Hot! The Darker Side of Tropical Bliss: Foreign Mafia in Thailand

Photo by barrasa8

By Thomas Schmid

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. 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.

While one cannot directly own real estate, it is comparatively simple to set up a proxy company with some like-minded Thai lackeys to invest money in projects ranging from holiday resorts to nightclubs. It holds true that so-called “Thai partners” still pocket the bulk of profits, but it is still an elegant and unsuspicious way to get rid of hot money. Tracing funds, which are shifted from one account to another, is practically impossible. It’s even more impossible to determine that funds have been derived by illegal means without potential witnesses like Mr. Keienburt. Who doesn’t talk anymore.

Yet another excellent method to skim unsuspecting people of their life savings is the operation of so-called “boiler rooms”. A boiler room is basically a rented space furnished with desks and lots of telephones. A phalanx of accomplished sales people each “cold-call” literally hundreds of potential clients every day and talking them into investing substantial amounts of money in “house stocks”, a term that describes worthless, over-priced or even non-existent company shares and securities. The lure is of course the promise of phenomenal gains over short periods of time. It almost goes without saying that these profits generally don’t materialize. Boiler rooms are highly illegal, but operators have the distinct advantage that they can (and do) easily close down one facility over night, just to re-open the very next day at a new location and continue their activities. Over the years, Thai authorities have raided numerous boiler rooms. In 2006, for example, six such bogus firms were smoked out and their proprietors charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission. However, duped investors rarely recoup their money. One notable exception in March 2005 when a group of 12 Australian investors succeeded in reclaiming some 11.7 million Baht in funds as a result of an unprecedented Thai court ruling against International Asset Management, a boiler room that had been in business at least since 2001. Nevertheless, the recovered funds represented only a mere 30 per cent of the Australians’ combined total investment.

The Russian Connection

The former Soviet Union gradually broke up starting in 1989. The result was not only the creation of several new nation states, but also the eventual dissolution of Russia’s dreaded KGB secret service. Suddenly, thousands over thousands of former KGB operatives or associates were left breadless and had to search for new means of income. Maintaining former contacts and drawing on their individual expertise gained during many years of faithful service, some of them soon found new locations where to play their talents. In the 1980s, Thailand received a mere trickle of visitors from the Soviet Union, mostly dignitaries and “privileged citizens” worthy of representing a dying regime abroad. Post-1989, visitor numbers of Russian tourists to Thailand soared. In 2009, almost 300,000 tourists from the former Soviet republics visited the Kingdom. In their wake, and sensing opportunity, Russian mafia organizations established themselves soon thereafter. While Pattaya was previously dominated by German restaurants, it is nowadays flush with Russian eateries – and the Russian mob, of course. Many of those cozy restaurants are little more than money laundering operations.

With the mob also arrived Eastern European prostitutes, virtually unheard of prior to 1989. Bangkok’s downtown area around Sukhumvit Soi 3 to 15 has matured into a “hub” of which Thailand can hardly be proud.

Mafia Killings

The local rainbow press frequently features headlines about alleged foreign mafia killings. One of the most spectacular and unsettling cases dates back only a few years. On 24 February 2007 the bodies of supposed Russian tourists Tatjana Tsimfer (30) and Liubov Svirkova (25) were discovered in beach chairs on Jomtien Beach, just over the hill from Pattaya City proper. They had been killed by several gun shots to their chests. On a table next to the corpses police investigators found neatly arranged a couple of unfinished beer bottles and a half-finished pack of cigarettes. No lighter was recovered on either body or in the vicinity. “Blurry video footage” from a CCTV camera supposedly revealed the killer to be twenty-something Anuchit Lamlert, a Thai national with a previous criminal record. He was taken into custody a few days later and he soon confessed to the murders. Skeptics, however, were unconvinced and speculated that Anuchit was making himself a scapegoat in order to protect the true culprits behind the crime and obscure the real scenario. Firstly, the two women were dressed up and wore make-up for a “night on the town”, not for a beach visit between 4.30 a.m. and 5 a.m., the approximate time of their deaths. Prints of “army-style boots” were allegedly found at the scene, suggesting that the bodies were placed there after their demise by somebody else in an effort to conceal the real crime. Last but not least, the two dead women had been in Thailand for at least two months, much too long for an average, innocent vacation of pleasure. Website forums were overwhelmed with a myriad of different theories. Quite a few posters suggested that the two victims were in fact prostitutes who intended to “get out” and were subsequently killed by the Russian mob as “a warning to others”. At least one theory had it that the two women might have been employed as actresses in a so-called snuff movie, in which the unwitting cast are sexually tortured and then killed on camera at the end. Although rumors of snuff movies persist, law enforcement authorities have never actually recovered any such movie anywhere in the world.

But the mafia is also not squeamish when it comes to eliminate one of their own. Everybody remembers the infamous “Valentine’s Day Massacre” of 1929, carried out by Al Capone’s designated death squad using almost iconic tommy guns (a type of early submachine gun) on members of a rival gang in Chicago. Modern mafia killings are less spectacular and accomplished more discreetly. Thai police arrested in mid-February 2010 Anai Kenichi, who had fled to Thailand after allegedly murdering a prominent Yakuza boss in June 2009. In late May 2006 New Zealand national Ian Travis was killed by two Thai hitmen allegedly hired by his former partner, American national James Francis Muller. Travis had left Muller to set up his own rival boiler room, a plan which upset his former partner.

Handbags, Movies and other Fakes

Visitors to Thailand are often amazed by the sheer volume of pirated brand names goods and counterfeited movies being sold at discount prices in city sidewalk stalls. However, when buying pirated DVD copies of Hollywood blockbusters, one should be aware that the majority of those are not produced in Thailand. They come from Russia, China, Taiwan and – increasingly – Malaysia and foreign mafia gangs frequently are engaged not only in their smuggling across the border but also their distribution to retail outlets, often in cahoots with local gangs. Counterfeit brand name garments, handbags, suitcases and other accessories, pirated computer software, games and movie DVDs are still openly sold at many places in Thailand, notably locations such as Bangkok’s Pantip Plaza or the night bazaar cluttering Patpong Road. In recent years Thai police have come under intense pressure from individual companies and even governments to stamp out the trade in counterfeit products. The country has even set up the Intellectual Property department under the Royal Thai Police to deal with such infringements. Sizeable quantities of fake goods are seized and destroyed under much fanfare on several occasions every year, but the authorities appear to be fighting an uphill battle. While Phuket Provincial Police publicly incinerated more than 200,000 counterfeit products of a multitude of types and worth in excess of 43 million Baht on 8 February 2010, such amounts represent merely the tip of the iceberg as even the authorities admit that enormous quantities of pirated goods continue to flood the Kingdom.

Besides counterfeit merchandise, forged or falsified passports and other travel documents are yet another area of lucrative engagement pursued by foreign mafia elements. In this context, it is predominantly Pakistani, Iranian, Indian and Bangladeshi gangs who seem to have carved out a niche for themselves here for reasons that are difficult to determine. The US Embassy Thailand as well as many foreign embassies in Thailand have issued warnings to their citizens regarding the potential for passport theft in Thailand. At this point we need to understand the difference between a “forged” and a “falsified” passport. A forged passport is produced from scratch emulating the appearance of a genuine document, often to absolute perfection. Falsification, on the other hand, constitutes an authentic document – stolen or appropriated otherwise from its legitimate owner – that is then subsequently altered by various sophisticated means to be attributed to another person. Such counterfeit or altered documents are highly priced in the black market, regularly fetching up to US$10,000 a piece. They can be used by convicted criminals or terrorists who wish to assume a new identity or are peddled to people who wish to immigrate to a new country without having the means of doing so legally. In December 2009 Thai authorities arrested a 6-member gang comprising several Thais, a Sri Lankan, a Pakistani and a Burmese Rohingya and seized from the more than 300 fake British, French and Belgian passports, as well as the tools and machinery to produce them. A little further back into the past, on 26 September 2009, police caught a British national of Iranian extraction at Suvarnabhumi airport. In his possession were 130 genuine passports that had been stolen in Spain from Italian, British, French and German tourists. The suspect, who carried a fake Iranian passport, was accused of trying to smuggle tem into the country so the documents could be altered and sold.

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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