‘Global ring’ involved in smuggling 39 found dead in UK truck, court told

‘Global ring’ involved in smuggling 39 found dead in UK truck, court told
By Michael Holden

CHELMSFORD, England (Reuters) – A court heard on Monday that a global ring had been involved in smuggling the 39 people whose bodies were found in a truck near London, as the driver faced charges of manslaughter and people-trafficking.

The discovery of the bodies last week in a refrigerated truck on an industrial estate near London has shone a spotlight on the illicit trade that sends the poor of Asia, Africa and the Middle East on perilous journeys to the West.

The truck’s driver, Maurice Robinson, appeared in Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court via video link. The 25-year-old, wearing a gray sweatshirt, spoke only to confirm his name, address and British nationality.

Robinson faces 43 charges in all – 39 counts of manslaughter as well as accusations of conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, and money laundering.

“This involves a global ring facilitating the movement of a large number of immigrants into the UK,” prosecution lawyer Ogheneruona Mercy Iguyovwe told the court. She said other suspects were still being sought.

Robinson did not apply for bail. He was remanded in custody until Nov. 25, when the case will continue at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, and he will enter a plea.

He was arrested shortly after the bodies were found near the English port of Purfleet. The shipping container they were in had traveled from Zeebrugge in Belgium.

‘HOPING FOR A BETTER LIFE’

“The whole nation and indeed the world has been shocked by this tragedy, and the cruelty of the fate that has been suffered by innocent people who were hoping for a better life in this country,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in a book of condolences.

Interior minister Priti Patel told parliament the investigation would unravel “criminality that could stretch half way across the world”.

Many of the dead appear to have come from Vietnam’s northern rice-growing areas of Nghe An and Ha Tinh, two of its poorest provinces.

“If I could travel back in time, I wouldn’t have let him go this way,” said Hoang Thi Ai, mother of Hoang Van Tiep, 18, who is feared to be among the dead. “I clean his room every day with the hope that he wasn’t in that deadly truck.”

Police have said few of the victims were carrying official identification, and that they are resorting to fingerprints, dental records, DNA and photographs from friends and relatives.

Vietnam said Britain had sent dossiers seeking help in identifying four of the bodies.

Deputy Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son said Vietnam was still unable to confirm the nationality of any of the victims.

‘MY CHILD WAS SCAMMED’

Bui Thi Nhung, 19, is believed by her family to be one of the dead.

They said she had left Nghe An in August, making her way from China to Germany, then Belgium, where they believe she entered the container.

About 70 percent of Vietnamese trafficking cases in Britain between 2009 and 2016 were for labor exploitation, including cannabis production and work in nail salons, Britain said last year.

A report last March by the Pacific Links Foundation, a U.S.-based anti-trafficking organization, identified Nghe An as home to many victims of human trafficking who end up in Europe.

The other province, Ha Tinh, was ravaged in 2016 by one of Vietnam’s worst environmental disasters when a steel mill owned by Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics contaminated coastal waters, devastating fishing and tourism.

Tiep’s mother said she believed her son had been tricked into traveling to Britain, since he had made it to France when he was 16 and settled down.

“One day he hastily asked us to raise 100 million dong ($4,300) for his trip,” Ai said, sitting with family members in their house in Dien Chau district of Nghe An province.

“My child was scammed. The guy who helped him organize the journey to the UK said the ‘VIP’ service was very safe, commuting in four-seat car – not that container.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge in London and James Pearson in Hanoi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Special Report: The hunt for Asia’s El Chapo

By Tom Allard

BANGKOK (Reuters) – He is Asia’s most-wanted man. He is protected by a guard of Thai kickboxers. He flies by private jet. And, police say, he once lost $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.”

Suspected Sam Gor drug syndicate kingpin Tse Chi Lop is pictured in this undated handout image taken at an unknown location. Supplied Image/Handout via REUTERS

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. But 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 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) puts the Sam Gor syndicate’s meth revenue in 2018 at $8 billion a year, but says it could be as high as $17.7 billion. The UN agency estimates that the cartel, which often conceals its drugs in packets of tea, has a 40% to 70% 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, say law enforcement agents involved in the investigation. It encompasses authorities from Myanmar, China, Thailand, Japan, the United States 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 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) intelligence document shared with regional government agencies says 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 Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau 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. Reuters spoke to militia leaders in Myanmar’s Shan State, the heart of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, where the syndicate is suspected of mass producing drugs in so-called super-labs. Reuters reporters also visited the Thai compound of one of the syndicate’s alleged drug lords.

What emerges is a portrait of an organization that is truly transnational. Four of the 19 Sam Gor syndicate leaders on the AFP list are Canadian citizens, including Tse, whom police often refer to as “T1” – the top target. Others hail from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and mainland China.

The syndicate is enormously wealthy, disciplined and sophisticated – in many ways more sophisticated than any Latin American cartel, say anti-narcotics officials. Sam Gor supplies a bigger, more dispersed drug market and collaborates with a more diverse range of local crime groups than the Latin cartels do, including Japan’s Yakuza, Australia’s biker gangs and ethnic Chinese gangs across Southeast Asia.

The crime network is also less prone to uncontrolled outbreaks of internecine violence than the Latin cartels, police say. The money is so big that long-standing, blood-soaked rivalries among Asian crime groups have been set aside in a united pursuit of gargantuan profits.

“The crime groups in Southeast Asia and the Far East operate with seamless efficiency,” says one veteran Western anti-drugs official. “They function like a global corporation.”

Like most of the law enforcement agents Reuters interviewed, the investigator spoke on condition of anonymity.

In addition to the contrasts between their drug operations, there’s another, more personal, difference between Tse Chi Lop and Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman or Pablo Escobar. The jailed Mexican cartel boss and the deceased Colombian cocaine trafficker have been feted in song and on screen for their extravagant lifestyles and extreme violence. Precious little has been revealed about Tse’s life and career. Unlike the Latin drug lords, Tse is relatively discreet – and still free.

A TRIP, A TRAP

Tse Chi Lop was born in Guangdong Province, in southern China, and grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution. Amid the bloody purges, forced labor camps and mass starvation, a group of imprisoned members of Mao’s Red Guard in the southern city of Guangzhou formed a triad-like criminal enterprise called the Big Circle Gang. Tse later became a member of the group, say police, and like many of his Big Circle Gang brethren moved to Hong Kong, then further afield as they sought sanctuaries for their criminal activities. He arrived in Canada in 1988.

In the 1990s, Tse shuttled between North America, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia, said a senior AFP investigator based in Asia. He rose to become a mid-ranking member of a smuggling ring that sourced heroin from the Golden Triangle, the lawless opium-producing region where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, China and Laos meet.

In 1998, according to court records, Tse was arraigned on drug-trafficking charges in the Eastern District Court of New York. He was found guilty of conspiracy to import heroin into America, the records show. A potential life sentence hung over his head.

Through a petition filed by his lawyer in 2000, Tse begged for leniency.

His ailing parents needed constant care, he explained. His 12-year-old son had a lung disorder. His wife was overwhelmed. If freed, vowed Tse, he would open a restaurant. He expressed “great sorrow” for his crime, court records show.

The entreaties appear to have worked: Tse was sentenced to nine years in prison, spent mostly at the federal correctional institution in Elkton, Ohio. But his remorse may have waned.

After he was freed in 2006, police say he returned to Canada, where he was supposed to be under supervised release for the next four years. It’s unclear when Tse returned to his old haunts in Asia. But corporate records show that Tse and his wife registered a business, the China Peace Investment Group Company Ltd, in Hong Kong in 2011.

Police suspect Tse quickly returned to the drug game. He “picked up where he left off,” said the senior AFP investigator. Tse tapped connections in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and the Golden Triangle, and adopted a business model that proved irresistible to his customers, say law enforcers. If one of his drug deliveries was intercepted by police, it was replaced at no extra cost, or deposits were returned to the buyers.

His policy of guaranteeing his drug deliveries was good for business, but it also put him on the radar of police. In 2011, AFP officers cracked a group in Melbourne importing heroin and meth. The amounts were not huge – dozens of kilos. So, rather than arrest the Australian drug dealers, police put them under surveillance, tapping their phones and observing them closely for more than a year. To the frustration of the Australian drug cell, their illicit product kept getting intercepted. They wanted the seized drugs replaced by the syndicate.

The syndicate bosses in Hong Kong were irate – their other drug rings in Australia were collecting their narcotics and selling them without incident. In 2013, as the patience of the syndicate leaders wore thin, they summoned the leader of the Melbourne cell to Hong Kong for talks. There, Hong Kong police watched the Australian meet two men.

One of the men was Tse Chi Lop. He had the center-parted hair and casual fashion sense of a typical middle-aged Chinese family man, said one AFP agent. However, further surveillance showed Tse was a big spender with a keen regard for his personal security. At home and abroad, he was protected by a guard of Thai kickboxers, said three AFP investigators. Up to eight worked for him at a time, and they were regularly rotated as part of his security protocol.

Tse would host lavish birthday parties each year at resorts and five-star hotels, flying in his family and entourage in private jets. On one occasion, he stayed at a resort in Thailand for a month, hosting visitors poolside in shorts and a T-shirt, according to a member of the task force investigating the syndicate.

Tse was a frequent visitor to Asia’s casinos and fond of betting on horses, especially on English races. “We believe he lost 60 million euros (about $66 million) in one night on the tables in Macau,” said the senior Asia-based AFP investigator.

As the investigation into Tse deepened, police suspected that the Canadian was the major trafficker supplying Australia with meth and heroin, with a lucrative sideline in MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy. But the true scale and breadth of the Sam Gor syndicate only became apparent in late 2016, police say, when a young Taiwanese man entered Yangon airport with a bag of white powder strapped to each of his thighs.

‘ALADDIN’S CAVE OF INTEL’

Cai Jeng Ze was heading home to Taiwan, walking through the airport with a Jimmy Choo leather bag and two mobile phones. It was the morning of November 15, 2016, and Cai seemed nervous, picking at his blistered hands. This tic aroused suspicion, said a former Myanmar police commander who oversaw the investigation. “His hands were bad because he had been handling the drugs,” the commander told Reuters. “Methamphetamine is very toxic.”

Cai was stopped and searched. Taped to each of his thighs was a small bag containing 80 grams of ketamine, a powerful tranquilizer that doubles as a party drug. “We were very fortunate to arrest him. Actually, it was an accident,” the commander said. Myanmar police, tipped off by the DEA, had been monitoring Cai. But they had lost track of him. Airport police had no idea who he was.

Cai told airport police the bag on his thigh contained a “pesticide or vitamin for flowers and plants,” according to Myanmar court records from his trial for ketamine trafficking. A friend, said Cai, had given it to him to pass on to his father. Cai’s flight was about to leave and there was no drug test for ketamine at the airport, the commander said.

Unimpressed with the explanation, police held him overnight. The next day, anti-narcotic officers turned up at the airport. One recognized him from surveillance work he’d been conducting.

Still, Cai refused to talk. Police say that videos they later found on one of his phones might have explained his silence. The videos showed a crying and bound man, and at least three assailants taking turns burning his feet with a blowtorch and electrocuting him with a cattle prod. In the videos, said one investigator, a sign can be seen with Chinese calligraphy saying “Loyalty to the Heavens.” The banner was a “triad-related sign,” he added.

The tortured man, according to two AFP officers who viewed the video, claimed to have thrown 300 kg of meth from a boat because he mistakenly believed a fast-approaching vessel was a law enforcement boat. The torturers were testing the veracity of the victim’s claims. By filming and sharing the videos, triad members were sending a message about the price of disloyalty, the officers said. Reuters has not seen the video.

The torture videos were just one of the items allegedly found in Cai’s two iPhones. The alleged Taiwanese trafficker was a diligent chronicler of the drug syndicate’s activities, but sloppy when it came to information security. Inside the phones, police say, was a huge photo and video gallery, social media conversations, and logs of thousands of calls and text messages.

They were “an Aladdin’s Cave of intel,” said one AFP commander based in North Asia.

For at least two months prior to his arrest, Cai allegedly traveled around Myanmar cobbling together a huge meth deal for the syndicate, according to a PowerPoint presentation by the Drug Enforcement Division of the Myanmar police outlining its investigation. One telling discovery: a screenshot of a slip from an international courier company recording the delivery of two consignments of packaging, manufactured to hold loose-leaf Chinese tea, to a Yangon address. Since at least 2012, tea packets, often containing one kilo of crystal meth each, had been cropping up in drug busts across the Asia-Pacific region.

Two days after Cai’s arrest, Myanmar police raided a Yangon address, where they seized 622 kilograms of ketamine. That evening, they captured 1.1 tonnes of crystal meth at a Yangon jetty. The interception of the drugs was a coup. Even so, Myanmar police were frustrated. Nine people were arrested, but other than Cai they were lower-level members of the syndicate, including couriers and a driver. And Cai still wasn’t talking.

Then came a major breakthrough. Swiping through the gallery of photos and videos on Cai’s phones, an AFP investigator based in Yangon noticed a familiar face from an intelligence briefing he had attended on Asian drug traffickers about a year earlier. “This one stuck out because it was Canadian,” he recalled. “I said: ‘Fuck, I know who you are!’”

It was Tse Chi Lop.

The Myanmar police invited the AFP to send a team of intelligence analysts to Yangon in early 2017. They went to work on Cai’s phones.

Australia had been a profitable drug market for Asian crime gangs since the end of the Vietnam War. For at least a decade, the AFP had fed all its historic files on drug cases, large and small, into a database. A senior Chinese counter-narcotics agent described the database, which includes a trove of names, chemical signatures of seized drugs, phone metadata and surveillance intel, as the most impressive cache of intelligence on Asian drug trafficking groups in the region.

The AFP analysts cross-referenced the contents of Cai’s phones with the database. They discovered photos related to three big consignments of crystal meth that were intercepted in China, Japan and New Zealand in 2016, according to investigators and Myanmar police documents. Later, a team of Chinese anti-narcotics officials connected photos, telephone numbers and addresses in Cai’s phones to other meth busts in China.

For regional counter-narcotics police, the revelations upended their assumption that the drugs were being trafficked by different crime groups. It became clear the shipments were the work of just one organization. A senior Chinese anti-narcotics agent said they believed Cai was “one of the members of a mega-syndicate,” which had been involved in multiple “drugs cases, smuggling and manufacturing, within this region.”

Cai was found not guilty in the ketamine case, but is still in jail in Yangon, where he is on trial for drug trafficking charges related to the meth seizures. Reuters was unable to contact Cai’s lawyer.

METH PARADISE

During his time in Myanmar, Cai is suspected of traversing the country, testing drug samples, organizing couriers and obtaining a fishing boat to transport the illicit cargo to a bigger vessel in international waters, according to police and the Myanmar PowerPoint document. His phones contained pictures of the vehicles to be used to transport the meth, the spot where the meth was to be dropped off, and the fishing boat.

The police reconstruction of Cai’s dealings in Myanmar led to another major revelation: The epicenter of meth production had shifted from China’s southern provinces to Shan State in Myanmar’s northeastern borderlands. Operating in China had provided the Sam Gor syndicate with easy access to precursor ingredients, such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, that were smuggled out of pharmaceutical, chemical and paint factories in the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone. Shan gave Sam Gor the freedom to operate largely unimpeded by law enforcement.

Armed rebel groups in semi-autonomous regions like Shan State have long controlled large tracts of territory and used drug revenues to finance their frequent battles with the military. A series of detentes brokered by the Myanmar government with rebel groups over the years has brought relative calm to the region – and allowed illicit drug activities to flourish.

“Production facilities can be hidden from law enforcement and other prying eyes but insulated from disruptive violence,” analyst Richard Horsey wrote in a paper this year for the International Crisis Group. “Drug production and profits are now so vast that they dwarf the formal sector of Shan state.”

The Myanmar government and police did not respond to questions from Reuters.

Along the road to the village of Loikan in Shan State, there is evidence of drug-fueled prosperity. The two-lane road skirts a deep ravine known as the “Valley of Death,” where ethnic Kachin rebels from the Kaung Kha paramilitary group clashed for decades with Myanmar’s army. Now, high-end SUVs thunder past trucks carrying building materials and workers.

The Kaung Kha militia’s immaculate and expansive new headquarters sits on a plateau nestled between the steep green hills of the jagged Loi Sam Sip range. About six kilometers away, near Loikan village, was a sprawling drug facility carved out of thick forest. Police and locals say the complex churned out vast quantities of crystal meth, heroin, ketamine and yaba tablets – a cheaper form of meth that is mixed with caffeine. When it was raided in early 2018, security forces seized more than 200,000 liters of precursor chemicals, as well as 10,000 kg of caffeine and 73,550 kg of sodium hydroxide – all substances used in drug production.

The Loikan facility was “very likely” to have been the source of much of the Sam Gor syndicate’s meth, said the Yangon-based AFP officer.

“Some militia were involved in the lab,” said Oi Khun, a communications officer for the 3,000-strong Kaung Kha militia, in an interview. He paused, then added: “But not with the knowledge of senior members” of the militia.

One person in Loikan described how workers from the lab would come down from the hills. The men, like most of the villagers, were ethnic Chinese. But they dressed better than the locals, had foreign accents, and had a foul smell about them.

“I asked them once. ‘Why don’t you bathe?’” the person said. “They said they did, but there was nothing they could do about the smell.”

The rank chemicals used to cook the meth had seeped into the skin of the men, who seemed unperturbed that the signature stench might reveal their illicit activities. “We all knew,” the person said. “We just didn’t talk about it. That just brings you danger.”

Meth lab managers and chemists are mostly Taiwan nationals, say Thai police. So, too, are many of the crime network’s couriers and boat crews who transport the drugs across the Asia-Pacific.

Shan’s super-labs produce the purest crystal meth in the world, the senior Chinese counter-narcotics official told Reuters. “They can take it slow and spread (the meth) out on the ground and let it dry.”

The UNODC estimates the Asia-Pacific retail market for meth is worth between $30.3 and $61.4 billion annually. The business model for meth is “very different” to heroin, said the UNODC’s Douglas. “Inputs are relatively cheap, a large workforce is not needed, the price per kilo is higher, and profits are therefore far, far higher.”

The wholesale price of a kilo of crystal meth produced in northeastern Myanmar is as little as $1,800, according to a UNODC report citing the China National Narcotics Control Commission. Average retail prices for crystal meth, according to the UN agency, are equivalent to $70,500 per kilo in Thailand, $298,000 per kilo in Australia and $588,000 in Japan. For the Japanese market, that’s more than a three-hundred-fold mark-up.

The money the syndicate is making “means that if they lose ten tonnes and one goes through, they still make a big profit,” said the Chinese counter-narcotics official. “They can afford failure. It doesn’t matter.”

‘MONEY, MONEY’

The analysis of Cai’s phones was continuing to provide leads. On them, police say they found the GPS coordinates of the pick-up point in the Andaman Sea where fishing boats laden with Myanmar meth were meeting drug motherships capable of being at sea for weeks.

One of the motherships was a Taiwanese trawler called the Shun de Man 66, according to the Taiwanese law enforcement document reviewed by Reuters. The vessel was already at sea when, in early July 2017, Joshua Joseph Smith walked into a marine broker in the Western Australian capital of Perth and paid $A350,000 (about $265,000 at the time) for the MV Valkoista, a fishing charter boat. Smith, who was in his mid-40s and hailed from the east coast of Australia, inquired about sea sickness tablets. According to local media, he didn’t have a fishing license at the time.

After buying the boat on July 7, Smith set the Valkoista on a course straight from the marina to meet the Shun De Man 66 in the Indian Ocean, an AFP police commander said. After the rendezvous, the Valkoista then sailed to the remote Western Australian port city of Geraldton on July 11, where its crew was seen “unloading a lot of packages” into a van, the commander said.

“We knew we had an importation. We know the methodology of organized crime networks. We know if a ship leaves empty and comes back with some gear on it, that it hasn’t just dropped from the sky in the middle of the ocean.”

Investigators checked CCTV footage and hotel, plane and car hire records. The phones of some of the Australian drug traffickers were tapped. It soon became apparent, police say, that some of Smith’s alleged co-conspirators were members of an ethnic Lebanese underworld gang, as well as the Hells Angels and Comanchero motorcycle gangs, known as “bikies” in Australia.

As they put together their deal to import 1.2 tonnes of crystal meth into Australia, Smith’s associates met with Sam Gor syndicate members in Bangkok in August 2017, according to a copy of an AFP document reviewed by Reuters. The Australians reconvened in Perth a month later.

Bikers may have a reputation for wild clubhouse parties and a self-styled mythology as outsiders, but these Australians had refined tastes. They flew business class, stayed in five-star hotels and dined at the finest restaurants, according to police investigators and local media reports. One of those restaurants, said the AFP commander, was the Rockpool Bar & Grill in Perth. The restaurant offered a 104-page wine list and a menu that included caviar with toast at about $185 per serving.

On November 27, 2017, the Shun De Man 66 set sail again, this time from Singapore. The vessel headed north into the Andaman Sea to rendezvous with a smaller boat bringing the meth from Myanmar. The Shun De Man then sailed along the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra and dropped down to the Indian Ocean.

The Indonesian navy watched and the AFP listened.

When the Shun De Man finally met again with the Valkoista in international waters off the West Australian coast on December 19, an Asian voice could be heard shouting “money, money,” according to the commander and local media reports. The Shun De Man’s crew had one half of a torn Hong Kong dollar bill. Smith and his crew had the other half. The Australian buyers proved their identity by matching their portion to the fragment held by the crew of the Shun De Man, who then handed over the meth.

The Valkoista arrived in the Australian port city of Geraldton following a two-day return journey in rough seas. The men unloaded the drugs in the pre-dawn dark. Masked members of the AFP and Western Australian police moved in with assault weapons and seized the drugs and the men. Smith pleaded guilty to importing a commercial quantity of an illegal drug. Some of his alleged associates are still on trial.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau said it had “worked together with our counterparts on the investigation” of the Shun De Man 66 and that this had led to the “substantial seizure of illicit narcotics” by the Australian authorities in December 2017. The bureau said it was “aware that Taiwanese syndicates have participated in maritime drug trafficking in (the) Asia-Pacific region,” and was working “collaboratively and closely with our counterparts to disrupt these syndicates and cross-border drug trafficking.”

NIMBLE, ELUSIVE, UNFAZED

As the investigation into the syndicate deepened, police concluded that crime groups from across the region had undergone a kind of mega-merger to form Sam Gor. The members include the three biggest Hong Kong and Macau triads, who spent much of the 1990s in open warfare: 14K, Wo Shing Wo and Sun Yee On. The other two are the Big Circle Gang, Tse’s original triad, and the Bamboo Union, based in Taiwan. In the words of one investigator, the syndicate’s supply chain is so complex and expertly run that it “must rival Apple’s.”

“The syndicate has a lot of money and there is a vast market to tap,” said Jay Li Chien-chih, a Taiwanese police senior colonel who has been stationed in Southeast Asia for a decade. “The power this network possesses is unimaginable.”

Investigators have had wins. In February last year, police busted the Loikan super-lab in Myanmar, where they found enough tea-branded packaging for 10 tonnes of meth. The Shun De Man 66 was intercepted that month by the Indonesian navy with more than one tonne of meth aboard. In March 2018, a key Sam Gor lieutenant was arrested in Cambodia and extradited to Myanmar. In December, the compound of Sue Songkittikul, a suspected syndicate operations chief, was raided in Thailand.

Located near the border with Myanmar, the moat-ringed compound had a small meth lab, which police suspected was used to experiment with new recipes; a powerful radio tower with a 100-km range; and an underground tunnel from the main house to the back of the property.

Sue wasn’t there, but property and money from 38 bank accounts linked to him and totaling some $9 million were seized during the investigation. Sue is still at large.

But the flow of drugs leaving the Golden Triangle for the wider Asia-Pacific seems to have increased. Seizures of crystal meth and yaba rose about 50% last year to 126 tonnes in East and Southeast Asia. At the same time, prices for the drugs fell in most countries. This pattern of falling prices and rising seizures, the UNODC said in a report released in March 2019, “suggested the supply of the drug had expanded.”

In the Sam Gor syndicate, police face a nimble and elusive adversary. When authorities had success stopping the drug motherships, police said, Sam Gor switched to hiding its product in shipping containers. When Thailand stopped much of the meth coming directly across the border from Myanmar by truck, the syndicate re-routed deliveries through Laos and Vietnam. This included deploying hordes of Laotians with backpacks, each containing about 30 kilos of meth, to carry it into Thailand on narrow jungle paths.

Over the years, police have had little success in taking down Asia’s drug lords. Some of the suspected syndicate leaders have been involved in drug trafficking for decades, according to the AFP target list. The last time a top-level Asian narcotics kingpin was successfully prosecuted and imprisoned for more than a short period was in the mid-1970s. That’s when Ng Sik-ho, a wily Hong Kong drug trafficker known as Limpy Ho, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for smuggling more than 20 tonnes of opium and morphine, according to court records.

So far, Tse has avoided Limpy Ho’s fate. He is being tracked, and all the signs are he knows it, say counter-narcotics agents. Despite the heat, some police say they believe he is continuing his drug operations, unfazed.

(Reporting by Tom Allard. Additional reporting by Reuters Staff. Editing by Peter Hirschberg.)

U.N. holds emergency meeting in Asia as China battles African swine fever

FILE PHOTO: Piglets are seen by a sow at a pig farm in Zhoukou, Henan province, China June 3, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

BEIJING (Reuters) – The United Nations is holding an emergency meeting this week with animal health experts in Asia to discuss the threat of African swine fever after the first outbreak of the disease in the region was discovered in China last month.

China has detected eight cases of the highly contagious virus since discovering the first outbreak on Aug. 3, raising concerns about its spread in the world’s largest pork producer and beyond its borders into Southeast Asia.

Its arrival in China marked a new front in the battle to control the disease, which has traveled from Europe over the past decade through Russia.

(Outbreaks of African swine fever in China by location: https://reut.rs/2PCNswR)

First detected in Africa almost a century ago, the virus is often deadly for pigs but does not harm humans.

Specialists from China and nine countries close by and considered to be at risk from a spread of the disease are attending the meeting running from Wednesday to Friday in Bangkok, along with experts from outside the region and participants from the private commercial swine sector.

The nine countries are Cambodia, Japan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam, the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a statement on Wednesday.

The FAO has repeatedly warned that the arrival of the disease poses a significant threat to Asia.

“It’s critical that this region be ready for the very real possibility that (swine fever) could jump the border into other countries,” said Wantanee Kalpravidh, regional manager of the FAO Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases (ECTAD) in Asia.

“That’s why this emergency meeting has been convened – to assess where we are now – and to determine how we can work together in a coordinated, regional response to this serious situation.”

Chinese authorities are rushing to contain the virus, shutting live markets in infected provinces and banning transportation of live pigs and pork products in and out of those regions.

Highlighting the challenge though, South Korea had to ramp up quarantine measures at airports after finding a traveler carrying Chinese food infected with the disease.

The seminar will review recent research studies and technologies and consider lessons from recent and ongoing episodes in Europe, it said.

The disease is transmitted by ticks and direct contact between animals, and can also travel via contaminated food, animal feed, and people traveling from one place to another. There is no vaccine.

(Reporting by Josephine Mason; Editing by Joseph Radford)

Record number of U.S. Marines to train in Australia in symbolic challenge to China

FILE PHOTO - U.S. Marines aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship stand in formation during a ceremony marking the start of Talisman Saber 2017, a biennial joint military exercise between the United States and Australia aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard amphibious assault ship on the the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sydney, Australia, June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The United States will deploy a record number of Marines to train in Australia, the Australian defense minister said on Friday, as Washington seeks to counter what it describes as Chinese aggression in the region.

Payne said 1,587 U.S. Marines will spend six months training in Australia’s remote north, an increase of nearly 27 percent on its 2017 rotation for the program known as the Force Posture Initiatives.

“The U.S. military plays a vital role in underwriting security and stability across the Indo-Pacific, and the Force Posture Initiatives will be an essential component in preserving stability and security over the coming decades,” Defence Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.

The deployment, first introduced in 2011 as part of a U.S. “pivot” to Asia, has emerged as a key indicator of Washington’s commitment to the region under U.S. President Donald Trump and his willingness to counter Chinese influence in a region where tensions have spiked amid disputes over the South China Sea.

China claims most of the South China Sea, an important trade route that is also believed to contain large quantities of oil and natural gas, and has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and air strips.

In a move likely to irk Beijing, the U.S. Marines will train with personnel from Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, some of which also have claims in the South China Sea.

“China will monitor whatever the U.S. does and it would prefer that the United States not work with the Asian countries included in these exercises,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at Australian think tank the Lowy Institute.

“Beijing would like to deal one-on-one with Southeast Asia nations that have counter claims,” he said.

The U.S. Marines will also bring additional military equipment, including helicopters and F-18 jets, Payne said.

The military deployment also threatens to further weaken Australia-Chinese relations.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally with no claim to the South China Sea, has long maintained its neutrality in the dispute to protect its economic relationship with China.

But bilateral relations have soured in recent months after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said China was improperly interfering in Canberra’s affairs, an accusation that triggered a rare protest from Beijing.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait)

South Korea’s Moon says three-way summit with North Korea, U.S. possible

FILE PHOTO: South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers a speech during a ceremony celebrating the 99th anniversary of the March First Independence Movement against Japanese colonial rule, at Seodaemun Prison History Hall in Seoul, South Korea, March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyonhee Shin and Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Wednesday a three-way summit with North Korea and the United States is possible and that talks should aim for an end to the nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula.

Moon is planning a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month after a flurry of diplomatic activity in Asia, Europe and the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump has also said he would meet Kim by the end of May.

“A North Korea-U.S. summit would be a historic event in itself following an inter-Korean summit,” Moon said at the presidential Blue House in Seoul after a preparatory meeting for the inter-Korean summit.

“Depending on the location, it could be even more dramatic. And depending on progress, it may lead to a three-way summit between the South, North and the United States,” he said.

Seoul officials are considering the border truce village of Panmunjom, where Moon and Kim are set for a one-day meeting, as the venue for talks between not only Kim and Moon but also a possible three-way meeting.

A Blue House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Moon did not specifically refer to Panmunjom or that a three-way summit had been discussed with Washington before the president spoke.

The rush of recent diplomatic contacts began in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in South Korea last month and helped ease tensions on the Korean peninsula caused by North Korea’s pursuit of its nuclear and missile programs in defiance of United Nations Security Council sanctions.

South Korea wants to hold high-level talks with North Korea on March 29 to discuss a date and agenda for the inter-Korean summit and make a formal request to the North on Thursday, Moon’s presidential office said.

North and South Korean officials should be able to agree on when the summit between Moon and Kim will take place once the officials from both sides meet this month, the Blue House official said.

‘CLEAR GOAL’

Moon said the series of summits should aim for a “complete end” to the nuclear and peace issues on the Korean peninsula.

He said he has a “clear goal and vision”, which is for the establishment of a lasting peace to replace the ceasefire signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean war. It also includes the normalization of North Korea-U.S. relations, the development of inter-Korean ties, and economic cooperation involving Pyongyang and Washington, he said.

However, the United States must also add its guarantee in order for peace to come about, Moon said.

“Whether the two Koreas live together or separately, we have to make it in a way that they prosper together and in peace, without interfering or causing damage to each other,” Moon said.

The Blue House official said this could mean stopping propaganda broadcasts at the border that are commonly blasted from both sides over loudspeakers. The official could not say whether “interference” also referred to criticism over widely recognized human rights violations in North Korea.

South Korea and the United States will resume joint military drills next month, although the exercises are expected to overlap with the summit between the two Koreas.

Seoul and Washington delayed the annual drills until after the Winter Olympics, helping to foster conditions for a restart of such talks.

North Korea regularly denounces the drills as preparation for war but a South Korean special envoy has said Kim understood that the allies must continue their “routine” exercises. That exchange has not been confirmed.

The North’s official KCNA news agency said on Wednesday a “dramatic atmosphere for reconciliation” had been created in cross-border ties and there had also been a sign of change in North Korea-U.S. relations.

That was “thanks to the proactive measure and peace-loving proposal” made by Pyongyang, not Trump’s campaign to put maximum pressure on the country, KCNA said in a commentary.

The Blue House official also said earlier on Wednesday South Korea was in discussions with China and Japan for a three-way summit in Tokyo in early May. The three countries have not held such a meeting since November 2015, with relations soured by historical and territorial tensions.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Christine Kim; Editing by Paul Tait)

Japan, South Korea urge China to do more to halt North Korea’s weapons programs

Japan, South Korea urge China to do more to halt North Korea's weapons programs

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – U.S. allies Japan and South Korea urged China to do more to get North Korea to end its nuclear and missile programmes, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said on Tuesday amid a tense standoff between North Korea and the United States.

Reclusive North Korea has boasted of developing a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and reaching the mainland United States in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions and international condemnation, including from its lone major ally, China.

“We agreed that it is necessary to ask China to play even more of a role,” Kono said after talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha.

Kono said China was implementing Security Council resolutions on North Korea but said it could do more, including adding “pressure” on Pyongyang.

North Korea has regularly threatened to destroy the United States, Japan and South Korea and has fired missiles over Japan in recent tests. China routinely says it is meeting its Security Council obligations on North Korea and urges “all sides” in the dispute to pursue dialogue.

The United States has also pressured China and other nations to cut trade and diplomatic ties with North Korea as part of international efforts to dry up Pyongyang’s illegal cash flows that could fund its weapons programmes.

The U.S. Navy’s top officer said on Tuesday said that vessels from eastern Pacific could be brought forward to reinforce U.S. naval power in Asia as Washington contends with increased threats in the region.

North Korea has defended its weapons programmes as necessary to counter U.S. aggression and sees the military drills the United States holds with South Korea and Japan as preludes to invasion. The United States stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

China and Russia have proposed that the United States and South Korea stop major military exercises in exchange for North Korea halting its weapons programmes.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have exchanged bellicose rhetoric in recent weeks, with Trump threatening to destroy North Korea if provoked, while U.S. diplomats have stressed the importance of diplomacy.

Trump on Monday unveiled a new national security strategy, again saying Washington had to deal with the challenge posed by North Korea.

Japan and South Korea are seeking to boost cooperation over North Korea, despite lingering tension between them over the issue of “comfort women”, a Japanese euphemism for women – many of them Korean – forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War Two.

Researchers say a series of recent cyber attacks has netted North Korean hackers millions of dollars in virtual currencies like bitcoin, with more attacks expected as international sanctions drive the country to seek new sources of cash.

North Korea’s government-backed hackers have been blamed for a rising number of cyber attacks, including the so-called WannaCry cyber attack that crippled hospitals, banks and other companies across the globe this year.

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul and Jeremy Wagstaff in Singapore; Writing by Linda Sieg and Nick Macfie)

Trump meets Japan, Australia leaders over trade, North Korea threat

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a trilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull alongside the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines November 13, 2017.

MANILA (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump raised North Korea’s missile tests during talks on Monday with the prime ministers of Japan and Australia, and said “a lot” of progress had been made in negotiations on trade.

On the sidelines of a summit of East and Southeast Asian leaders in Manila, Trump met with Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, and said discussions at the meeting would include tensions on the Korean Peninsula and trade.

In brief remarks prior to news media being ushered out of the meeting, Turnbull said North Korea’s “recklessness” needed to be stopped, while Abe said the most immediate challenge was to ensure regional peace and stability.

Following the meeting, the White House said “the three leaders reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining maximum pressure on North Korea in the effort to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.”

“They also discussed expanded security cooperation for enhanced deterrence and defense against North Korean aggression,” the White House said in a statement.

The three men also discussed the need for “free and open” trade in the Indo-Pacific region and “the need to pursue fair and reciprocal trade,” the White House added.

Trump, who campaigned heavily on U.S. trade issues, made pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Asian trade deal one of his first acts in office. His administration has instead pledged to reach bilateral pacts with individual nations.

Countries remaining in the pact have said the deal is advancing without the United States.

 

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Martin Petty and Susan HeaveyEditing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

 

Vietnam’s neighbors, ASEAN, targeted by hackers: report

Vietnam's neighbors, ASEAN, targeted by hackers: report

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – A hacking group previously linked to the Vietnamese government or working on its behalf has broken into the computers of neighboring countries as well as a grouping of Southeast Asian nations, according to cybersecurity company Volexity.

Steven Adair, founder and CEO, said the hacking group was still active, and had compromised the website of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over several high-profile summit meetings. ASEAN is holding another summit of regional leaders in the Philippines capital Manila this week.

In May, cybersecurity company FireEye reported that the group, which it calls APT32 and is also known as OceanLotus, was actively targeting foreign multinationals and dissidents in Vietnam. FireEye said at the time the group’s activity was “of interest to the nation of Vietnam.”

Adair told Reuters he had no basis to definitely say who was behind the group but said its capabilities rivalled those of most other advanced persistent threat (APT) groups, a term often used to refer to hacker groups that are believed to have state support.

“What we can say is that this is a very well resourced attacker that is able to conduct several simultaneous attack campaigns.”

Vietnamese officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Hanoi has in the past denied accusations of cyber-attacks against organizations or individuals, and said it would prosecute any cases.

Adair said it was not clear how much information the group had stolen. “We do not really have anything on the scale of data theft, but we can tell you the scale and reach of the sites they have compromised is very far reaching,” he said.

Volexity said in a report that the group had compromised websites of ministries or government agencies in Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines so they would load malicious code onto the computers of targeted victims.

This code would then direct them to a Google page which asked for their permission to access their Google account. If the user agrees, the hackers then have access to their contacts and emails.

The ministries included Cambodia’s ministries of foreign affairs, the environment, the civil service and social affairs, as well as its national police. In the Philippines it had compromised the websites of the armed forces and the office of the president.

Three ASEAN websites, and the websites of dozens of Vietnamese non-government groups, individuals and media, were similarly targeted. The group also infected websites belonging to several Chinese oil companies.

Officials at ASEAN’s headquarters in Jakarta were not immediately available for comment.

Kirt Chanthearith, a spokesman for the Cambodian national police, said the police website was hacked about six months ago but he did not know who was responsible. “It was hacked and we lost some data”, he said, without giving further details.

Officials in Thailand said they were not aware of any hacking of government or police websites.

In Manila, Allan Cabanlong, executive director of the Cybercrime Investigation and Coordination Centre, said there was no damage to government web sites in the Philippines but authorities were taking preventive measures.

“We’ve taken measures like cyber hygiene programs,” he told Reuters. “We are conducting due diligence in the Philippines and we are clearing our network.”

(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff; Additional reporting by Chansy Chhorn in PHNOM PENH, Matthew Tostevin in HANOI, Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Suphanida Thakral in BANGKOK, Agustinus Beo Da Costa in JAKARTA and Neil Jerome Morales in MANILA; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Philippines hunts for possible new Islamic State ’emir’ in South East Asia

Philippines hunts for possible new Islamic State 'emir' in South East Asia

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine authorities were on the lookout on Monday for a Malaysian who could be the new leader of pro-Islamic State groups in Southeast Asia, security chiefs said, following the deaths of several high-profile regional extremists.

The army terminated combat operations in southern Marawi two weeks ago after killing what it believed were the last remnants of a rebel alliance that held parts of the lakeside city for five months.

Following the country’s biggest security crisis in decades, troops have made significant gains in the week since they killed Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf group and anointed “emir” of Islamic State in Southeast Asia.

His assumed deputy, Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad, was also believe killed, as was Omarkhayan Maute, a top operative in the alliance.

“We are still looking for Amin Baco,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said, describing the Malaysian as the likely new “successor as the emir of those terrorists”.

More than 1,100 people – mostly militants – were killed and 350,000 displaced by the Marawi unrest, a crisis that shocked predominantly Catholic Philippines and led to unease about Islamic State gaining traction in Muslim parts of the island of Mindanao.

Police chief Ronaldo dela Rosa said he received similar information that Baco, an expert bomb-maker, had assumed the role of Islamic State’s point man.

Experts say Baco was trained under Malaysian militant Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, who was killed in 2015 in a clash in marshlands in Maguindanao province that left 44 police commandoes dead.

The information that Baco could be in charge came from an Indonesian arrested in Marawi last week, dela Rosa said.

Despite declaring the end of operations, troops are still fighting some hold-outs hiding amid the ruins of a city battered by months of air strikes. Troops have since killed nine gunmen in Marawi, Colonel Romeo Brawner said on Monday, emphasizing why residents were being kept out of the pulverized battle zone.

Baco was reported to have been killed in Marawi but intelligence sources said he had fled.

“He could be somewhere on Jolo island or in nearby Maguindanao,” an army colonel familiar with Islamist militant groups in Mindanao, told Reuters.

He said Baco had been in the Philippines for a long time and had links with regional extremist group Jemaah Islamiah. He was married to a daughter of a local militant sub-leader.

As early as 2011, he was facilitating movements into the Philippines of funds, arms and fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia, but his links to the Islamic State network were not known to be strong, another military intelligence official said.

He said Baco was in a position to take over because of his familiarity with extremists from various groups in Mindanao.

(Writing by Neil Jerome Morales and Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry)

Southeast Asian ministers urge North Korea to rein in weapons programs

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un looks on during a visit to the Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defense Science in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on August 23, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS

By Manuel Mogato

CLARK FREEPORT ZONE, Philippines (Reuters) – Southeast Asian defense ministers on Monday expressed “grave concern” over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and urged the reclusive country to meet its international obligations and resume communications.

North Korea is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland and has ignored all calls, even from its lone major ally, China, to rein in its weapons programs which it conducts in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in a joint statement, underscored the “need to maintain peace and stability in the region” and called “for the exercise of self-restraint and the resumption of dialogue to de-escalate tensions in the Korean peninsula”.

They are due to meet with their counterparts from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Russia and New Zealand on Tuesday when North Korea, the disputed South China Sea and terrorism are expected to top the agenda.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said he will talk with Asian allies about North Korea and the crisis caused by its “reckless” provocations.

Mattis’s trip to Asia, which will also include stops in Thailand and South Korea, comes just weeks before Donald Trump’s first visit to Asia as U.S. president.

In the same statement, the ministers reiterated the importance of “safety and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea” and called for “self restraint in the conduct of activities”.

They also vowed to work together to combat terrorism as they condemned the attack by the Maute militant group in the southern Philippine city of Marawi.

The Philippines on Monday announced the end of five months of military operations in Marawi after a fierce and unfamiliar urban war that marked the country’s biggest security crisis in years.

 

 

 

(Writing by Karen Lema; Editing by Nick Macfie)