Editor’s Note: Jeremy Douglas is the Regional Representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He can be followed on Twitter @jdouglasSEA. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
The Sam Gor syndicate and its leader, Tse Chi Lop, stand accused of running what is arguably the biggest drug-trafficking operation in Asia’s history.
They have lived largely in the shadows, with Tse allegedly running his multibillion dollar operation from Hong Kong, Macao and southeast Asia until his identity was revealed last week in an investigative piece published by Reuters.
It has been hard to watch and wait while the case against Tse has developed, knowing that he is believed to be the driving force behind the recent Asia Pacific synthetic drug surge that has ruined countless lives.
But he has been named, and the region and the world have taken note.
Authorities believe the Sam Gor syndicate has generated billions of dollars each year from the trade in methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs. If the allegations pan out, a credible case can be made that Tse has been a bigger player in the global drug trade than Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and possibly even Colombian cartel leader Pablo Escobar.
The difference is that he has allegedly done it in a few short years, and he has been able to maintain his anonymity until now. Tse has not responded to the allegations leveled against him in the Reuters piece, and so far regional law enforcement agencies have not publicly named him on the record. But the UN Office on Drugs and Crime can confirm that Tse is being investigated for running one of the biggest drug trafficking syndicates in history.
The accusations leveled against Tse raises fundamental questions: how did he pull it off; and what can Asia learn from what has happened?
Organized crime gangs are in the business of making money. They seek the conditions they need to build, expand and profit – and Asia has provided a perfect breeding ground.
All the necessary pieces have been in play: industries from which to obtain a steady supply of precursor chemicals and pharmaceutical products; off-the-grid territory controlled by ethnic armed groups where production can be hidden and protection provided; proximity to lucrative pre-existing and ready to develop markets; great infrastructure to move product quickly; loosely regulated high cashflow businesses like casinos and junkets to launder piles of cash; compromised governments and police forces that are not candid with each other and do not cooperate effectively; and virtually no health and social response to counter the use and harmful impacts of an ever-expanding supply.
In other words, Asia has provided the opportunity for an enterprising drug trafficker and syndicate. If the drug trade wasn’t so destructive, the innovative approach allegedly used by Tse and Sam Gor might actually be something to admire.
So what does the region need to do so another kingpin does not come along and take over – or even improve on – what Tse and Sam Gor are accused of building so quickly and effectively?
Each step will require a heavy lift, time and most importantly, political will.
Asia needs its leaders to acknowledge the situation and agree to take action. They need to stop dancing around the fact that parts of the region and a generation have basically been handed over to one of the biggest organized crime figures in history.
This means failures of regional governance will have to be confronted, and practical steps will need to be taken to address them. If not, another super-syndicate will quickly emerge.
Given the scope of the challenge, Asia will not be able to do this alone. It is clear a broad Asia-Pacific agreement to tackle organized crime is necessary, and that it will take time to address significant policy deficits and the lack of tools governments have to stop the drug trade from growing in the region.
The things that countries and the region need to do to build resilience to organized crime are not done easily – they will involve hard discussions and decisions.
Or the region can do nothing, and another kingpin will come along.