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.”
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 (Burma), 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 of Burma, 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.
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.
Tse Chi Lop is suspected by law enforcement agencies of running Asia’s biggest drug network, which distributes high-grade meth across the region that is often hidden in loose-leaf tea packaging. Police have raided some of the syndicate’s operations, but that hasn’t stemmed the overall flow of meth.
|Australia has a serious problem with ICE (Crystal Meth).|