A criminal organization’s activities vary depending on where they are in the world but all such groups use bribery, violence and fear to achieve their goals. The growing threat of gangs in Asia is partly due to their booming economies that attract criminals with the prospects of taking a cut of the wealth. Globalization is further helping these gangs to spread their activities, making it easier to smuggle everything from weapons and drugs to people and exotic animals across borders. Money laundering, counterfeiting and document forgery are even easier when a group has a presence in multiple countries. Sound like Armageddon? Read on.
In this article, we look at mob activity in Japan, China and Indonesia and the threats they pose to the public as well as to tourists. We also delve into what experts think the future holds for transnational gang activity. Just a warning: things ain’t lookin’ pretty.
Likelihood of encountering them as a tourist: Low
According to Forbes magazine, Yamaguchi-gumi has the highest revenue of any gang in the world at US$80 billion. The Yamaguchi-gumi is also the largest of all the yakuza syndicates in Japan. But overall gang membership is decreasing throughout Japan and as of 2013 less than 60,000 people claimed to belong to such groups, a record low. Tokyo Reporter estimates the membership in Yamaguchi-gumi is around 11,600. A weak Japanese economy hasn’t helped the organization, who participates in construction contracts, gambling, and extortion (among other things), and who is known for interrupting company stock-holder meetings. The tight-knit Japanese mafia is often described as “highly organized and hierarchical.”
Like other organized crime groups, the yakuza spend some time trying to present a good image and curry local favor by donating to charitable causes or helping with disaster relief activities. Such activities also help gangs keep their status as community organizations or whatever legal entity they might be registered as. This on-paper legitimacy allows them a front from which to operate more easily. The yakuza helped people after WWII by providing much needed goods via the black market, and they’ve stepped in to provide emergency relief for victims of the Kobe Earthquake (1995) and cleaning-ups after the Tohoku Disaster (2011). More recently, the Yamaguchi-gumi put up a website, purporting to support the banishment of illegal drugs, an attempt to improve their image.
If you start a business in Japan, you’re very
likely to come into contact with them
If you don’t take part in drugs or prostitution, and you’re just schlepping your way around Japan on the tourist beat riding the bullet train, you’re very unlikely to see them. The first encounter most Westerners have with yakuza is when they move here and spot the nearly naked, tattooed men taking part in the town’s local annual festival, which often involves bare-chested men in traditional fundoshi loin cloths. If you start a business in Japan, you’re very likely to come into contact with them, even if it’s just as customers in your establishment. Their presence is a part of everyday life in Japan.
2. China’s triads
Likelihood of encountering them as a tourist: Low
Chinese gangs, known as triads, are best known for arms and drug smuggling, counterfeiting, credit card fraud, loansharking, cyber crime, software piracy and smuggling people, animals and plants. As famous as China is for cybercrime, however, none of the groups compare to Japan’s Yamaguchi-gumi when it comes to sheer revenue. China’s triads tend to consist of smaller groups working independently. With well over 1.5 million people estimated to be involved in organized crime in China, the largest triad, Sun Yee On, reportedly has a membership of 55 to 60,000 members.
Overseas triads … sometimes threaten
territories of domestic criminal groups
Triads, whose leaders are called “dragon heads,” are heading more and more towards transnational organized crime, where their contacts abroad allow them to more easily smuggle people and drugs across borders. Overseas triads can be found in Japan, Russia, and the U.S. where they sometimes threaten territories of domestic criminal groups. Sun Yee On is the largest triad, operating in China and Hong Kong, with their presence also reported to be in the U.K., U.S., France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Recently, authorities in China are cracking down on the triads, forcing them to go further underground with their activities. They’ve also scattered their forces as a result, operating in less organizational, more independent-minded splinter groups. Many are moving abroad to tie up with organized crime syndicates in other countries.
3. Laskar Bali
▼The emblem for Laskar Bali uses a Hindu religious symbol.
Likelihood of encountering them as a tourist: High
Wherever there is money, gangs will thrive and Indonesia’s island paradise of Bali is rife with prospects. With a constant influx of tourists livin’ it up on their holidays and a healthy population of expatriates who choose to live the high life year-round, the island is a natural draw for drugs, prostitution and other illicit activity. In Bali, foreigners constantly make the headlines for being on death row for drug smuggling and with so much money involved, you can guarantee that the local mob is getting their cut.
Newspapers refer to the groups as
There are at least five major gangs in Bali, who often refer to themselves as keluarga besar (big families). But the largest is Laskar Bali. Newspapers refer to the groups as “community organizations” because technically, that’s what they’re registered as and thus can qualify as legal entities.
Most tourists who do encounter them will not be aware of who these guys are. Laskar Bali has most of the security contracts for restaurants, bars and nightclubs in Bali’s touristy areas. Door men, bouncers and security guards in Kuta, Legian and Seminyak, for example are almost all Laskar members. You may even see them out and about wearing t-shirts with the gang’s name and motif on them.
One of the other major organizations, Baladika, with a membership of around 25,000, was awarded the high-security contracts for the 25th APEC Conference and Miss World Contest that took place in Bali in 2013, where the group worked alongside army and police.
But everyone knows who these organizations are. “I don’t like them,” says Ketut, a 34-year-old who owns a printing shop. “It shows the close ties with the new governor and gives him power.”
▼A sign along the road in Bali, featuring Laskar Bali big-wigs, wishes travelers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
But not all people believe these neighborhood gangs are bad. Wayan, who works at a restaurant in Sanur, a tourist area not dominated by Laskar, but one called Sanur Bersatu, says “They help protect the neighborhood. If someone bad come to our restaurant and cause problem, we just call them up and they come immediately. The police no good, not come. But the group send someone immediately.”
Me: Do you pay them?
Wayan: Yes, everybody pay them. Restaurant, hotel, all pay.
Me: How much?
Wayan: Big hotel, I think 1 million rupee [US$80] . Restaurant like ours pay 500,000 rupee [US$40] .
Me: Every month?
Wayan: Ya, every month.
Me: I see.
Wayan: You know? Last year my village, we had big fight between two big group. Very terrible. Five hundred guy on each side. Very, very hard.
Me: So these are criminal gangs, right?
Wayan: No, not criminal. They just help keep safe our village. I know about three of members.
In her book Snowing in Bali, Kathryn Bonella, who spent years interviewing drug lords and traffickers in the local Bali prison, says there is no mistake about these organizations being criminal. “Laskar Bali is the holiday island’s most notorious and violent gang,” she writes. They deal in drugs, weapons, prostitution, payoffs and revenge killings. They’ll kill for hire–just a couple thousand dollars. When gangsters do get in trouble for using weapons or for drug trafficking, the group claims no responsibility, saying they should not be blamed for the actions of just a few members. Furthermore, they insist that the group does not approve of such behavior. Yet most people (including the police), are so afraid of possible retribution that even the newspapers will not print the gang’s name.
The future of Asian gangs
Where is all this headed? I asked Robert Whiting, author of Tokyo Underworld. what he thinks about the future of Asia’s organized crime. While the overall declining membership of Japan’s yakuza is perhaps a result of the government’s recent anti-gang rules cracking down on boryokudan, or “violent groups,” Whiting tells us why this isn’t necessarily reason for optimism. “To circumvent the new law, gangs use individuals outside their organizations, so-called han-gure or quasi yakuza, young toughs who don’t belong to organized crime groups.” Since much gang activity has gone underground, Whiting says, “It’s more difficult to pin crimes on yakuza because they are using these irregular forces, like the han-gure, or in many [instances] foreigners (Koreans, Chinese, Cambodians, etc.) who are not full or associate members of the gang.” He concludes saying, “Yakuza activity and arrests may be down on paper but crime is about the same, or actually increasing.”
China’s triads are already moving abroad and succeeding. The internet revolution has brought more opportunities for hacking and general cyber crime. And in Bali, with an economy in overdrive, organized crime is growing right along with it. Laskar Bali was started in 2002 after the first Bali bombings by an violent Islamic group that killed 202 people, mainly tourists. Laskar Bali was formed to help protect the island. With a corrupt Indonesian police force prone to accepting bribes (used to supplement the police officers’ salary of about US$220 per month), citizens are forced to depend on vigilante-type groups to protect their businesses, land and growing wealth.
“Crime will always be with us,” Whiting reminds us. “I certainly don’t see it declining….They [yakuza] provide services that many, many people want, illegal though those services may be. There will always be a demand for them.”