While most of the focus has been on drug lords from South America, a man in Asia was slowly building his network. Tse Chi Lop, a Chinese born Canadian citizen, was able to stitch together multiple gangs to form a syndicate that can rival a tech giant. But after years on the run, Tse, also known as 'Sam Gor' or brother number three in Cantonese, was finally nabbed by the Netherlands police on Friday (January 23) from the Amsterdam airport.
Tse is compared to Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar and Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman but he, in a way, resembles the like of Miguel Felix Gallardo, who ended a war between rival gangs and made a drug empire in Mexico in the 70s and 80s. Tse is believed to be the head of the Asian cartel, named 'The Company' that deals in methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy), ketamine and heroin with an estimated business of $18 billion.
"Tse Chi Lop is in the league of El Chapo or maybe Pablo Escobar. The word 'kingpin' often gets thrown around, but there is no doubt it applies here," Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and Pacific representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told Reuters in 2019.
Who Is Tse Chi Lop?
Born in Guangdong province in southern China, Tse grew up amid the country's cultural revolution (1966-76). During this period, China saw bloody purges, mass starvation and forced labor camps. This is when a group of disgruntled imprisoned members of the Red Guard formed a criminal enterprise named Big Circle Gang in Guangzhou.
According to police, Tse became a member of the gang and moved to Hong Kong before shifting to Canada in 1988. Tse gradually became a mid-ranking member of the gang in 1990 for his role in heroin smuggling from the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, China and Laos. But when everything seemed to go well, he was charged with drug-trafficking in New York in 1998 for importing heroin into the US. He spent nine years in prison before being freed in 2006. But it is not known when he returned to Hong Kong.
"The crime groups in Southeast Asia and the Far East operate with seamless efficiency. They function like a global corporation," one veteran anti-narcotics official said.
Back in Hong Kong, Tse and his wife opened up a lucrative business that offered guarantees on drug smuggling. Even if one shipment was seized by the police, the traffickers did not lose money as it was guaranteed by Tse. This way, he ended the rivalry between gangs — Big Circle Gang, the 14K, Wo Shing Wo (all Hong Kong), Sun Yee On (Macau) and the Bamboo Union (Taiwan) — and formed a cartel. As for trafficking, it was mostly done in small tea bags without raising any suspicion. It was profitable for all the parties involved and Tse shot to prominence.
The way the popular Netflix series Narcos depicted the lifestyles of Escobar and Gallardo might seem to be exaggerated, but it was true. Tse too has had a luxurious lifestyle. He flew in a private jet between Macau, Toronto, Hong Kong and Thailand while staying at luxurious resorts. As per investigators, he lost around $66 million in one night at a Macau casino. To protect him and his money, Tse hired an army of Thai boxers who would rotate in shifts to guard the kingpin.
But that hardly put a dent as his business in Australia grew manifold. That also put him under the Australian Federal Police's radar as it collaborated with Interpol and other agencies to launch a massive hunt. Friday's arrest was also made at the request of AFP which is expected to extradite him to Australia to face trial.
"The syndicate targeted Australia over a number of years, importing and distributing large amounts of illicit narcotics, laundering the profits overseas and living off the wealth obtained from crime," the AFP said in a statement.
Dutch police spokesman Thomas Aling said he would be extradited after appearing before a judge in the Netherlands. However, to disappoint movie directors, Tse's arrest was without any incident and he did not resist arrest at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. "He was already on the most-wanted list and he was detained based on intelligence we received," Aling told Reuters.