A TAIWANESE syndicate operating out of Central America has emerged as the driving force behind the smuggling of Chinese immigrants into the United States, investigators believe. The gang, based in Guatemala, has switched from using ships to ferry the aliens, and is now flying most of them into Central America and smuggling them across the US-Mexican border. US State Department and Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) internal reports indicate that despite highly publicised setbacks last year, such as the interception of the Golden Venture and other boatloads of immigrants, the syndicate's business is thriving. Officials also believe that as many as 20 members of the Fuk Ching gang - which was thought to have been smashed when its alleged leaders were arrested in New York and Hong Kong - have moved to the west coast of the US to cash in on the smuggling racket there. The syndicate is run by more than 50 Taiwanese in Guatemala and southern California, with links to Fujian province in China, Hong Kong, and Europe, it is claimed. ''This organisation is very, very big. We're saying it's responsible for about 80 to 90 per cent of the smuggling in the western part of the United States,'' an INS official told the San Francisco Chronicle. ''The boat smugglers are still coming, except they have adjusted - they're just going to Central America,'' one investigator said. A State Department document estimates the syndicate has smuggled at least 20,000 Chinese into the US through Guatemala alone. However, the illegals are also arriving via Honduras, Panama, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and the US territory of Puerto Rico. The classic smuggling trail involves the immigrants flying out of Hong Kong to France, the Netherlands and Russia, and then on to the Central American countries with fake visas. They are then taken by land through Mexico to the US. The INS admits most are not caught. The most recent example uncovered by INS officials was in late October, when more than 50 Chinese were arrested after disembarking from a boat in Puerto Rico. They told officials they had flown from Hong Kong, via France, to the Dominican Republic, wherethey were loaded on to the boat. Direct boats across the Pacific Ocean are still being used, however, and have landed in Guatemala in the past two months, according to US intelligence officials. The three boats which were intercepted by the US Coast Guards off the coast of Mexico in July last year were arranged by the gang, investigators now know. After diplomatic negotiations, Washington persuaded Mexico to process the immigrants and deport them to China. The syndicate reportedly lost US$2 million (HK$15.4 million) from the failed mission. It was also involved in the ill-fated Golden Venture, which ran aground off New York in June. It used the Fuk Ching to organise the departure and arrival, investigators said. Officials suspect Guatemalan immigration staff of aiding the syndicate by taking bribes - reportedly as high as US$500,000. Guatemala's honorary consulate in Hong Kong, now closed, came under the spotlight in 1991 for alleged irregularities in the issuing of visas to Chinese. Taiwanese smugglers travel on false passports, taking Hispanic aliases. California immigration lawyer William Myers says the syndicate is successful because it does not compete with other gangs but, instead, has formed a cartel. with links throughout the main smuggling points.