Commander in chief of Macau's turf wars

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am


When Macau's judiciary police director Antonio Marques Baptista watched his car explode in flames as he went jogging with his dog on Macau's Guia Hill on May 1, 1998, he may as well have been watching 'Broken Tooth' Wan Kuok-koi's reign of terror going up in flames also.

Hours after the car bomb went off, Wan, the leader of a faction of Macau's 14K triad society, was behind bars - and he's been there ever since. He was never charged over the car bombing, but the attack was the final straw for Macau's Portuguese authorities.

In the six weeks prior to Wan's arrest, six murders were linked to triads - including a Marine Police officer, a gambling inspector and the chauffeur of the enclave's most senior crime fighter. But it was only after Baptista's car was blown up that Wan was arrested.

His imprisonment sparked a furious response and his gang went on the rampage. The enclave was hit with firebombings that damaged almost 100 vehicles, and shopfronts were gutted in 24 separate arson attacks.

Senior government prosecutor Lourenco Nogueiro and his pregnant wife were gunned down in a motorcycle drive-by shooting. Both survived. It said much for the muscle Wan had at his disposal, but exactly how formidable he was has long been a source of conjecture.

At the height of his power in the mid-1990s, when Macau was rocked by violent turf wars between rival triad gangs, Wan raked in tens of millions of dollars from his loan sharking and illegal gambling operations, and painted himself as the Godfather of South China. It was even rumoured that he was trying to join all the triad factions together under one umbrella. In reality he may have been just a talented spin doctor.

While some analysts described him as Southeast Asia's 'most powerful triad leader' before his arrest, those who followed his trial came to the conclusion he was nothing more than a common or garden gangster suffering from megalomania and delusions of criminal grandeur.

During the trial it emerged that Wan had just 21/2 years of formal schooling and an army numbering hundreds, not the thousands of which he bragged. He had a strange nickname, but he'd earned it.

Wan cut his teeth - and lost several - in vicious street fights as a young, aspiring gangster. One veteran crime reporter recalled Wan being rushed to hospital as a teenager, 'blood dripping from half a dozen stabs'.

Flamboyant and arrogant, in 1998 he produced a HK$14 million autobiographical film called Casino, a tacky tale of triad mayhem. Hong Kong star Simon Yam Tat-wah starred as Wan, and the film's premiere took place in Hong Kong just five days after his arrest.

'He is a good boss and I respect him as a friend. Films often exaggerate things,' Yam said at the film's premiere. 'I spent time with him when we were filming and he is like a kid. Everyone in Macau respects him.'

Wan boasted of his mob activities in interviews with several international and Hong Kong newspapers and prosecutors turned those boasts against him in their evidence. Prosecutors also produced some 50 witnesses to testify against him.

The list of charges against him was lengthy, and included allegations of a plot to ship a vast array of weaponry from Cambodia to Macau. During the trial, Wan claimed he was an honest businessman who made his money through legitimate gambling and who knew about the 14K triad society but had nothing to do with it.

He claimed to be a bona fide promoter (he organised several Canto-pop concerts), a real estate investor, gaming chip trader and high-stakes gambler. After the sentencing at the Court of First Instance, he flew into a rage and jumped on to a bench, screaming at officials: 'You've taken dirty money ... This is the worst verdict of the century.'

When a policeman asked Wan to leave the courtroom, the triad boss glared hard at the officer, put his fingers menacingly like a gun to his own temple and screamed an obscenity.

Throughout the outburst, which lasted several minutes, court officials stood by.

Eventually, security guards subdued him and led him away in handcuffs. Since his conviction, Wan has been held in a tiny windowless cell in a high-security jail on Coloane Island.

The prison was purpose-built to hold Wan and his henchmen and is one kilometre from the main prison.

His lawyer Pedro Redinha said the conditions there had at one time plunged Wan into a deep depression, but with his release date only 10 months away, the lawyer says Wan - who will be 56 by then - is now looking forward to leaving prison and putting the record straight.

The jury's still out on whether he'll get his satisfaction lawfully or by much more sinister methods.