HONG KONG - Bundles of foreign currency, a few butcher knives, half a dozen metal bars, computers, mahjong game sets … all wrapped in plastic, labeled and numbered: this is just a sample of the goods seized by Hong Kong police after its annual operation against the triads (Chinese organized crime). Nicknamed Thunderbolt, the operation was made public during a press conference on August 16 at Hong Kong police headquarters.
In one month, from July 9 to August 8, with the help of the Macau and nearby Guangzhou province police forces, the Hong Kong police launched about 1,700 raids on suspicious locations: gambling dens (hence the mahjong sets), underground bars, brothels, massage parlors, nightclubs, casinos, hotels, private apartments, smugglers' warehouses.
Nearly 15,000 policemen took part in the crackdown. 28,000 police interrogations led to 1,191 arrests of suspects aged between 14 and 73-years-old. They were arrested for a variety of offences including drug dealing, illegal weapon possessions and triad membership, which is a crime in Hong Kong. The police seized about 3.5 million Hong Kong dollars in cash (35,000 euros), 40 kg of ketamine and other drugs, tens of thousands of contraband cigarettes and pornographic DVDs as well as contraband gasoline …
These results are “satisfying,” explains head of the organized crime and triad bureau Kwok Ho-fai “thanks to a good coordination of police forces” from the Pearl River Delta. The triads are based in a small region around Macau and its casinos to the west, Zhuhai, Shenzen and Guanghzou just north of the Chinese border and Hong Kong, the financial center, to the east.
Kwok Ho-fai believes that the situation is “stable” and notes that the activities of the triads – these Chinese secret crime organizations of which the eldest ones, like 14K, are over a century old – haven’t changed: trafficking, extortion, forgery, prostitution, gambling … “When the triads’ methods and activities evolve, we adjust too,” he added.
Hong Kong’s favorite new drug
Ketamine has now replaced heroin as the most popular drug on the market. Heroin topped the list until the late 1990s, but now ketamine, a horse tranquilizer, has become the favorite drug of Hong Kong's youths, for its disinhibiting effects. After a few spectacular raids in nightclubs where the drug was circulating, police are now focusing on the sea where evidence is more likely to disappear during a crackdown. Three boats were seized during operation Thunderbolt.
Infiltration is still the most popular tactic used by the Hong Kong police in the war against the triads. “In my zone, on Lantau Island, where the town was built in 1998, youths have nothing to do except for hanging out on the beach. It is easy for the triads to recruit them. All they need to do is give them one gram of ketamine to share. We are able to infiltrate the triads by sending young policemen to be recruited along with other youths,” explains Hui Kwai-sang, in charge of Hong Kong’s southern New Territories zone.
In early August, Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou police forces had already announced a major raid on Macau island, the only place in China where gambling is legal.
Apart from arresting 130 individuals for money laundering, a dozen of luxury watches and two cars were seized. The violent beating by half a dozen men of Ng Man-Sun, 65, a popular figure in the local gambling industry, while having dinner with his wife seems to have openly fuelled tensions. According to the South China Morning Post newspaper, this attack was followed by three murders in July, which may have led to the operation, launched on August 4.
Macau’s casino wars
This bloody episode echoes the darkest hour of the former Portuguese colony: in 1999, when more than 40 people associated with organized crime and the gambling industry were killed. The forthcoming release of Wab Kuok-koi, also known as Broken Tooth, who is believed to be the boss of the 14K triad and who has just spent 15 years in jail, is only making the situation worse. Ng Man-sun, the man assaulted in June, and Broken Tooth are fierce enemies.
In the Chinese city of Zhuhai, across from Macau, the Macao Daily News wrote in May that around ten triads are now specializing in recovering the gambling debts of Chinese customers. Casinos sell these bad debts to “firms” which then use whatever means they want to get the money back.
The war against the triads is far from over. Last week, only three days after the official end of operation Thunderbolt, the Hong Kong police launched another raid – codenamed Landchaser – against counterfeit alcohol traffickers. Six hundred bottles of branded whisky and vodka, filled with bad quality alcohol and meant to be served in accomplice bars, were seized.
Paradoxically, Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world and its crime rate is extremely low.