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The Darker Side of Tropical Bliss: Foreign Mafia in Thailand

By Thomas Schmid

25 February 2010

Extortion and Abduction

Foreign business owners in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country can sing a song of how they are accosted and threatened by shady types of their own nationalities. “Pay up and be safe, or else,” is the prevailing chorus in cases where protection money is extorted. “I have to shell out almost 60,000 Baht a month to ensure that my business can continue to operate without problems,” confessed the proprietor of a prominent Italian restaurant in Bangkok under condition of anonymity. In fact, he pays thrice: to local mafia (to be safe), to foreign mafia (to be safer) and to the local constabulary (to not have problems with the former two).

The collection of protection money is especially prevalent in cases where operating licenses or permits of various sorts could not be obtained for a number of reasons. A Korean national, who acts as a tour guide to visiting countrymen stated that he pays 10 per cent of his net revenue to a Korean mafia outfit in return for being able to operate unhindered. He alleged that the payment is shared by the respective gang with certain members of the police force. The mere notion of it again suggests, of course, a (not so surprising) collaboration between foreign criminal elements and the very authority that is supposed to suppress them. Thai law states that only Thai citizens with a proper tourist guide license may engage themselves as tour guides. Penalties are incomprehensibly heavy for any offenders, ironically disregarding the aspect that very, very few Thais speak sufficient Korean. The respective law paragraph stipulates “imprisonment not exceeding 2 years and/or a fine not exceeding 500,000 Baht, or both”. Unwittingly, this rather harsh law provides a most welcome reason for corrupt police as well as foreign criminals to skim their chosen targets for everything they’re worth. “Apart from paying my monthly dues, I have nevertheless been arrested twice last year [2009] by the police. All charges were dropped each time after a ‘contribution’,” said the Korean tour operator. He added that he was “sure that some of the money has been given to other parties that are directly involved with the police officers”.

Abductions of wealthy business people are not unheard of either. One recent example is the kidnapping of five members of a Taiwanese family upon their arrival at Suvarnabhumi airport on 24 November 2009, a feat that suggested close cooperation and communication between parties inside and outside of Thailand. The case was covered in newspapers across the region. The local kidnappers, a mafia gang comprising three Taiwanese nationals and four Thais demanded 30 million Baht (approx. US$900,000) ransom for the family’s release. Four of the abductees were rescued by a police team of Thailand’s Crime Suppression Division on 14 December 2009 from an apartment in Bangkok. Six of the suspects (four Thais and two Taiwanese) were arrested during the operation. The only family member missing was Mrs. Hsu Yu-fen, who had been taken back to Singapore by the third Taiwanese gang member to withdraw funds from the bank to pay the demanded amount. However, Singapore authorities were able to track down the kidnap victim and her abductor just one day later, on 15 December 2009, and before the money had been withdrawn.

Drug Production and Smuggling

One of the most notorious drug kingpins in the 1980s and 90s was Khun Sa (Mr. Prosperous), a Burmese of ethnic Chinese and Shan extraction. Protected by a private army whose ranks eventually swelled to some 800 men, he claimed to fight against the Burmese military junta and justified being a major opium producer and distributor to arm his forces so they could continue their struggle. In jungle laboratories he also synthesized sizeable quantities of heroin that he smuggled mainly to the USA and Europe. In 1976, he set up base in Thailand’s mountainous northern province of Mae Hong Sorn in a hamlet called Ban Hin Taek, from where he eventually gained control of the entire Thai-Burma border. Ironically, it took years for the Thai authorities to expel him from Thai soil. His former stronghold, now renamed into Ban Khun Sa, has since become a modest tourist attraction.

A New York court charged Khun Sa in 1989 for trying to import a mind-boggling 1,000 tons (that equates about 50 million regular “shots”) of heroin into the United States. The self-styled general had shortly before audaciously proposed to the US government that it should buy his entire opium production, or he would otherwise sell it on the international narcotics market. Under mounting pressure from the CIA and FBI, who advertised a reward of $2 million for his arrest, he surrendered to Burmese officials in 1996. The junta was never bothered and he lived out his remaining years in Rangoon. Khun Sa died on 26 October 2007 at the age of 73.

Heroin continues to be produced in Burma’s jungles by various rebel groups and is smuggled through Thailand into third countries by international crime syndicates using either human mules or by hiding the consignments big-style in shipping containers. In 2008, front pages were splashed with news stories about 20-year-old British national Samantha Orobator (an ethnic Nigerian) who was caught with 1.6 kilograms of first-grade heroin at Vientiane’s Wattay airport in neighboring Laos before trying to board a plane to Bangkok. She would without doubt have been sentenced to death if it hadn’t been for the fact that she managed to get pregnant while in jail. Laos’ criminal code prohibits the execution of pregnant women. Orobator received a life sentence and was soon thereafter – and following embarrassing pleas from Britain’s government - repatriated to her home country to serve her time there. She claimed that, in her desperation, she had “impregnated herself” using sperm “obtained” from a Lao prison guard under circumstances that are better not explored.

While heroin is primarily destined for markets in North America and Europe, shipments of methamphetamine tablets (known as ya ba, or crazy drug in Thailand) are in their majority supplied to consumers in the Kingdom and distributed almost exclusively by local gangs. Cocaine and other “trendy” narcotics such as Ecstasy or Ice (a.k.a. crystal methamphetamine) have only in the past 10 years or so gained a following among well-to-do Thais and certain types of expatriates. Since they are neither produced in the Kingdom nor in neighboring countries, they are invariably imported by international drug rings. Again, mules are most often than not used to bring the consignments across the border. In the end, mafia organizations – regardless whether they are local or transnational ones – avoid taking risks. Like in human trafficking, it is generally the mules that bear the brunt when they are caught.

Frequent events organized by Thai authorities of burning or otherwise destroying confiscated illegal substances represent only a fraction of drugs circulating or being trafficked through the Kingdom. The official statistics of even those seized drugs are staggering. The country’s Narcotics Control Board reported confiscated over the course of 2009 [latest figures available]: 113.9 kilograms (kg) of heroin, 6.8 kg Ecstasy, 388 kg raw opium, 58 kg cocaine, 5,477 kg dried marijuana, 89.9 kg Ice and 1,288.7 kg methamphetamines apart from a menagerie of other substances such as inhalants and precursor chemicals required as components to synthesize drugs like ecstasy or ice, for example.

Conclusion and Trends

Some 2 per cent of convicted foreign criminals out of approximately 290,000 inmates (2009) currently serve prison terms in the country. Thailand does not provide any statistics about how many of these foreigners have been accorded sentences due to construed mafia activities. But more than half of them (some 3,500) have received a complimentary stay in the tropics for drug offences including the smuggling, distribution and consumption of illicit drugs. A plethora of foreign mafia gangs engaging in illegalities of every conceivable sort and often maintaining transnational connections remain active in the country. But times might become considerably tougher for them in the near future. Thailand’s newly appointed chief of the Immigration Bureau, Pol Lt Gen Wuthi Liptapallop, recently announced his determination to launch a campaign to drive out “hundreds of foreign criminals living in Thailand”. He admitted in an interview with the English-language daily newspaper Bangkok Post that Thailand was known worldwide as a haven for criminals because of its easy-going visa policies and general laissez fare attitude towards foreigners. He stated that Thailand would establish closer cooperation between its own agencies like and international agencies like Interpol, the United States’ FBI, Britain’s Scotland Yard, Germany’s Bundeskriminalamt and others to track down and arrest foreign criminals who are either hiding out or are conducting illegal activities in the Kingdom. “We want [Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Koh Samui, Phuket] and other places in Thailand to be tourist destinations, not places for foreign criminals and gangs,” he was quoted as saying. The general claimed he currently had not only on his desk a list of about 1,000 foreigners with arrest warrants issued by Thai authorities “at least half of whom are still in the country”, but also asserted that improved immigration procedures through deployment of computerized registration on arrival would help to track down the movements and operations of international mafia syndicates and their members. While Wuthi’s resolve certainly is commendable, it will be interesting to see how many of his intentions he can put into practice. In the meantime, Thailand continues to remains a tropical hub for the foreign mafia. But don’t attribute it to the year-round balmy weather, fabulous beaches, affordable prices and agreeable populace alone.

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