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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Macau police finally seem to be getting serious about cracking down on the triads.
But skeptics call it a "dog-and-pony publicity show"

By Alison Dakota Gee and Paulo Azevedo

MACAU'S COLOANE PRISON IS not the worst place to wind up behind bars. On an early autumn day when the sun is out, the grounds, set on a quiet, breezy hillside near the ocean, seem more like a holiday camp than a jailhouse. Moreover, thoughtful officials have divided the prison into three clearly demarcated "worlds." The first is reserved for inmates associated with the 14K triad; the next is for those belonging to the Big Circle gang; the third for men allied with the Shui Fong crime syndicate. Before an inmate begins his sentence, officials ask his preference of triad neighborhoods. In this way, warring tribes rarely collide.

For several years guards quietly ran a makeshift supermarket next to their dining hall. If a prisoner had a hankering, say, for potato chips, a porn magazine, cocktail or television set, he could buy it. For a while, the guards rented out mobile phones, presumably so convicts could continue to conduct their affairs outside the prison walls. The supermarket did a brisk business until the authorities abruptly closed it about three months ago.

Coloane prison, in short, has come to be known as a triad hotel, a place where gangsters serenely serve out their sentences, returning to the streets refreshed and relaxed - and that is no small thanks to the Justice Department that runs it.

For decades, Macau's Portuguese authorities have co-existed with the Chinese secret societies. Even as the triads grew more powerful with the establishment of gambling casinos, the police have for the most part tolerated the gangsters' activities. The cops' tacit agreement with the triads went something like this: "Don't mess with our city by day, and we won't mess with your business at night."

But that gentleman's agreement has been unravelling for at least two years, starting when rival gangs launched a vicious battle for control of the casinos' high-stakes VIP rooms. The spreading conflict has turned the enclave's Old World avenues into a killing zone. On May 1, this year, the unspoken pact between the cops and gangsters came completely undone with the controversial arrest of 14K's alleged godfather - Wan Kuok-koi, a.k.a. "Broken Tooth."

The man who personally put Wan behind bars is Dr. Antonio Marques Baptista, a.k.a. "Mr. Rambo," a Portuguese prosecutor who for the last three years has been director of Macau's Judiciary Police (Policia Judiciaria, or P.J.) The day Broken Tooth was arrested at the gaudy Lisboa Hotel, a bomb had reduced Baptista's mini-van to a flaming metal carcass. Wan was hauled in under suspicion that he was connected to the supposed assassination attempt. In the end, however, Wan was not charged with attempted murder - rather, he is being detained in "preventative prison" on suspicion of belonging to a triad organization. (His lawyer says he will make a plea if and when he is formally charged.)

Still, the fact that Wan is behind bars at all heralds something of a sea change in Macanese law enforcement. Suddenly, after decades of mostly tolerating organized crime, the Portuguese authorities seem to be sweeping a broom through Macau. There is at least one compelling reason why they might do so. With only 14 months left until China resumes sovereignty, Macau has earned a lawless image worldwide.

In 1996, the triads made their first ever attempt to assassinate a senior official, the head of police intelligence, Col. Manuel Antonio Apolinario. He'd proposed stricter security around casinos. In March the Gambling Inspectorate's No. 3, Francisco Xavier Pinto do Amaral, 45, was shot dead as he walked to lunch near the Lisboa Hotel. Mayhem scares tourists, and it is no accident that tax revenues from casinos reportedly fell 9% in the first four months of this year.

In turn, the triads, concerned about a dwindling take from gambling, have been diversifying - into kidnapping, for example. This year, at least 12 prominent people have been snatched for ransom - and police believe many more abductions have gone unreported. In August, the grandson of gambling tycoon Yip Hon, 46-year-old Yip Wai-tong, was shot in the stomach but managed to fire back at gunmen trying to abduct him. In the past Macau's triads kept pretty much to themselves; nowadays they are willing to target non-gangsters.

None of this is going down well in Beijing. On Sept. 18, the Chinese government, expressing concern about the escalating violence and its impact on business, reversed itself by announcing that troops would be stationed in Macau post-handover, after all. Then earlier this month, Beijing deployed an extra 500 soldiers to Zhuhai, near Macau. Now 4,000 troops are dedicated to fighting organized crime and cross-border smuggling. In the opinion of a police insider, the buildup of mainland troops is a psychological measure aimed at convincing people in Macau and abroad that the enclave is safe.

As to the Portuguese crackdown, a senior Hong Kong detective characterizes it as a "dog-and-pony publicity show." He adds that the Macau police force is much like his own department was in the 1960s and 1970s. "Everyone's on the take," he says, throwing up his hands. Three or four times a year, he and other Hong Kong police officers sit down with their Macau counterparts over dinner and a few bottles of wine to exchange information. "We don't trust them," he says. "And they don't trust us." Into this organization three years ago came Antonio Baptista, the career crime crusader. And since then nothing in Macau has been the same.

Part 1: Good Cops, Bad Cops | Part 2: Ignoring the Obvious | Part 3: A Chinese Solution?

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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