Thu, Oct 17, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The hunt for Asia’s El Chapo

A multinational task force has been trailing a China-born Canadian, the suspected kingpin of a vast drug network raking in up to US$17 billion a year

By Tom Allard  /  Reuters, BANGKOK

Illustration: Mountain People

He is Asia’s most-wanted man. He is protected by a guard of Thai kickboxers. He flies by private jet. Police say that he once lost US$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.

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 UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the Sam Gor syndicate’s meth revenue last year at US$8 billion a year, but says it could be as high as US$17.7 billion. The agency estimates that the cartel, which often conceals its drugs in packets of tea, has a 40 percent to 70 percent 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, law enforcement agents involved in the investigation say.

It encompasses authorities from Myanmar, China, Thailand, Japan, the US 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 US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) intelligence document shared with regional government agencies shows that 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 the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau in Taipei 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.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top