The Darker Side of Tropical Bliss: Foreign Mafia in Thailand
The Mafia. The term conjures up images of protection rackets, gangland wars, bootlegging and gambling operations; perhaps even an aging Marlon Brando with cotton wool pads stuffed into his cheeks.
By Thomas Schmid
However, as most Thai persons and foreigners residing in Thailand will inform you, the country has traditionally bred its very own, homegrown organized crime.
History of Mafia in Thailand
Early western travelers related in their books how the countryside was terrorized by “marauding groups of bandits” (Carl Bock, “Temples and Elephants”, 1884) who extorted money from farmers or abducted their daughters to sell them into slavery “in the more developed cities” (Bock). But a truly international mafia in the Kingdom materialized only with the practically uncontrolled (and, at that time, uncontrollable) influx of Chinese immigrants into Siam starting around the second half of the 19th century. With them arrived the infamous triads and they soon took over the (then still legal) opium trade, ran opium and gambling dens and smuggling operations that produced handsome profits. Over time and as immigrants became naturalized Thai citizens, this picture changed considerably. Current local mafia organizations cannot be considered “foreign” anymore, although their leaderships quintessentially remain ethnic Chinese. The scope of their activities has changed also. Gone are the days of opium dens, but running illegal gambling operations still scores high on the agenda of local gangs together with the broad spectrum of red-light entertainment ranging from brothels in the form of massage parlors to karaoke bars and escort services. Becoming “accessories” to international mafia syndicates often provides additional income. Last but not least, drug distribution and human trafficking are a mainstay too, a staple, so to speak, of the local mafia diet.
The Modern Era
Since the 1970s Thailand has experienced an enormous boost to its tourism industry. Ever increasing numbers of foreign visitors almost inevitably triggered the appearance of crime syndicates from their respective home countries. Whether it’s German, British or Irish groups, the Russian, West African or even Filipino mob, the Yakuza, Chinese Triads or Taiwanese and South Korean “brotherhoods”, they all seem to proliferate in the Kingdom .
It has preciously little to do with the agreeable, balmy weather and generally relaxed atmosphere; or perhaps just exactly because of the latter. Relatively lax Thai law enforcement and – allegedly – complicity from some local authorities together with rather porous borders have made Thailand the ideal choice for a good many foreign mafia organizations to expand their businesses. But here we are confronted with yet another paradox. Local “foreign mafia” is not necessarily synonymous with “transnational” or “international” mafia. Instead, insalubrious foreign individuals often have banded together within Thailand and formed their very own syndicates. Depending on their types of business, those groupings may either be affiliated with equivalent organizations abroad by acting as “suppliers” or they are de facto local chapters of large internationally-presented syndicates. Others may yet be entirely independent and – in many cases – target their very own countrymen of their own accord. This development has caused Thailand’s foreign mafia scene to become extraordinarily complex. The authorities are unable (or perhaps unwilling) to disclose any reliable figures on the prevalence of foreign mafia presence in the country, but it is estimated that literally hundreds of mafia groups currently carry out their activities more or less openly. Prominent tourism centers such as Pattaya or Phuket are well known to harbor crime syndicates of every couleur. Thai gangs usually serve as facilitators or intermediaries to foreign mafia organizations, for example by procuring unsuspecting and naïve local girls and women to be sent abroad and be put to work as prostitutes.
Victims and Perpetrators of Human Trafficking
Thailand is both a country of transit through which foreign nationals are sent on to other destinations worldwide or, as well as a source country for “human cargo,” as those unfortunate individuals are cynically called in mafia circles. The following two cases highlight both aspects:
A northeastern girl named Ying (*name altered) had received an offer to work in a Thai restaurant in Tokyo. Her future employers not only insisted on paying her ticket and arrange her visa, but also promised a very generous salary. It seemed a deal too good to be passed up. But upon arrival at Narita airport, Ying was ushered into a waiting car and taken to a place tucked away in a dark side alley that by no means resembled a restaurant. She was reined in by the mama-san that she would not be working as a waitress, but would have to have sex with customers. It was a rather rude awakening. Furthermore, she would not receive any pay for a considerable time as she was obliged to repay her accrued “debts” from the sponsored air ticket, the visa fees and “all the trouble” her current boss had to go through in order to bring her into the country. She also would not be allowed to venture outside unaccompanied. After two years of bondage, Ying became so desperate that she stabbed mama-san in the neck during a shopping trip in the neighborhood. Subsequently fleeing to the Thai Embassy, she was eventually repatriated. Ying’s case is not isolated. Literally hundreds of Thai women succumb to false promises of lucrative overseas jobs every year, only to end up in brothels under appalling conditions. Not all of them fall into the hands of the Japanese yakuza, of course, but might be delegated to brothels in South Korea, the Arab countries, Europe and elsewhere.
The foreign mafia commonly uses “mules” or couriers to accompany human cargo to their final destinations. Prime candidates – and the sole risk takers –are often foreigners who are stranded in the Kingdom, hopelessly short of money and yet without any intentions of returning to their home countries. A 44-year-old German citizen named Peter S. (*all personal details amended in order to protect his identity) was approached by some western gentleman with an offer of US$2,000 in cash if he accomplished an “easy and enjoyable job” on their behalf. During several meetings in various coffee shops around town, he was briefed on the details. He was to pose as the boyfriend of a Chinese girl and deliver her to her destination, a brothel in London, upon which he would be paid. S. initially accepted the job, because he hadn’t seen any cash amount comparable to US$2,000 in years. The proposed travel route was elaborate: from Bangkok to Damascus (Syria) by plane; from there by overland bus to the Turkey’s capital Ankara and onward to Istanbul; by train to Athens (Greece). Crossing the Greek border the pair would then have entered the Schengen zone. After boarding a plane to Paris (France), the final leg of his journey would entice a ride on the Channel Express train to London. However, having already been furnished with a Syrian visa as promised, S. reconsidered and went into hiding.
Somebody else undertook the trip, a young American who he had known for some time. S. soon thereafter learned that both the American and the Chinese girl were arrested by British police immediately after their arrival in London. Their fates remain unclear. Fearing for his life for betraying the mafia, S. surrendered himself to Thailand’s immigration authorities (he had a massive visa overstay), was detained and eventually deported back to his home country.
Real Estate Scams, Money Laundering and Boiler Rooms
Real estate scams are another specialty of foreign crime syndicates. A gang of Brits is allegedly active on the island of Samui, selling overpriced real estate to naïve foreigners who dream of a “life under palm trees” and are ignorant of local laws that forbid aliens to own land. Reportedly, the same plot of land is sold multiple times to different customers. Those “home owners” own in fact the same property several times over.
Other varieties of real estate scams do exist. Holiday Home Share Programs would be an example to mention, but it essentially tags along the same line: multiple shares in holiday property are sold to multiple buyers. Prospective clients are customarily approached by innocent-looking students (who have no idea that they’re part of a scheme) on the streets of Pattaya and elsewhere. The victims are either coaxed into revealing their contact details so they can be later subjected to “cold calling” or they are invited to attend a “function with a complimentary buffet and no obligations”, where they are (after the buffet, of course) exposed to intense sales pressure to which they often succumb and sign up for a deal that they later regret.
A German civil engineer had to learn the hard way that it is best not to get involved with the mafia. No amount of money potentially earned can make up for the loss of your life, as 45-year-old Uwe Keienburt discovered. His body parts were found in a pineapple plantation not far from Pattaya in mid-August 2009. The unlucky man was blown to smithereens by what investigating police originally described as “presumably C-4 plastic explosives charges strapped to his body and detonated remotely”. C-4 is a highly regulated material and supposedly only available to the military and related forces. To obtain C-4 is extraordinarily difficult without the right connections, which suggested that Keienburt had crossed some lines that he could not control. The authorities later changed their tone and insisted that Keienburt probably committed “suicide” and that the involvement of any previously suspected foreign mafia was unlikely. His Thai wife remains unconvinced: “I know that he had a business conflict with a group of foreigners over the development of real estate in Pattaya. He had received several death threats over the past few weeks,” she was quoted as saying in newspaper reports. No definite answers have emerged over what Keienburt’s involvement might have been, but rumors do exist that he was entangled in a money laundering operation.
In its constant strive to attract foreign investment, Thailand has neglected to establish controls for any funds being transferred into the Kingdom from abroad. Meanwhile, control mechanisms do exist for outgoing funds. This is, for example, one of the reasons why it was discovered that former prime minister – and since fugitive convicted criminal – Thaksin Shinawatra had transferred his shares in Shin Corporation to a mailbox company in the British Virgin Islands audaciously called “Ample Rich Co., Ltd.”, a name that haunts him to this day. The influx of foreign funds has paralyzed Thailand in its actions how to trace the origins of such payments, which has effectively transformed the country into one of the easiest places where to hide your ill-gotten wealth – and made it attractive to the mafia.