The hunt for Asia’s El Chapo
16 Oct 2019

He is Asia’s most-wanted man. He is protected by a guard of Thai kickboxers. He flies by private jet. And, police say, he once lost $66 million in a single night at a Macau casino.

Tse Chi Lop, a Canadian national born in China, is suspected of leading a vast multinational drug trafficking syndicate formed out of an alliance of five of Asia’s triad groups, according to law enforcement officials. Its members call it simply “The Company.” Police, in a nod to one of Tse’s nicknames, have dubbed it Sam Gor, Cantonese for “Brother Number Three.”

The syndicate, law enforcers believe, is funneling tonnes of methamphetamine, heroin and ketamine to at least a dozen countries from Japan in North Asia to New Zealand in the South Pacific. But meth – a highly addictive drug with devastating physical and mental effects on long-term users – is its main business, they say.

In what it calls a conservative estimate, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the Sam Gor syndicate’s meth revenue in 2018 at $8 billion a year, but says it could be as high as $17.7 billion. The UN agency estimates that the cartel, which often conceals its drugs in packets of tea, has a 40% to 70% share of the wholesale regional meth market that has expanded at least fourfold in the past five years.

This unprecedented boom in meth production has triggered an unprecedented response, Reuters has learned. Tse, 55, is the prime target of Operation Kungur, a sprawling, previously unreported counter-narcotics investigation. Led by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Operation Kungur involves about 20 agencies from Asia, North America and Europe. It is by far the biggest ever international effort to combat Asian drug trafficking syndicates, say law enforcement agents involved in the investigation. It encompasses authorities from Myanmar, China, Thailand, Japan, the United States and Canada. Taiwan, while not formally part of the operation, is assisting in the investigation.

A document containing AFP profiles of the operation’s top 19 syndicate targets, reviewed by Reuters, identifies Tse as the leader of the syndicate. According to the document, the organization has “been connected with or directly involved in at least 13 cases” of drug trafficking since January 2015. The document does not provide specific details of the cases.

A Taiwanese law enforcement flow chart identifies Tse as the “Multinational CEO” of the syndicate. A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) intelligence document shared with regional government agencies says Tse is “believed to be” the leader of the Sam Gor syndicate.

Police have not publicly identified Tse as the suspected boss of the trafficking group.

Some investigators say that the scope of the syndicate’s operation puts Tse, as the suspected leader, on par with Latin America’s most legendary narco-traffickers. “Tse Chi Lop is in the league of El Chapo or maybe Pablo Escobar,” said Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and Pacific representative for UNODC. “The word kingpin often gets thrown around, but there is no doubt it applies here.”

Reuters was unable to contact Tse Chi Lop. In response to questions from Reuters, the AFP, the DEA and Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau said they would not comment on investigations.

During the past year, Reuters crisscrossed the Asia-Pacific to uncover the story of Tse and his Sam Gor network. This included interviews with more than two dozen law enforcement officials from eight countries, and reviews of intelligence reports from police and anti-narcotics agencies, court filings and other documents. Reuters spoke to militia leaders in Myanmar’s Shan State, the heart of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, where the syndicate is suspected of mass producing drugs in so-called super-labs. Reuters reporters also visited the Thai compound of one of the syndicate’s alleged drug lords.

What emerges is a portrait of an organization that is truly transnational. Four of the 19 Sam Gor syndicate leaders on the AFP list are Canadian citizens, including Tse, whom police often refer to as “T1” – the top target. Others hail from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and mainland China.

The syndicate is enormously wealthy, disciplined and sophisticated – in many ways more sophisticated than any Latin American cartel, say anti-narcotics officials. Sam Gor supplies a bigger, more dispersed drug market and collaborates with a more diverse range of local crime groups than the Latin cartels do, including Japan’s Yakuza, Australia’s biker gangs and ethnic Chinese gangs across Southeast Asia.

The crime network is also less prone to uncontrolled outbreaks of internecine violence than the Latin cartels, police say. The money is so big that long-standing, blood-soaked rivalries among Asian crime groups have been set aside in a united pursuit of gargantuan profits.

“The crime groups in Southeast Asia and the Far East operate with seamless efficiency,” says one veteran Western anti-drugs official. “They function like a global corporation.”

Like most of the law enforcement agents Reuters interviewed, the investigator spoke on condition of anonymity.

In addition to the contrasts between their drug operations, there’s another, more personal, difference between Tse Chi Lop and Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman or Pablo Escobar. The jailed Mexican cartel boss and the deceased Colombian cocaine trafficker have been feted in song and on screen for their extravagant lifestyles and extreme violence. Precious little has been revealed about Tse’s life and career. Unlike the Latin drug lords, Tse is relatively discreet – and still free.

A TRIP, A TRAP

Tse Chi Lop was born in Guangdong Province, in southern China, and grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution. Amid the bloody purges, forced labor camps and mass starvation, a group of imprisoned members of Mao’s Red Guard in the southern city of Guangzhou formed a triad-like criminal enterprise called the Big Circle Gang. Tse later became a member of the group, say police, and like many of his Big Circle Gang brethren moved to Hong Kong, then further afield as they sought sanctuaries for their criminal activities. He arrived in Canada in 1988.

In the 1990s, Tse shuttled between North America, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia, said a senior AFP investigator based in Asia. He rose to become a mid-ranking member of a smuggling ring that sourced heroin from the Golden Triangle, the lawless opium-producing region where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, China and Laos meet.

In 1998, according to court records, Tse was arraigned on drug-trafficking charges in the Eastern District Court of New York. He was found guilty of conspiracy to import heroin into America, the records show. A potential life sentence hung over his head.

Through a petition filed by his lawyer in 2000, Tse begged for leniency.

His ailing parents needed constant care, he explained. His 12-year-old son had a lung disorder. His wife was overwhelmed. If freed, vowed Tse, he would open a restaurant. He expressed “great sorrow” for his crime, court records show.

The entreaties appear to have worked: Tse was sentenced to nine years in prison, spent mostly at the federal correctional institution in Elkton, Ohio. But his remorse may have waned.

After he was freed in 2006, police say he returned to Canada, where he was supposed to be under supervised release for the next four years. It’s unclear when Tse returned to his old haunts in Asia. But corporate records show that Tse and his wife registered a business, the China Peace Investment Group Company Ltd, in Hong Kong in 2011.

Police suspect Tse quickly returned to the drug game. He “picked up where he left off,” said the senior AFP investigator. Tse tapped connections in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and the Golden Triangle, and adopted a business model that proved irresistible to his customers, say law enforcers. If one of his drug deliveries was intercepted by police, it was replaced at no extra cost, or deposits were returned to the buyers.

His policy of guaranteeing his drug deliveries was good for business, but it also put him on the radar of police. In 2011, AFP officers cracked a group in Melbourne importing heroin and meth. The amounts were not huge – dozens of kilos. So, rather than arrest the Australian drug dealers, police put them under surveillance, tapping their phones and observing them closely for more than a year. To the frustration of the Australian drug cell, their illicit product kept getting intercepted. They wanted the seized drugs replaced by the syndicate.

The syndicate bosses in Hong Kong were irate – their other drug rings in Australia were collecting their narcotics and selling them without incident. In 2013, as the patience of the syndicate leaders wore thin, they summoned the leader of the Melbourne cell to Hong Kong for talks. There, Hong Kong police watched the Australian meet two men.

One of the men was Tse Chi Lop. He had the center-parted hair and casual fashion sense of a typical middle-aged Chinese family man, said one AFP agent. However, further surveillance showed Tse was a big spender with a keen regard for his personal security. At home and abroad, he was protected by a guard of Thai kickboxers, said three AFP investigators. Up to eight worked for him at a time, and they were regularly rotated as part of his security protocol.

Tse would host lavish birthday parties each year at resorts and five-star hotels, flying in his family and entourage in private jets. On one occasion, he stayed at a resort in Thailand for a month, hosting visitors poolside in shorts and a T-shirt, according to a member of the task force investigating the syndicate.

Tse was a frequent visitor to Asia’s casinos and fond of betting on horses, especially on English races. “We believe he lost 60 million euros (about $66 million) in one night on the tables in Macau,” said the senior Asia-based AFP investigator.

By Tom Allard, Reuters, 14 October 2019

Read more at Reuters

Photo: Radspunk [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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