children, in particular, is as mesmerizing as it is sad. However, the author calls his work a “quasi-fictional account” while also saying that he aims at the “pursuit of truth and accuracy”; the result of this is that the reader may be left confused about the line between creative contrivance and actual history. The subplot involving the Russian Mafia also seems completely gratuitous. As a result, it’s not clear why Rocha didn’t simply write a nonfiction memoir.
An extraordinary story with a muddled execution.