Modern-day Al Capones' reign of terror to haunt boom city for years

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 May, 1999, 12:00am

Stories of notorious gangsters such as Chicago's Al Capone and Shanghainese triads of the 1930s have taken on a new, more terrifying form in modern China.

Leizhou city, facing the South China Sea in three directions, is a perfect spot for smuggling and other illegal cross-border activities, thanks to its growing wealth from preferential economic policies applied to Guangdong over the past two decades.

Until recently, this created special 'interest' groups - at least 33 in Leizhou alone - which often had heavy weapons plus a multitude of followers.

Their leaders preened in public like big businessmen, driving Mercedes and running smuggling operations often disguised as shrimp farms. Conflicts of interest were often resolved through what an official account called 'miniature wars'.

Their ruthlessness tyrannised Leizhou for years, until the gangs were smashed by a crackdown on a direct order from Beijing. One official paper called it 'perhaps the largest anti-triad campaign in contemporary China'.

But nightmarish memories of it are likely to haunt Leizhou for years to come.

Consider the following cases: Gangsters opened fire on a rival group in a restaurant, killing four people, including a waitress, and injuring 19.

A driver whose lorry accidentally blocked a gangster's vehicle had nine fingers chopped off. 'The remaining thumb is left for you to praise us as the number one,' the villains sneered.

A shrimp farmer who refused to pay protection money had his tendons cut and was crippled for life.

A pedestrian who 'did not look right' to the gangsters was hit in the eye with a mobile phone and blinded.

The situation became so bad that parents began escorting their daughters to school, but some were still gang-raped.

The gangs also had well-known contempt for the Leizhou police.

They shot one victim in the head in front of a police station, but no one was arrested. The case of the driver who lost nine fingers was closed after one year with the remark: 'Beyond investigation.' In another case, more than 10 gangsters charged into a police station and released a gang member who had been arrested for selling private lottery tickets.

When a member of the People's Armed Police was involved in a tea-stall quarrel with a gangster named Yan Zhan, Yan went home, collected a pistol and returned with eight colleagues. No one dared say a word or call for help. They merely watched as the officer was beaten and shot dead.

Yan was arrested but soon released on 'medical parole'. He celebrated at the city's largest restaurant, where he allegedly said: 'What's the big deal about killing a cop? I'd be okay even if I killed two.' The comments did not surprise people in Leizhou because they knew all too well that Yan's father was a vice-mayor.

Such circumstances help explain why Leizhou went without a public security chief for years; designated candidates all found excuses for turning down the job.

What turned around a seemingly hopeless situation was an incident last August, when members of the 'Big Ear Wu' gang assaulted Customs officers who had seized more than 2,000 cartons of smuggled cigarettes.

That alerted the central Government, which had just announced a national anti-smuggling drive. A special team soon arrived in Leizhou, without notifying local officials for obvious reasons.

A week later, more than 300 armed police rounded up Big Ear Wu and his men.

Five months later, more than 1,100 Zhanjiang officers under new public security chief Wu Huali had arrested hundreds of gang members and seized about 40 million yuan (HK$37.4 million) worth of property.

After a trial last month, three gang leaders were executed. A house-cleaning of the public security bureau followed and many corrupt officers were fired.

Despite the success, the incidents have sent a strong signal to Beijing: many criminal gangs are highly organised, have close ties to local officials and have accumulated much wealth and power.