Demise of a kingpin, rise of an empire

Updated 1339 GMT (2139 HKT) September 7, 2021

Hong Kong (CNN)When FBI agent Mark Calnan finally met the kingpin whose drug syndicate he'd been investigating for the past six years, he was surprised.

With his black hair parted down the middle and modest fashion sense, Tse Chi Lop didn't look like the head of a multinational operation that had flooded the streets of New York with heroin before his arrest on August 12, 1998.
And, as he sat in a spartan interrogation room in Hong Kong, he didn't really behave like one, either.
Suspects usually reacted to arrest in one of two ways, the now-retired agent told CNN from his home in New Jersey. Combative types embraced the machismo that helped them navigate the cutthroat world of drug dealing. Cooperative ones worried that not talking meant longer prison time.
Tse didn't do either. He was calm, friendly and strategically tight-lipped -- even when Calnan told him the United States would be requesting his extradition.
Tse just smiled.
"He was impressive," said Calnan. "He was different."
By the end of that year, Tse was in New York, where he pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to import heroin into the US and was sentenced to nine years in prison. But if the authorities that put Tse behind bars were hoping he'd emerge from prison a changed man, it seems they were wrong.
Two decades later, Tse had allegedly become the head of a methamphetamine cartel earning an estimated $17 billion a year. Long since out of prison, he was reportedly living a lavish lifestyle built on the drug empire he purportedly operated with relative anonymity until his existence was revealed in a news report in 2019.
Then in January this year, Tse was arrested at Amsterdam's Schipol International Airport at the behest of Australian Federal Police (AFP), which had led a sprawling, decade-long investigation into his organization.
The man who once calmly sat opposite Calnan is now accused of being the mastermind behind the Sam Gor syndicate, arguably the biggest drug-trafficking operation in Asia's history. Australian authorities are seeking Tse's extradition on methamphetamine trafficking charges.
Tse, through his lawyer, declined to speak to CNN for this story. During an extradition hearing in June, he told a Dutch judge he was innocent of the charges.
As prosecutors prepare their case against Tse, CNN has investigated his early years, to better understand the man Australian authorities claim is one of the most-successful meth masterminds of the 21st century.
This is the story of Tse's first syndicate: how it thrived in American prisons; how police from around the world tore it apart; and how, from its ashes, this seemingly unassuming man from southern China was, allegedly, able to lay the groundwork for a multibillion-dollar drug empire from a prison in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.