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The Mob Takes a Fall

This article originally appeared in TIME,March 17, 1997 vol. 149 No. 11

Hundreds of Taiwan Gangsters Surrender Under an Amnesty Program, but the Triads Remain Powerful

By Nisid Hajari

The Heaven Division doesn't fool anyone. Despite its pleasant moniker, the 30-member battalion is considered the most ferocious and lethal unit in Taiwan's preeminent triad, the Bamboo Union. So one could be forgiven a measure of skepticism over the recent plaint of the man widely considered to be the division's kingpin, Wang Kuo-ching. "Many business people won't associate with me. Although I'm doing legitimate business, many think I'm doing something illegal and look at me with discriminatory eyes," said Wang after surrendering to Taipei authorities in January. "I just want to stop bearing the cross of being a gang member and be a normal businessman."

Wang's words may seem like crocodile tears, but his actions contributed to a powerful drama: as part of Operation Self-Renewal, a 60-day amnesty program that came to a close last month, one in seven Taiwanese mobsters turned themselves in to police and renounced their lives of crime. Gangs looking to avoid prosecution under the tough new Organized Crime Prevention Act filed into precinct houses en masse. Among the 1,528 converts were such heavyweights as Wang and two others thought to be Bamboo Union chieftains, Hua Chi-chung and Feng Tsai-tsao. The alleged No. 2 of the Four Seas triad, Tung Ke-chen, voluntarily disbanded the country's second-largest gang reportedly under orders from the man who is thought to head the group, U.S.-based Chao Ching-hua. In fact, authorities claim that one-third of Taiwan's more than 1,200 known "black societies" were dissolved during the amnesty.

What impact the defections will have on Taiwan's influential underworld is unclear. Statutes of limitations had already expired on charges against many of the crooks, who now cannot be prosecuted for gang membership either. Nearly one-third of those who relinquished triad ties were already in custody. Some reputed mafiosi, like Chao, bought goodwill without limiting their options abroad (triads remain active elsewhere in Asia and in the West). And the handful of guns surrendered by ostensibly repentant thugs has not impressed Taiwanese police. "We are suspicious about whether all the people who turned themselves in will start a new life," says Kao Cheng-sheng, director of the Criminal Investigation Bureau's Hooligans Control Division. "But we'd rather believe in them."

Crime experts fear the amnesty will merely free triad figures to continue their unsavory ways in a legal guise. Already a rash of scandals has spotlighted the gangs' penetration of civil society. According to police, triad-affiliated companies won the multimillion-dollar bidding to develop a second terminal at Taipei's international airport, and others allegedly squeezed kickbacks from a $40 million road project. (Both undertakings have since been halted.) According to Justice Minister Liao Cheng-hao, one-third of local assemblymen elected two years ago have mob ties or criminal records. And, perhaps most scandalously on this sports-crazy island, several baseball players have admitted accepting triad bribes to throw games.

Such revelations, and bloodier incidents like last November's gangland-style execution of eight local government officials in Taoyuan, prompted President Lee Teng-hui to press on with the anti-triad crackdown. Since it began last year, authorities have arrested 74 prominent gangsters (and 22 elected officials), while hundreds more have fled for China and other Asian countries. The most recent sweep netted several provincial officials, as well as a member of the National Assembly, Tsai Yung-chang.

The stick now wielded by the government is further incentive to go straight: under the law that went into effect last month, gang leaders would receive sentences of up to seven years and fines that could total $4 million. And the law allows prosecutors to move against any group of more than three people believed to be associating for criminal purposes. Many worry that the statute, which lowers burden-of-proof standards, could also be leveled against political foes.

The big question is whether the latest campaign will be any more successful than earlier ones. In 1984, some 3,000 mobsters were jailed. Taiwan's third-largest triad, the Heavenly Justice Alliance, was actually born in jail after that sweep. Today its self-proclaimed "spiritual leader," Lo Fu-chu, sits in the National Assembly, where he was recently elected to the Justice Committee. Another legislator has accused Lo of kidnapping and imprisoning him in a dog cage last year. Lo, who denies the charge, said upon accepting the Justice post, "I'm going to teach the law enforcement authorities how to crack down on the underworld." Says one prosecutor: "It's like the head of the Mafia controlling the fbi's budget. It's a big joke." Successes like Operation Self-Renewal may divert such criticism temporarily, but authorities aren't all that optimistic. "The law is not going to eliminate organized crime in Taiwan," says Kao. "What we hope to achieve is to control crime to a level people can accept."

--Reported by Yeh Ching/Taipei

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