THE MAGAZINE

Eastern Inscrutability

By Robert Elliott

U.S. authorities have voiced concerns that transnational crimes throughout Asia involving drugs, arms, and human trafficking are threats that will affect American interests, particularly through links to terrorists. But experts who live in the region say that’s not the case, according to a new National Institute of Justice (NIJ) report.

The NIJ—the research and development branch of the U.S. Department of Justice—spent four months interviewing law enforcement officials, policymakers, scholars, and American officials in eight parts of Asia: Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand. Contrary to the U.S. mind-set, the Asian respondents focused on extortion, gambling, loan sharking, prostitution, debt collection, and violence as major concerns.

Transnational crime was brushed off as a highly specialized activity that overlaps with local organized crime solely within the realm of transportation of goods and people, and stands apart from terrorism. “There is no linkage between transnational organized crime groups and terrorist groups,” according to those surveyed locally, the report said.

Crime trends that the local leaders around Asia considered worrisome varied according to the locale. In Taiwan, a major threat was the adeptness of organized crime kingpins to elevate themselves into powerful political posts and top corporate positions. The Taiwanese call the phenomenon “heijin.” Influential gangsters have managed to become chief executive officers of major business conglomerates in waste disposal, cable television, construction, telecommunications, stock trading, and entertainment. Criminals in Taiwan have also successfully run for public office in order to protect themselves from police crackdowns.

Taiwanese transnational crime is comparatively small potatoes: production and distribution of pirated CDs and DVDs, and some movement in the drug and human smuggling trades. “As in mainland China, respondents in Taiwan reported no concerns about any possible connections between organized crime groups and either terrorist groups or so-called armed opposition groups,” the report said.

China has other outsized problems befitting its monstrous land mass and population: drug distribution and a rising tide of heroin addicts, particularly in the southwest corridor leading to Burma; gambling and prostitution, which were eradicated during the 1949 communist takeover but have made a dramatic comeback; and violent attacks in which heavily armed criminal groups strike out against rival mobsters, citizens, business owners and government authorities. Chinese authorities, however, say transnational problems such as “snakeheads,” or human traffickers, are separate from organized crime and are not run by locals, but rather Chinese-Americans.

Neighboring Hong Kong is home to “triads,” which are secretive, ritualistic criminal organizations that control bus routes and the wholesale, street, and fish markets, as well as entertainment centers, prostitution, and illegal gambling. But triads have generally not ventured into the international scene, sticking with street-level crime. Authorities interviewed said the group does not get into politics, and ideological missions associated with terrorism are above their level of ambition.

Like HK’s triads, Japan has its own particular organized crime groups called the “yakuza.” They specialize in amphetamine trafficking, prostitution, and gambling. Japanese authorities also suspect the yakuza is heavily involved in the transportation and control of immigrants used for the sex trade, but they do not consider this a major problem for two reasons: First, it appears foreigners are not being forced to join the sex trade, and second, the Japanese public has not pressured officials to stop the trend.

Thailand also has distinct criminal groups: the “jao phor,” or “godfathers,” and the United Wa State Army, also known as the “Red Wa.” Jao phor are mostly ethnic Chinese with business interests in legitimate and criminal activities and have infiltrated the police, military, and political bureaucracy. As with the criminal groups in Taiwan, the jao phor have placed people in local administrative posts and play a role in parliamentary elections.

The Red Wa, on the other hand, manufactures and traffics in millions of methamphetamine tablets called “yaba,” or “mad drug.” Transnational crimes committed by all parties include trafficking in women for prostitution. Thai police turn a blind eye because they are handsomely bribed by sex establishment owners and because prostitution plays such an important part in the country’s tourism industry.

Nearby Macau, which like Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, is a gambling Mecca, and its games of chance have been invaded by organized crime. Similar to Thailand, Macanese authorities are loath to crack down on the gaming industry in any way, in their case because their economy relies heavily on gambling tax revenue.

Filipino officials are concerned with high-profile crimes including drug trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, hijacking, bank robbery, and firearms smuggling. In particular, the Philippines are a central point for the trafficking of amphetamines called “shabu.” U.S. government officials who reside in the islands say that these organized crime activities do not spill over into the Philippines-based terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to al Qaeda.

In reviewing the results of the survey, the NIJ researchers found that “contrary to the opinions of many in U.S. law enforcement…the relationship between traditional organized crime groups (such as the triads and the yakuza) and transnational crime is tenuous.” The NIJ recommended that any American intervention focus on funding efforts that fight Asian drug production and trafficking, human smuggling, and trafficking in women and children.

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