Peaceful Macau fears return of violence

The opening of Macau's lucrative gambling monopoly franchise is likely to bring fresh trouble to the enclave, which is just beginning to enjoy some peace and quiet after years of violent gang crime.

Experts say new gambling licences are bound to trigger jockeying for power and infighting among triad gangs, which control activities such as loansharking, prostitution, smuggling and protection rackets surrounding the legal gaming business.

In the years before Portugal returned the little outpost to China in December 1999, Macau was wracked by gangland warfare between rival triads.

But after the handover, ending nearly 450 years of Portuguese rule, the violence ended abruptly - thanks to close cooperation with mainland police, tighter security and the entry of a garrison of China's People's Liberation Army.

But now police in the territory of 437,600 people are bracing for more trouble when the administration of Beijing-backed leader Edmund Ho ends a 40-year gambling monopoly at the end of 2001.

The monopoly is held by entertainment giant Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau (STDM), run by Macau gambling king Stanley Ho, a close friend but no relation to Edmund Ho.

Authorities have long wanted to open up the industry to more than one licencee to encourage competition and remove oft-cited accusations of favouritism.

But police sources say more casino licences will mean more illegal businesses on the fringes of the industry, such as loansharking, extortion and prostitution.

"The biggest challenge in coming years will come from the opening up of the gambling licence. The security situation will change along with it," said Security Secretary Cheong Kuoc Va.

"Now we have one licence. We'll have more in future, so definitely, there will be changes," he told Reuters.


Plans are underway to expand Macau's public security and judiciary police, responsible for fighting serious crimes such as money laundering and drug trafficking, Cheong said.

Over the next five years, the 5,000-strong public security force will employ an additional 623 people, while judicial police will expand to 407 by the end of this year from 300.

"We will have more street patrols and monitor activities in and around the casinos. Some will be deployed to immigration. If there are blacklisted people, we won't let them in," Cheong said.

There were some 9.16 million visitors to Macau in 2000, up 23 percent compared with 1999, and authorities are expecting 10 million arrivals this year. Some three-quarters of visitors gamble at Macau's 10 casinos or its horse and greyhound races.

"If casinos get busier and more people come to gamble, that would raise chances of losing money and borrowing money from loansharks. If they can't pay...they get accosted by loansharks," said Cheong.

Compared with pre-handover days of arson attacks, turf wars and shootings, Macau has seen crime shrink in 2000.

There were 8,925 reported cases of crime in 2000, down 3.64 percent on the year. Murders fell 72 percent to 29 cases, while kidnappings decreased 66 percent to 16 cases.

Cheong attributes this to tougher police action and increased communication with mainland authorities.

"We often seek out their (triad) leaders and tell them not to create trouble," Cheong said.

"In the past, when we pursued them, they fled to mainland China. But with better cooperation, we can get help to capture them. Now, mainland China is no longer their refuge, they have fewer places to run."

Just weeks before the 1999 handover, underworld elements were given a taste of things to come when a court sentenced Wan Kuok-koi, or "Broken Tooth Koi", the infamous leader of the 14K triad gang, to 15 years in prison.

His jailing came at a time when Beijing was putting pressure on Lisbon to stop crime and gangland warfare in the enclave.

Fear of what communist overlords would do after the handover also led to some criminal gangs abandoning caches of weapons in side streets in the weeks before the sovereignty change.