Asia’s drug ‘kingpin’ more Hollywood than reality
Bertil Lintner, Chiang Mai/Asia Times
The Asia-Pacific drug trade has a new kingpin, at least according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and some Western anti-narcotics officials.
His name: Tse Chi Lop, a Chinese-born Canadian citizen also known as Sam Gor, or Brother No. 3 in Cantonese, who is reputedly the leader of a gang that controls most of the region’s illegal and wide-reaching methamphetamine trade.
In October, Reuters published an in-depth investigation exposing Tse’s new “Asian meth syndicate”, which according to report controls the bulk of the region’s rampant trade in the narcotic.
The Reuters report referred to him as “Asia’s most-wanted man” who runs a “vast multinational drug trafficking syndicate” in alliance with “five of Asia’s triad groups.”
The UNODC, the report said, estimates Tse’s syndicate’s 2018 revenues at US$8-17.7 billion in 2018, with Asian sales reaching from Japan to New Zealand. Tse, who’s whereabouts are unknown, has not responded to the allegations.
In the report, Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and Pacific representative for UNODC, was quoted as saying: “Tse Chi Lop is in the league of El Chapo or maybe Pablo Escobar. The word kingpin often gets thrown around, but there is no doubt it applies here.”
Other seasoned observers, however, take issue with the Hollywood-like portrayal of Asia’s drug trade, which they argue is instead run by loosely and informally organized networks, and not by an over-arching, all-powerful “kingpin.”
Ko-lin Chin and Sheldon X Zhang, two of America’s most accomplished criminologists, have shown in seminal books like “The Chinese Heroin Trade” and “The Golden Triangle: Inside Southeast Asia’s Drug Trade” as well as numerous papers and articles that “Chinese [drug and crime] networks are horizontally structured, fluid, and opportunistic.”
They have also argued that, in private conversations, “even US drug enforcement officials in the field have acknowledged that there are no drug kingpins, or at least they have not seen any in China or Southeast Asia.”
Chin and Zhang state categorically in their books and research papers that they have never uncovered any evidence of significant triad involvement in the drug trade. Some triad members may deal in drugs but their main illicit income derives chiefly from enterprises such as construction, extortion, gambling, prostitution and fraud.
Indeed, the use of the term “kingpin” is and has always been misleading when referring to narcotics suppression in the Golden Triangle, the notorious drug-producing area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, and other notorious drug-making areas in Asia.
A “kingpin”, by definition, is the pin at the center of bowling and if toppled all the other pins often fall as well. But history has shown time and time again that this is not how the Asian drug trade is structured; as one alleged “kingpin” falls, others are left still standing and conveniently in place to take on the misnomer mantle.
The notion of a drug “kingpin” is often manufactured as a distractionary focal point while other actors including supposedly legitimate businessmen and even state officials wheel and deal narcotics under the radar. But naming and shaming supposed kingpins could have diplomatic as well as legal consequences.
In the early 1970s, Luo Xinghan, or Lo Hsing-han, a warlord from the Kokang area in Myanmar, was crowned “king” of the Golden Triangle by media and some Western anti-narcotics officials.