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Gang War Turns Macau into Mayhem

By Raymond Chow
May 14, 1997

MACAU (AP) -- As dusk fell, the bikers pulled up on either side of the blue sedan on busy Avenida de Praia Grande, pulled out Chinese-issue pistols and fired point-blank, killing all three occupants. They then sped away, leaving bystanders gazing aghast at the bloody spectacle and compounding what has become a growing embarrassment for China, Macau's future master. The May 4 execution of the three men, said to be senior gangland figures, was just the latest chapter in more than a month of fire-bombings and assassinations that have killed 14 people and injured 21 in this small Portuguese colony of 425,000 inhabitants.

The violence is widely believed to be a turf war among criminal gangs vying for control of cigarette smuggling and the casino business that is Macau's biggest source of income. Triads, as Chinese gangs are known, operate throughout the Chinese-speaking world, profiting from gambling, prostitution, loan-sharking, smuggling and immigrant-trafficking. But the Macau mayhem is especially worrisome to China, because it comes just weeks before it takes over neighboring Hong Kong. Beijing is a nxious that nothing spoil the smooth change of sovereignty, and Macau is just 40 miles away, and less than three years from its own return to Chinese rule. Thus the latest violence stung China into an unusual expression of concern, and a public appeal to Portugal to take ``effective steps to counter the daily deterioration of Macau's social order.''

The shooting came just hours after police launched a massive anti- triad operation, showing how indifferent the mobsters are to police forces they outnumber roughly 3-2. The authorities themselves are targets. Last November, the official in charge of gambling survived being shot in the face from a motorcycle -- the first Portuguese official in Macau to suffer such an attack. On April 7, two police officers were shot and wounded. Two weeks later, a nurse was shot to death. She was related to a police officer.

The same night, assailants fire-bombed a video game arcade, and stabbed 11 teenage customers. A policeman who shot and killed one of the attackers had his house set on fire a week later. Legislator Ng Kuok-cheong says Portugal is to blame, accusing it of treating triads as a Chinese matter to be tolerated as long as it does not get out of hand. ``This has crippled the government's will to rule the colony properly,'' said Ng in an interview. Law enforcement agencies in the 440-year-old colony lack the sweeping powers available to their Hong Kong counterparts to fight the triads, making it difficult to stop the mobsters infiltrating the police force, he says.

Or intimidating their critics. When Macau students demonstrated against the violence, they wore masks for fear of being fingered by triads. ``I'm helpless. It seems like we're just sitting waiting to be killed,'' said Katherine Cheng, a 31-year-old bank clerk, who has stopped going to restaurants at night for fear of being caught up in violence. Cab drivers r port after- dark trade is down by two-thirds. The Portuguese government and police refused to comment or respond to requests for interviews.

The legislature is trying to tighten the laws and impose heavier penalties, but Ng doubts they will work any better than existing laws. China itself may be partly to blame, given its sometimes forgiving attitude toward triads. Wong M an-fong, a Chinese former diplomat in Hong Kong, disclosed this month that before Britain and China signed the terms of the handover in 1984, he met with triad leaders and warned them to behave.

``I told them that if they did not disrupt Hong Kong's stability, we would not stop them from making money,'' the South China Morning Post quoted him as telling a seminar in Hong Kong. In April 1993, China's head of police, Tao Siju, said some ``patriotic'' triads could make worthy allies ``provided they are concerned with the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.''

Copyright 1997 The Associated Press

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