In the 1980s and 90s, much of the heroin smuggled in into the United States is believed to be controlled by Chinese and Hong Kong triads. They supplanted the Italian Mafia in the 1980s, and today are being challenged by Columbians and Mexicans who have a cheaper product, a reputation for violence plus they have effectively marketed heroin to their cocaine customers A major smuggling operation was uncovered in the 1980s that shipped heroin into the United States wrapped in condoms and sewn to the stomach of goldfish. An effort to arrest members of the ring fell apart when a material witness, sent from China to the United States, was granted political asylum after Tiananmen Square.

A Fujian-based syndicate was once one the world’s largest drug organizations. It smuggled over $100 million worth of Southeast Asian heroin — mostly from Myanmar — into the United States between 2000 and 2002, using representatives in New York, North Carolina, Florida,, Canada and other places. The group was led by Kin-cheung Wong, who also ran a four-story gambling den and brothel in Fujian Province.

The main drug figure in Asia in the 2010s was Tse Chi Lop, a Canadian national of Chinese decent. Who was arrested in Amsterdam in January 2021. Describing as the El Chapo of Asia and placed in the league as Pablo Escobar of Columbia and Khun Sa of Myanmar, he was the leader of the Sam Gor Syndicate, arguably the biggest drug-trafficking operation in Asia's history, controlling much of . Asia's methamphetamine trade is believed to be worth between $30 billion and $61 billion a year. [Source: Joshua Berlinger, CNN, January 24, 2021]

Sam Gor is sometimes simply referred to as "the Company." According to CNN: The organization is accused of running a synthetic drug manufacturing empire in large swathes of the under-policed jungles of Myanmar, a region marred by civil war and still under the control of various competing warlords and militias. From there, Sam Gor has allegedly been able to procure large amounts of precursor chemicals, the ingredients to make synthetic drugs, and then move them across the region to nearby markets in Bangkok, but also to farther-flung ones in Australia and Japan.

Sam Gor allegedly had operatives working throughout the globe, with players in South Korea, England, Canada and the United States. The documents described Sam Gor as a "triad-like network" — a reference to ethnic Chinese gangs that operate in Asia and North America — but more mobile and dynamic. The group's existence was revealed in 2016 after a Taiwanese drug trafficker was arrested in Yangon, Myanmar, the briefing showed. Further police investigations revealed that the organization was, as of 2018, earning between $8 billion and $17.7 billion worth of illicit proceeds a year. The organization uses poorly regulated casinos in Southeast Asia to launder a significant portion of those proceeds. Tse allegedly ran his multibillion dollar operation from Hong Kong, Macao and southeast Asia. But his name — or existence — was not public knowledge until he was revealed by a Reuters investigation published in 2019.

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Hashish, China Not so Special blog china.notspecial.org ; Cannabis History walnet.org/rosebud ; Opium Trade in China druglibrary.org

China's People’s War on Drugs

China launched a “People’s War on Drugs” in 2005, appealing to the public for help and offering awards for catching drug traffickers. The campaign was able to squeeze supplies coming from the Golden Triangle but this success was offset by increases in the supply of heroin coming from Afghanistan. In the operation, 46,000 drug suspects were arrested, 6.9 tons of heroin was seized and the cut in overall drug supply caused prices to rise 30 percent to 35 percent. More than 250,000 tips on drug activity were provided by ordinary people.

The number of drug cases handled by police in Yunnan in 2005 was 98,000, an increase of 4.4 percent from 2004. In the same period the number of drug suspects that were arrested increased 5.1 percent to 67,000. Sometimes people offer large sums of money to police to avoid arrest. The police take the money and arrest the people anyway. Other times drug bosses inform on smugglers carrying small amount of drugs so the police can make bust to maintain face while large drug shipments slip through.

China and the United States have teamed up to battle the drug trade. In May 2003, the countries cooperated to completely dismantle the Fujian-based syndicate. Among the 30 people arrested in Asia and the United States were men labeled as “untouchables” because they had long managed to avoid capture. Wong was nabbed with 77 kilograms of heroin in China. He was executed. The arrest came after a 20 month investigation that included, for the first time on Chinese soil, an undercover operation by U.S. law enforcement people. The agents posed as drug buyers. The evidence they gathered allowed arrests to be made in China and the United States. Beijing and Washington have showed unusual willingness to cooperate on combating the heroin trade in China. In 1996, the F.B.I. opened an office in Beijing at the invitation of China.

Xi Jinping’s Celebrity Drug Crackdown

In June 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that illegal drugs should be wiped out and that offenders would be severely punished. In Beijing alone, more than 7,800 people have been caught in the crackdown two months after the statement was made. Associated Press reported: “A string of celebrities have been among those detained, including Gao Hu, who acted in Zhang Yimou's 2011 movie "The Flowers of War."” [Source: Associated Press, August 18, 2014 ^^^]

In August 2014, “forty-two Beijing performing arts associations and theater companies signed a pledge to not hire any actors connected with drugs in an event organized by the capital's Narcotics Control Office and the Beijing Cultural Bureau. Pi Yijun, an anti-drug adviser for the Beijing government, said authorities were targeting celebrities because "these people have a large number of fans, so their behavior tends to have a huge influence on young people." ^^^

China Police Use Helicopters in Bust on Massive Drug "Fortress"

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times’s Sinosphere: “In December 2013, police officers raided the village of Boshe, in Guangdong, to crack down on what they called a “fortress” of methamphetamine manufacturing. The police detained 182 people suspected of being members of drug rings and shut down 77 methamphetamine labs, officials said at the time. The police said that more than a fifth of the 1,700 households in the village made methamphetamine and other drugs for a living. The village’s Communist Party chief was a former drug maker who had become a protector of the drug gangs, the police said. [Source: Edward Wong, Sinosphere, New York Times, July 7, 2015]

In January 2014, Chinese authorities deployed helicopters, speedboats and paramilitary police and seized three tons of methamphetamine in a massive raid on a single southern village notorious for illegal drugs production. Gillian Wong of Associated Press wrote: “Security forces surrounded and then entered the village of Boshe, where more than a fifth of the households were suspected to be involved in or linked to the production and trafficking of drugs, Guangdong province's police force said on its website. [Source: Gillian Wong, Associated Press, January 3, 2014 ==]

“Police and paramilitary forces from four cities were mobilized in Sunday's raid and they arrested 182 suspects who worked for 18 large drug-making rings, the statement late Thursday said. No blood was shed, it said. "The village has made a criminal drug production a 'clan-based, industrialized operation with local protection,'" police said. "The offenders have for a long time been brazenly committing crimes, avoiding investigations and even ganging up to violently oppose law enforcement," the statement said. ==

“China routinely carries out operations targeting illicit drug rings but it's unusual for such wide-ranging law enforcement resources to be deployed at once against a single village. An aerial photo posted on the police website showed dozens of police vans parked in rows outside a walled village of densely built old houses with traditional-style peaked, tiled roofs. Another photo showed a helicopter taking off and another one parked nearby. Speedboats were sent to prevent suspects from fleeing the coastal village by sea. ==

The Yangcheng Evening News, a local newspaper, says the raid involved 3,000 police officers who seized 3 tons of methamphetamine in the raid. Photos showed paramilitary officers in camouflage uniforms and holding rifles stood over large boxes filled with large packets of what is presumably crystal meth. The paper said police first captured the village party secretary who allegedly was protecting the drug operations from authorities. Other officials captured included the local police chief and other police officers. The Boshe raid was part of "Operation Thunder," an ongoing crackdown on illicit drugs in Guangdong that was launched in July and has resulted in the detention of 11,000 suspects and the seizure of eight tons of drugs. ==

“Boshe's villagers have resisted Chinese authorities for years, blockading the village entrance with motorcycles when word of a raid spread. The villagers would brandish replica AK-47s, lay nail boards on the road and hurl rocks and homemade grenades at officers, said the paper based in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. The provincial police said the city of Lufeng, which Boshe is in, has in the past three years become the source of a third of the country's total crystal meth supply.” ==

A Chinese drug enforcement officer linked to the Boshe drug trade was arrested with scores of others as part of the raid. Reuters reported: “Thousands of armed police arrested at least 182 people in a dramatic raid on Boshe, Investigators found that a captain of the drug enforcement squad in surrounding Lufeng city, surnamed Guo, was linked to the former Boshe Communist Party secretary Cai Dongjia, who was arrested in the December 29 raid, the influential Southern Metropolis Daily reported on Sunday. Guo has been subjected to "shuanggui", a form of detention imposed on party officials suspected of corruption, the paper said without giving further details.nThe report said Cai had used his position to obtain information about the police investigation prior to the raid and notified suspects. [Source: Reuters, January 6, 2014]

Drug Seizures in China in the 1990s and 2000s: Heroin No. 1

In 1999, Chinese police seized 34 percent more drugs than in 1998. The seizures included 40 metric tons of heroin, 17 metric tons of opium, 15 metric tons of marijuana, 23 metric tons of methamphetamine and 1,000 metric tons of illegal chemicals, including ephedrine used to make methamphetamine. In comparison the fabled French Connection bust in the 1960s seized only 110 kilograms of heroin.

In the 1990s more heroin was seized in China than any other country. Between 1989 and 1995 the amount of seizures increased tenfold and more than four tons were seized eatch year in the mid 1990s, twice as much as was taken in Thailand.

Around 80 percent of the heroin seizures are in the Yunnan province. In June 2004, Chinese police seized 501 kilograms of heroin in a single bust in the Yunnan Province city of Dali. The drugs were found in the fuel tanks of modified vehicles. They originated in Myanmar and were bound for Hong Kong and east coast Chinese cities where they would be shipped overseas. It was the largest drug seizure that year.

In 2007, Associated Press reported: “Chinese customs officials caught a heroin smuggler after noticing he was wearing "weird sandals, " state media reported Monday. Xinhua News Agency said a Nigerian was detained last week in Zhuhai, which borders Macau in southern China, after he was caught carrying more than 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of heroin. It said attention was drawn to the man because he was "wearing a pair of weird sandals." "Police X-rayed his suitcase and found another pair of strange sandals in it, " Xinhua said. The heroin was hidden in the soles of the two pairs of sandals, it said. Xinhua did not describe the sandals. [Source: Associated Press, October 1, 2007]

Drug Seizures in China in the 2010s: Meth No. 1

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Headline-grabbing busts have happened across the country, though many of the biggest cases have been concentrated in southern provinces such as Guangdong. In January 2015, police arrested 28 suspects and seized more than 2.4 tons of solid and solid-liquid meth in a factory near Guangdong’s Lufeng City that was supplying customers in Shanghai. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2016]

In January 2016, more than 330 pounds of meth and over a ton of raw materials were seized in the Guangdong city of Panyu, with 10 people arrested. A whistle-blower in the case collected a $69,000 reward from the police — showing up for the ceremony in a Spider-Man mask to conceal his identity.

“A substantial share of the production, however, is heading overseas. This week, Australian police announced that they had discovered 50 gallons of liquid methamphetamine being shipped from China concealed in thousands of gel pads inserted into push-up bras. An additional 140 gallons traced to the same network was found among art supplies in warehouses in Sydney. Australian police put the street value of the drugs at $900 million and said it was the largest-ever haul of liquid meth in Australia’s history. Three Hong Kong residents and one mainland Chinese man were arrested in the case.

$180 Million Worth of Meth Hidden in Kayaks Shipped from China

In February 2014, Australian police seized about 180 million Australian dollars ($170 million) worth of methamphetamine hidden inside kayaks shipped from China, officials have said. Associated Press reported: “Five people were arrested in Sydney after customs officials discovered 183 kilograms (403 pounds) of meth last week while inspecting a shipment of kayaks from China, the Australian Federal Police said. Nineteen of 27 kayaks in the shipment had bags of meth stuffed inside the watertight areas of the boats, said Tim Fitzgerald, regional director for the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. [Source: Associated Press, February 12, 2014]

“Four of the five people arrested are from Taiwan, and one is from Sydney. Two were charged with attempting to import drugs, and the others were charged with possessing a commercial quantity of drugs. They each face a maximum of life in prison if convicted. Australian officials have made a series of major drug busts in recent months. In October, police seized about AU$200 million worth of meth hidden in the tires of a truck shipped from China.

North Korean Drugs in China

In July 2011, Kyodo reported: “China has begun cracking down on North Korea's narcotics trade in China along with South Korean intelligence, having seized 60 million U.S. dollars worth of drugs from the North last year, according to a South Korean government source Monday.”It’s only a fraction. The volume of drug trafficking in China will be much greater than that,” the source said. This is the first time for China to unveil the volume of narcotics made in North Korea.” [Source: Kyodo, July 5, 2011]

“Beijing had been reluctant to raise the matter in public though it found Pyongyang's increased drug trafficking as a threat. China diplomatically protects the North in nuclear issues but started a crackdown with South Korea apparently because it can no longer tolerate the North's narcotics, which threatened China's three northeastern provinces bordering the North.”

“The drugs seized by Beijing are said to have the best quality, going beyond the level individuals can produce. So Pyongyang is considered to be manufacturing narcotics on the national level at factories. “China is pretty much pissed off,” a diplomatic source said, adding, “China believes that North Korea’s drug trafficking has grown more serious since last year.” Though Beijing did not specifically mention the North when it stressed a crackdown on drugs, it implied North Korean-made narcotics.”

China Works with Mekong Countries to Crackdown on Methamphetamine

In 2019, AFP reported: Chinese drug police are working with Mekong countries to strike at the heart of a mega-rich meth syndicate, a senior Beijing drugs tsar said, as the region targets top-level drug traffickers instead of street dealers. The porous lawless border areas of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos have for decades been a hub for heroin production, but the so-called "Golden Triangle" drug trade is now pumping unprecedented quantities of synthetic drugs into the global markets — fuelling a $61 billion drug trade.[Source: AFP, November 16, 2019]

In large part responsible for the dramatic shift to synthetic drugs is a mega-cartel known as "Sam Gor", which UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) believes is Asia's biggest crime syndicate led by a Chinese-born Canadian citizen named Tse Chi Lop. China is now stepping up efforts with Mekong countries — Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam — to take down Sam Gor in a "joint operation", said an official from China's National Narcotics Control Commission. "They are one of the major threats, " said deputy commissioner Andy Tsang on the sidelines of a Friday meeting to stamp out a regional plan. "The region as a whole, China included, will do our best to hit it where it hurts the most, " he told AFP, .

“Law enforcement has long focused on busting low-level dealers and users on the streets, a plan that has proved "static" when faced with the shifting trafficking routes used by Sam Gor, said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC's regional representative for Southeast Asia. Now drug police from the six countries will share intelligence to target traffickers working at border "choke points" where drugs and precursor chemicals flow are rampant, he said. "You can't engineer the surge of methamphetamine without the surge of chemicals, " Douglas told AFP, adding that besides China, the chemicals also come from Thailand, Vietnam and India.

“Sam Gor is also believed to launder its billions in drug money out through businesses springing up along the Mekong — including casinos, hotels and real estate. Thailand in 2018 netted more than 515 million yaba tablets, 17 times the amount for the entire Mekong region a decade ago — and seizures this year have already outpaced that amount, said the UNODC. “Drug hauls feature in near daily headlines in the region, with police finding pills packed in Chinese tea sachets — though traffickers are finding more creative ways to ship out the illicit products.

Drug Penalties in China

People found guilty of trafficking amphetamines or caught smuggling more than 50 grams of heroin and/or 1,000 grams of opium face the death penalty. Some of those are spared the death penalty are sent to re-education camps or given long prison sentences.

Under China’s 2008 anti-drug law, drug users — even first-time users — are locked up three to six years without trial, in “treatment” centers that have a relapse rate as high as 90 percent. Human Right Watch found evidence of drug center guards providing drugs to “patients” and using HIV test to determine which female drug users to have sex with. According to Human Rights China’s roughly 700 compulsory drug detention center are nasty places, . The approximately 500,000 people in these places are routinely beaten for ced to work for up World Health Organization (WHO) 18 hours a day without pay, have no access to drug treatments and denied even basic medical care. Despite all his some NGOs such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria provides money to these centers.

Drug Executions in China

Under Chinese law, producing, carrying or selling 50 grams or more of heroin or methamphetamine can be punishable by death. Drug traffickers are routinely executed. International Anti-Drugs Day on June 26 is popular time to execute people for drug-related crimes. In 2001 and 2002, 43 and 64 people respectively were executed in anti-drug day rallies on that day. In 1995, 22 drug traffickers were shot to death in a single public execution in Mangshi, near the Myanmar border. In 1994, courts ordered 466 executions for 6,000 drug-related arrests. On International Anti-Drugs Day in 1996 1,725 people were convicted on drugs charges. Of these 769 were sentenced to death. In the first six months of 2001, 1,457 people were executed on drug charges.

Global anti-drug day in June 2009 was marked with the execution of at least 20 people, the condemnation of around the same number and putting hundreds on trial. Among those executed was a Nigerian man caught with six kilograms of heroin and a Chinese man caught smuggling 197 grams of methamphetamines from North Korea. In Xinjiang authorities destroyed six tons if heroin, opium and cannabis smuggled in from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The widow of an executed man who occasionally smoked heroin in cigarettes and later was recruited to carry heroin told the New York Times, "Our family was always poor and a guy from the Fujian province said to my husband that he would give him a lot of money if he would transport drugs. Our daughter was very sick and we needed money badly." His last words were "take care of our daughter and try to avoid heavy work in the fields." The executions haven’t been much of a deterrent. Many dealers can bribe their way out of trouble if they get caught or purchase protection from Communist Party officials, PLA soldiers or the police. The execution and crackdowns have also had little effect on the drug trade.

Foreigners Executed for Drugs in China

Foreign nationals caught with drugs in China are not spared. In 2004, a Japanese man in his 60s was caught trying to smuggle 1.25 kilograms of stimulant drugs out of China into Japan. He was caught at Shenyang’s airport as he prepared to board a plane to Osaka. He pleaded not guilty but was sentenced to death in 2006. Other Japanese convicted drug smuggling have been given death sentences.

A report on in 2015 China.org.cn, an official state media site, said five Japanese and four South Korean “drug related criminals” were executed in China in 2014. In December 2009, four foreigners were arrested along with five Chinese in connection with the seizure of 144.5 kilograms of heroin found in 289 bags hidden in bales of cotton in Shenzhen. The drugs had come from Pakistan and were found with the help of a tip and tracker dogs. The four foreigners might face execution.

In April 2010, four Japanese men convicted of drug smuggling charges in China were executed. All four men were caught trying to smuggle or sell more than one kilogram of illegal drugs — in most cases, amphetamines. They included 65-year-old Mitsunobu Akano who was caught with 2.5 kilograms of methamphetamine as he tried to board a plane to Japan at China’s Dalian airport in September 2006. In China, people caught smuggling over one kilogram of drugs are often executed.

The executions marked the first time that Japanese nationals were executed in Japan since China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations in 1972. The Chinese government went somewhat out of its way to make sure the executions did not harm Japan - China relations. Akano was allowed to meet with his family before he was executed, which normally is not done. All the Japanese are believed to have been killed by lethal injection.

In 2020, an Australian man who had been arrested in 2013 with methamphetamine in his luggage was sentenced to death in China for drug smuggling. The move was seen by some as retaliation by the Chinese government against Australia for criticizing China’s unwillingness to cooperate in coronavirus investigations. The BBC reported: The man was named in Australian media as Karm or Cam Gilespie. He is believed to have been arrested at an airport in 2013 with 7.5 kilograms of methamphetamine in his luggage, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reports. “Karm Gilespie is thought to have been arrested seven years ago while trying to board an international flight from Baiyun Airport in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. “Australians have been sentenced to death previously, including Bengali Sherrif in 2015. Sherrif was arrested at Guangzhou airport after trying to smuggle methamphetamine between China and Australia. “At the time, Australia's public broadcaster said Sherrif's death sentence could be softened to life in prison after two years of good behaviour. [Source: BBC, June 14, 2020]

Akmal Shaikh, a British Man with Mental Health Issues, Executed for Drugs in China

In December 2009, a British man, Akmal Shaikh, was executed on drugs charges. The first European citizen to be executed China in more than half a century, he was arrested in 2007 for carrying in suitcase with almost four kilograms of heroin on a flight from Tajikistan to China. He told police he did not know about the drugs and the suitcase was not his according to Reprieve, a London-based prisoner advocacy group.

Shaikh was a 53-year-old father of three. His family said he suffered from a bipolar disorder. The protested the execution, , saying Shaikh was mentally unstable and lured into the crime by men taking advantage of his dream to record a pop song about world peace. His trial lasted only half an hour. During his appeal the judges reportedly laughed at his rambling remarks. The incident strained relations between Britain and China. British Prime Minister Gordon voiced his outrage over the execution. [Source: AP]

A medical examination was not held because there was no evidence or history of mental illness and Akmal Shaikh did not have any papers on him to prove it. A simple open and shut case (even his own lawyers admitted that the evidence against him was overwhelming) was converted into something political by the media. [Source: Maitreya, Hidden Harmonies China Blog, July 30, 2012]

Unwitting Filipina Mules Executed in China

In March 2010 — despite intense diplomatic efforts, desperate family pleas and evidence gathered from Philippines police that two of the three were unwitting mules — three Filipinos were executed by lethal injection in Shenzhen and Xiamen after being found guilty of smuggling heroin into China. The diplomatic efforts included three letters from Philippine President Benigno Aquino. Tens of thousands in Manila participated in a candlelight vigil to prayer for a “miracle pardon.” One of those executed was a mother of young children. [Source: Leo Lewis, Times of London, April 2011]

The three victims — 42-year-old Ramon Credo, 38-year-old Elizabeth Batain and 32-year-old Sally Ordinario-Villanueva were all arrested separately in 2008. They didn’t even know they were going to executed until their families were allowed to spend one last hour with them before their executions. When Ordinario-Villanueva saw met her parents in a courtroom she said, “Why are you all crying. Am I going to die? She was denied use of a cell phone to say goodby to her two children. Her last words to her parents were, “make sure they finish their studies.” Her brother said she had been duped into carrying a suitcase with a false bottom by a smuggling syndicate that had promised her a job as a cell phone salesperson in Xiamen.

The three were the first Filipinos to be executed in China but probably will not be the last. As of April 2011 there were 205 other Filipinos in Chinese jails on drug charges.

Image Sources: DEA

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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