How Asian Drug-Trafficking Networks Operate in Europe

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How Asian Drug-Trafficking Networks Operate in Europe

Recent Sam Gor arrests in Europe reveal the transcontinental reach of the drug syndicate.

How Asian Drug-Trafficking Networks Operate in Europe

A Bureau of Customs agent reveals a package of illegal ecstasy tablets during a formal turnover to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019 in suburban Pasay city. A package from the Netherlands containing 1,269 ecstasy tablets valued at $40,000 was seized by airport customs agents.

Credit: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Amid growing fears that the Netherlands is becoming a “narco state,” the unexpected arrest of alleged Chinese synthetic drug kingpin and most-wanted international fugitive Tse Chi Lop in Amsterdam in January has crowned an amphetamine-paced year for Dutch drug enforcement.

After dismantling a record 32 methamphetamine labs last year, according to the Dutch National Police’s 2020 Synthetic Drugs Overview, Dutch narcs saw the reputed “El Chapo of Asia” mosey right into their clutches.

Tse, a 57-year-old Canadian citizen and the presumed “dragonhead” of the Sam Gor “super” syndicate – an alliance of five Chinese triads that dominate Asia’s $70 billion annual meth market – was detained while on layover in Schiphol Airport.

The alleged kingpin was nabbed on an Interpol “Red Diffusion” warrant at the request of the Australian Federal Police (AFP). The AFP issued a warrant for Tse in 2019 related to a 2013 drug case that “dismantled a global crime syndicate operating in five countries,” according to a press release it issued on the day of his arrest.

Despite being a major target for international law enforcement, Tse had managed to stay one step ahead of his pursuers by bribing senior officials from several Asian countries. One such official was allegedly Meng Hongwei, a Chinese national and the former president of Interpol, according to a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigator who requested anonymity. When asked for comment, Interpol did not confirm or deny the allegations.

Meng “disappeared” while traveling to China in 2018. Last year, the ex-Interpol chief was sentenced to 13-and-a-half years imprisonment for corruption after pleading guilty to accepting $2 million in bribes between 2005 and 2017. But Beijing never publicly revealed Meng’s corruptors.

Neither the AFP, Interpol, nor other police agencies confirmed Tse’s links to the synthetic drug trade in the Netherlands or Central and Eastern Europe. But Tse was named as a person of interest in a 2019 Polish drug-trafficking probe linked to the Macau triads. Vietnamese gangs are also heavily involved in meth production and trafficking throughout Central Europe.

This link is significant because the Sam Gor also counts numerous Vietnamese traffickers as members, including the primary figure in the 2013 Australian drug case that ultimately led to Tse’s arrest. According to a 2011 European Parliament report on Asian organized crime, the continent’s Vietnamese gangs began as “sub-divisions of Chinese criminal organizations.”

Concurrently, the takedown of mobile encrypted crime network Sky ECC by Dutch and Belgian police earlier this month revealed evidence of transnational conspiracies to traffic and distribute heroin, meth, and cocaine throughout Australia, Asia, Europe, the U.S., and Canada, according to an indictment filed in the Southern District of California. Federal prosecutors indicted Sky Global’s chief executive officer and a former associate. Sky Global is Sky ECC’s parent company.

Asked about any possible link between the Sky ECC takedown, the Sam Gor syndicate, and Tse, Cindy Cimpriani, the senior management counsel for the Southern District of California U.S. Attorney’s Office, said: “We cannot comment outside the record of public documents.”

European Threads

In its 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment report, the United States’ Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) notes that the club drug ecstasy is exported to the U.S. by Asian transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) operating in Europe, although the DEA doesn’t name the specific group involved. The Netherlands has been the traditional hub for synthetic drug production for decades, synthesizing tens of billions of dollars worth of MDMA and amphetamine every year.

Additionally, the 2011 European Parliament report noted that Chinese criminal groups often collaborate with Dutch groups in the Netherlands supplying MDMA and meth precursors like piperonyl methyl ketone (PMK) and benzyl methyl ketone (BMK), respectively.

The DEA report notes that Asian TCOs they are investigating “operate with investment from Asia-based crime bosses in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.” These countries encompass the precise command-and-control jurisdictions that oversee “the Company,” which is the moniker used by the AFP to describe the Sam Gor syndicate.

In the U.S., businesses concentrated in New York “facilitate the transshipment and importation of drug loads orchestrated by Asian TCOs” from Europe, according to the DEA. Incidentally, the language of the DEA report, which hints at the Company’s executive operating footprint, combined with open-source reports and a recent update to Tse’s docket in the Eastern District of New York, raise the possibility that he may have been indicted again in the United States.

On January 27, just five days after Tse’s arrest in the Netherlands, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Weigel was “added as counsel” on a case that dates back to 1997, according to court documents. Then, on February 5, a “sealed document” was filed and entered into EDNY court records.

The original docket entry for Tse stems from a 1997 international drug trafficking case, codenamed “Sunblock,” in which Tse conspired with members of the Rizzuto crime family in Montreal to smuggle heroin into New York City. Tse was arrested and extradited from Hong Kong in 1998. He pleaded guilty to the charges in New York in 2000 and was sentenced to nine years. Freed in 2006, Tse did most of his time at the federal correctional facility in Elkton, Ohio.

Spokespersons for the EDNY, the DEA, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation all declined to comment on whether or not Tse had been reindicted.

Jodi Avergun, the ex-assistant U.S. attorney who was previously assigned to the case and who filed a motion to withdraw as counsel for the United States in this ongoing legal matter on February 9 did not immediately respond to The Diplomat’s request for comment.

But retired FBI agent Mark Calnan, who previously arrested Tse in a Hong Kong restaurant, refuted the notion that the drug lord had been reindicted by the EDNY. “I think you are mistaken about Lop being indicted again in EDNY; the document you sent refers to his original indictment in 1997. It is my understanding that due to Lop’s January arrest in Amsterdam, an AUSA [assistant U.S. attorney] in EDNY had to make an appearance in court regarding the matter,” said Calnan.

“I don’t really know what the legal requirement was, but I am sure that it was not to indict Lop again,” he added.

14K in the Netherlands

Reports in Australian and Hong Kong media stated that another recently captured Sam Gor “executive board member,” Li Chung Chak, who was arrested in Thailand last October, is suspected of “establishing a drug trafficking network in the Netherlands for the gang and smuggling heroin from the Golden Triangle to Europe.”

Li also previously served time with Tse at the same prison in Elkton. The pair were released within a month of each other. Li Chung Chak holds one of two dozen seats, or executive management positions, that belong to once-rival triad bosses who joined forces to form the Sam Gor.

But according to a Sydney Morning Herald report that references a 2012 Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) briefing, Li’s primary triad affiliation is the 14K group. The ACIC told The Diplomat, “The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission does not comment on any investigations, operational activity, or matters before the courts.”

In the Netherlands, according to a 2011 Asian organized crime report prepared by the European Parliament, “the presence of Chinese organized crime has been reported as early as the 1970s, a time when members of the 14K triad controlled Chinese restaurants in many Dutch cities.”

Some five decades ago, Amsterdam’s Chinatown was the backdrop for a violent gang war waged between warring triad factions over the local gambling rackets and the market for “china-white” heroin, according to Dutch media reports.

Dutch National Police spokesperson Thomas Ailing declined to respond to multiple requests for comment on present-day triad activity in the Netherlands, but did say generally that the takedown of the EncroChat encrypted crime network last summer helped law enforcement “look over the criminals’ shoulder” to dismantle local synthetic drug production networks.

Regardless, the “14K triad is believed to be in control of heroin smuggling into the Benelux countries [referring to Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg]. In Belgium, the 14K also controls gambling casinos and money laundering schemes,” according to the European Parliament report.

Legacy opioid supply chains aside, synthetic drugs like meth and the dissociative ketamine are the Sam Gor’s best-selling products. While Mexican organized crime groups are said to dominate large-scale meth production in Europe, via their cooperation with Dutch and Belgian groups, according to Europol spokesperson Jan Op Gen Oorth, Vietnamese groups are also ascendant in the trade.

To wit, Colonel Ondrej Moravcik, the head of the press department for the Czech police, said “the crime groups operating in the Netherlands tend to maintain a mutual cooperation with other locally-based groups, including the Vietnamese ones.”

Nowhere is Vietnamese organized crime’s influence over methamphetamine trafficking more pronounced than in Czechia – the long-established stronghold of continental meth production and consumption prior to the Netherlands’ rise over the last decade.

Piko Capital

With an estimated 34,700 “high-risk” users as of 2017, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), Czechia has traditionally been the continent’s regional leader both in consumption and production of “piko,” the Czech slang term for meth. This vernacular is a shorthand for Pervitin, an early tablet form of methamphetamine sold in Germany during World War II.

As far back as 2010, when the EMCDDA and Europol conducted their first study on meth in Europe, they found that 457 of the 483 labs found in EU member states in 2008 were located in Czechia

The EMCDDA estimates that Czech addicts consume 6.5 tons of piko annually, surpassing the demand for meth reported in any other EU member state. “Injecting remains the primary mode of methamphetamine use in Czechia, where the drug is often used in the context of polydrug use with opioids,” according to the EMCDDA.

In Czechia, the EMCCDA says Vietnamese meth traffickers also use diaspora contacts in other European member states to procure medicines containing pseudoephedrine, which they use to produce meth.

The Czech National Drug Control Center of the Criminal Police and Investigation Service’s 2019 annual report stated that recent cases also “show an increase in imports of medicines from more distant countries, such as Romania, but also from Asia.”

Still, most of the meth produced in Europe, with an emphasis on the Netherlands and Belgium, is “primarily for export,” according to Europol’s Gen Oorth. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Regional Representative for Southeast Asia, Jeremy Douglas, has remarked that Australia, New Zealand, and Japan are the most valuable markets in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Japan remains one of the most lucrative meth markets in the world. Controlled by the Yakuza, use has been significant since WW2 when the military used it extensively. Meth in Japan has also traditionally commanded the highest price in the region per kilogram, and it is currently more there than other high value markets Australia and New Zealand,” Douglas has said.

In 2019, average retail prices for crystal meth amounted to $298,000 per kilo in Australia and $588,000 in Japan, according to a UNODC report. In Central Europe, however, Moravcik said “organized crime groups in the Czech Republic mostly produce large volumes of meth in order to supply their customers in Germany.”

“Export-oriented industrial facilities typically manage to produce the amount ranging from kilograms to tens of kilograms and make up 7 percent out of all drug production facilities that have been dismantled so far,” said Moravcik.  “While Austria, France, Norway, and Sweden formerly represented the final destinations, there were incidents of meth being smuggled to Australia and Japan as well,” he added.

One meth trafficking network dismantled by Czech police in 2017 produced several tons of the drug over the five-year span it was in operation. In this case, large laboratories were operated mainly by a Vietnamese gang throughout Czechia, according to local media reports.

This particular network consisted of 17 defendants who “specialized in the import of chemicals needed for the production of drugs and the supply of some components to laboratories,” according to Czech media.

Vietnamese Mafias

In Czechia, “Vietnamese criminal groups still predominate” in “large-scale methamphetamine production,” according to the NPC report. The presence of Vietnamese gangs in the local meth trade has been reported since at least 2011, according to the European Parliament report.

Due to their enhanced production capacity, the Vietnamese were able to reduce the per-gram-price by over a factor of three, or down to 500 korunas, according to Czech media.

This phenomenon of Vietnamese organized crime in Czechia, and a comparably large Vietnamese population in general, numbering roughly 100,000, is the byproduct of a massive immigration wave from the mid-1970s until the late 1980s. During this period, communist Czechoslovakia imported labor from allied Vietnam, according to the South China Morning Post.

Vietnamese organized crime in Czechia gradually evolved from focusing on counterfeit goods in the early 1990s, to the cannabis trade in the early aughts, to the meth business in the last decade.

In 2018, Czech politician Lubomír Zaorálek, the then-chairman of the Committee for the House of Foreign Affairs, told his colleagues during a meeting that “Vietnam is an organized crime and has become a first-class security risk.” He also said that the Vietnamese mafia frequently exploits student visas to bring criminals into Czechia.

Vietnamese trafficking is most visible in numerous Vietnamese-run flea markets found along the 814-kilometer Czech-German border. These venues serve as veritable open-air meth markets, where speed tourists and dealers drive across the German border to purchase the drug, according to the SCMP’s investigation.

At these border markets, meth is “exported in quantities ranging from a few grams to hundreds of grams,” according to the NPC report. The NPC report cites one small Vietnamese operation at the Mount St. Sebastian market in the Chomutov district that police busted last year, where dealers were selling roughly 100 grams per transaction.

Operation “North,” the largest meth bust of 2019, targeted a cross-border smuggling ring that involved 26 people from Czechia, Vietnam, the Netherlands, and Germany. The NPC said Czech police cooperated with Dutch, Belgian, and German authorities in this case.

This case is currently being tried in the Litomerice district court, according to Czech media reports. Twenty-two members of this Vietnamese-Czech gang are accused of buying precursor chemicals and equipment for the production of meth in Czechia and cooking the drug in large-scale laboratories domiciled in the Netherlands.

Couriers smuggled hundreds of kilograms of meth back to the Czech Republic, distributing the drug in Prague and Usti nad Labem. The gang also sold meth in Germany. This conspiracy allegedly took place between 2017 and 2019.

The joint EMCCDA and Europol assessment said that “Vietnamese OCGs are also involved in the trafficking and distribution of methamphetamine in several other EU countries.” Over the last three years, “they have also gradually increased their activities in member states bordering Czechia,” according to the report.

While they’re increasingly ramping up production in Slovakia and Poland, Vietnamese criminal groups are also “more frequently involved in the trafficking and distribution” of the drug in Austria and Germany, according to the EMCCDA.

‘Company’ Subsidaries?

While Moravcik said the Czech police have no evidence of a connection between the Sam Gor network and the Vietnamese mafias, the Czech government explored a mutual legal assistance agreement with the government of Vietnam to cooperate in the fight against organized crime in 2018.

This indicates a transnational dimension to Czech-based Vietnamese organized crime. Moreover, the Sam Gor syndicate reportedly corrupted a top politician in Vietnam, according to the Sydney Morning Herald report that cited the ACIC intelligence briefing on the gang.

Vietnam itself has become a key transshipment point for drugs sourced from the Golden Triangle – the lawless region that borders Myanmar, Thailand, China, and Laos – and the Sam Gor syndicate’s stronghold. In October, Vietnamese police seized over 100 kilograms of synthetic drugs destined for “Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, and even Europe,” according to Vietnamese media reports.

Additionally, Central European meth trafficking largely relies on links between Vietnamese groups in primary production countries and “contacts among the Vietnamese diaspora communities in destination countries,” according to the EMCCDA.

Poland in particular has become a key transit country for meth precursors “diverted from elsewhere in the European Union,” according to the EMCCDA. But due to limited border traffic during the pandemic, supply of meth precursors favored by Vietnamese networks became scarce, said Jakub Frydrych, director of the National Anti-Drug Central Police, in an interview with Seznam Zprávy last spring.

Meanwhile, Tse was also named in a probe of Sun Yee On triad-related synthetic drug smuggling from Poland to Australia in 2019 , according to Polish media reports. In this case, the Silesian Branch of the National Public Prosecutor’s Office in Poland sent a request for mutual legal assistance to Canada, where Tse holds citizenship.

Charges were brought against three Polish citizens in this case, according to a press officer for the District Court in Katowice for Criminal Matters. The press officer for the Polish National Prosecutor’s Office said this probe concerned an organized criminal group operating in Poland, Germany, Czechia, and Australia.

According to the District Court in Katowice, this criminal group was “led by persons residing in the Macau Special Administrative Region associated with one of the triads.” Further highlighting the connection between ethnic Vietnamese traffickers and the Sam Gor syndicate is Tse’s alleged co-conspirator in the 2013 Australian case, codenamed “Operation Volante.”

Eight years ago, the AFP arrested an unassuming grocer, the Vietnamese-born Australian national Suky Lieu, for “trafficking commercial quantities” of meth and conspiring to “import a commercial quantity” of heroin, according to Australian court records. While Lieu was depicted in the press as a narco-kingpin, in reality, he was just Tse’s logistics manager for narcotics distribution in Melbourne.

Just like Tse’s former Australian logistics manager, authorities suspect that “some Vietnamese groups may exploit legal business structures” in the furtherance of clandestine meth trafficking and production, according to the EMCCDA.

To this end, the 2011 European Parliament report noted that Vietnamese criminal groups operating in the EU are active in money laundering. Assessing the Vietnamese and other ethnic gangs “most capable in managing illicit commodities and illegal migration to the EU,” the European parliament noted that “proceeds of crime are mainly invested in the countries of origin.”

The 2012 ACIC Sam Gor intelligence briefing also alleged that the syndicate’s money was being laundered via “Asian hotel chains and resorts, commercial construction companies, property companies in Hong Kong and Vietnam (and) casinos,” among other places, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Until the intelligence threads from organized crime-friendly, encrypted communications networks like Sky ECC and EncroChat, which threaded a link to the Vietnamese migrant smuggling tragedy in the U.K. last year, are fully woven together by law enforcement, following the money trail may offer the most conclusive link between the Sam Gor syndicate and Asian synthetic drug networks operating in the EU.

Timothy L. Quintero is an investigative reporter who focuses on the intersection between organized crime and cybercrime. His work has been featured in InSight Crime and Vice Motherboard.