Crown Resort-linked suspected money launderer arrested in Thailand
08 Feb 2021

An alleged international drug boss suspected of laundering millions of dollars through gaming giant Crown Resorts has been arrested in Thailand, where he is fighting efforts to be extradited to Australia.

The arrest of Chung Chak “John” Lee in late December is part of ongoing efforts by Australian authorities to weaken a transnational organised crime syndicate known as The Company which Asia Pacific policing officials and the United Nations estimated was at times responsible for up to 70 per cent of the methamphetamine entering this country.

Mr Lee, who operated out of Hong Kong and Bangkok, allegedly directed a high-roller gambling tour business that had partnered with Crown to use the gaming company’s Melbourne casino to launder millions in drug funds out of Australia in 2012.

The ease with which Mr Lee and The Company exploited money laundering controls within Crown was revealed in 2019 and 2020 by The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Sixty Minutes and helped spark the Bergin inquiry in NSW into the casino firm. It will deliver its findings within days and Crown is bracing to possibly lose its licence to operate its new Barangaroo casino or be forced to overhaul its senior management and governance.

Mr Lee, 65, is allegedly a senior member of the 14 K Triad – one of the world’s most powerful crime gangs – and is suspected to have conducted international drug trafficking activities over three decades, generating billions of dollars in revenue.

He is also the alleged right-hand man of billionaire Tse Chi Lop, who has been dubbed Asia’s El Chapo in reference to Mexico’s most-famous cartel boss. According to police, Mr Lee and Mr Tse fulfilled various roles within The Company’s multinational structure.

The Australian Federal Police has linked The Company to an ice distribution network in Sydney and Melbourne operating between 2009 and 2013, a record 903 kilograms seizure of methamphetamine in April 2017 and, six months later, another record drug shipment bound for Western Australia. In December 2019, the AFP intercepted another drug shipment from Bangkok: 1.6 tonnes of methamphetamine and 37 kilograms of heroin worth an estimated $1.2 billion.

Mr Tse was arrested in late January en route to Canada at the request of federal police after he was deported from Taiwan.

The arrests of Mr Lee in Thailand and Mr Tse in the Netherlands are among the most significant in the history of the federal police’s efforts to counter organised crime with the help of drug enforcement agencies across Asia, Europe and North America.

Official sources said they signal the determination of federal police Commissioner Reece Kershaw to revitalise the agency’s attack on transnational organised crime, which generates tens of billions of dollars every year in Australia.

Mr Kershaw elevated the combating of organised crime alongside countering terrorism and foreign interference in his 2020 National Press Club address.

While former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s declaration in 2008 that organised crime was a national security priority was heralded at the time by federal and state police agency chiefs as a long overdue recognition of the damage wreaked in Australia by transnational crime syndicates, the fight against organised crime has mostly struggled to get the attention and resourcing of successive federal governments.

This is despite persistent warnings from local and international security agencies that offshore crime groups corrupt government agencies in Australia and overseas, undermine stability in nations with weak governance and engage not only in drug trafficking and money laundering, but human trafficking, cyber crime and weapons smuggling.

Mr Lee has been on the radar of Australian police for almost 40 years. In the 1980s, he was arrested in NSW over a suspected heroin importation in a case that collapsed after a co-accused was found dead in jail.

The federal police’s drug taskforces investigated Mr Lee again in the 1990s and early 2000s, and he is also suspected to have helped set up the 14 K triad drug hub in the Netherlands that flooded Europe with heroin sourced from the Golden Triangle in south-east Asia.

Mr Tse and Mr Lee are suspected to have been jointly involved in multiple billion-dollar drug importations into Australia over several decades and their pending extraditions come 25 years after the pair were arrested by the FBI for smuggling heroin into New York.

By Nick McKenzie, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2021

Read more at The Sydney Morning Herald

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