Kingpin of 'the Untouchables' drug lord Wong Kin-cheung was a careful man. He was so cautious that to ensure safety, he would conduct business naked inside the steam room of his four-storey brothel, bathhouse and gambling den in Fuzhou. Because of his wariness and meticulous operation, the heroin baron often boasted he was beyond the long arm of the law. So his arrest on May 16 along with three other leaders of a global drug-smuggling ring in a covert operation involving mainland and American police has puzzled many familiar with his modus operandi. Wong and his three partners - labelled the 'Untouchables' by Chinese authorities because it was believed they would never be caught - are today detained in Fujian province awaiting trial. They face execution, charged with large-scale drug trafficking. The head of one of the world's largest drug operations, 56-year-old Wong - dubbed 'the Fatman' because of his girth - operated 'from the farms of Myanmar to the arms of addicts in the United States', according to one US law enforcement officer. For years, he proved an elusive quarry because of his wily street sense and excellent managerial skills. 'He was very clever,' said Chief Superintendent Kenny Ip Lau-chuen, head of the Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau. 'Whenever he would talk about drug transactions, he would meet his clients in the bathhouse and make them strip off all their clothes. By doing this, he was able to check they had no weapons or recording devices hidden on them.' For three years, Wong presided over one of the world's largest global drug-trafficking operations from his base in Fujian, supplying heroin to retail cells in New York, North Carolina, Florida, Canada and elsewhere. The Fatman was renowned on US streets for his ability to shift high-grade 'China white' from the poppy fields of Myanmar to the docks of Hong Kong and Fujian, and ultimately to the streets of Chinatown in New York for distribution throughout the US and Canada. His street credibility, personality and power combined to make him a worthy opponent, so much so that many of his adversaries openly admit to a grudging respect for the mainland-born, Hong Kong-educated heroin baron. The mastermind of a huge international drug syndicate also earned another nickname, '1-2-5' - a direct reference to his 125kg weight. But the drug lord embraced the notoriety and had 125 as the last three numbers on all sorts of effects, ranging from his number plate to phone number. Just over a year ago, he started to branch out, setting up a methamphetamine factory in Shenzhen, where he was producing 500kg of the party drug 'ice' each month - and an even bigger drug plant near Calcutta. But on May 16, Chinese police nabbed Wong with 35kg of heroin. It was the first time they documented him dealing the drug on Chinese soil. A US official who worked on the case and spoke to the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity is still unsure why the Fatman would have fallen for such a simple - and, by his terms, relatively small - deal. 'Wong thought he could protect himself. He would tell anyone who listened that it didn't matter if he would be indicted in America. In China, he was beyond the reach of US law,' the official said. On the day of the sting, although 125 appeared not to have any suspicions about the deal, he delayed the transaction from the morning until 8pm, just to be safe. But when the transaction took place, Wong fell into a net that the law enforcement authorities had been weaving for almost two years. Agents in the US, Canada, Hong Kong and India almost simultaneously arrested a further 19 people, including the three other Fujian-based ringleaders of the 125 group, to dismantle the entire network of heroin suppliers, traffickers and distributors. American and Chinese officials hailed the operation as the 'first and most successful' joint drug investigation carried out by the two countries, with indictments alleging the drug ring was responsible for smuggling more than US$100 million (HK$778 million) worth of heroin over three years. After covertly observing the Fatman during the 20-month operation, the US official said 125 won his respect by displaying superb management skills. 'I developed a respect for this guy. He is very cautious, very careful, and he is very business-oriented.' He said 125 stood out from other professional drug traffickers because of his trustworthy image. 'He is a man of his word. He maintains a good reputation, which is very important for the drug business. He takes care of the people who work for him and he will reward them,' the official said. If he said something, he would see it through.' Referring to the latest developments, Hong Kong's top drug police officer, Mr Ip, said: 'It is understood he has been co-operating with mainland authorities in their investigations. 'But we can only wait and see whether he will be extradited to face trial in the US, or face trial and the death penalty in China. I know which option he would prefer.' The Fatman, a Hong Kong ID card-holder, was a well-known figure who enjoyed the fast life in his major Fuzhou power base. A late riser (2pm was the norm), he spent a substantial amount of time playing mahjong until three or four every morning, often gambling up to $100,000 at a time. 'I don't know what is more important to him, drugs or mahjong,' said the US official. Wong learned the drug-trafficking ropes in the late 1980s, when he controlled heroin distribution in New York's Chinatown. Operating out of Hong Kong, he was arrested in 1989 and extradited to the US, where he spent four years in federal detention following the 1988 seizure in Thailand of a one-tonne shipment of heroin found hidden inside rubber bales on its way to a warehouse in Queens, New York. 'He got off with a light sentence, but when he got out, he knew his best option was to stay away from Hong Kong,' said Mr Ip. 'So he set up his business in Fujian, where he thought he would never get touched.' The US official said 125 easily returned to the drug world after his imprisonment because of connections he made in jail. One long-term business link he established in prison was with an important Myanmar drug supplier in the Golden Triangle who later invested with 125 in the methamphetamine laboratory in Calcutta. '125 was quite well-to-do at that time and he was able to take care of others in the prison when he was in the US,' the official said. 'Subsequently, he has tremendous respect from other people. People owed him and when he got out of jail, he had even more connections. 'He established a tremendous working experience of how drug-enforcement agencies operate, how they initiate an investigation, how they identify informers, and how they instruct an informer.' That probably explained why 125 was extraordinarily cautious after he resumed business in Fuzhou. Because of his caution, and the fact he said he would not make transactions on the mainland because of the country's death penalty, law enforcement officers can only guess why he entered into the transaction. The US official speculated that a trusted aide - one of the Untouchables - talked him into the deal. 'With the help of the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities, we proved that no one is above the law,' said Drug Enforcement Administration acting administrator William Simpkins. 'Today, the 'four Untouchables' know that better than anyone else.' TRACK RECORD OF A DRUG LORD Early 1980s: Comes to the attention of American and Hong Kong authorities Mid-1980s: Reputed to be the primary supplier of high-grade 'China white' heroin on the streets of Manhattan's Chinatown; splits his time between his Hong Kong base and New York; exploits his Fujian contacts to distribute heroin through restaurants and shopfronts across the US 1988: Is caught in connection with one-tonne shipment of heroin hidden in bales of rubber on its way from Thailand to Queens, New York; is extradited to the US from Hong Kong to serve four years in federal detention, but wins early release 2001: DEA and FBI agents begin picking up intelligence about Wong; in September, the DEA approaches Chinese authorities and sets up first-ever joint drug taskforce to target Fatman and his partners May 16, 2003: Fatman and his partners are arrested and charged with smuggling more than US$100 million worth of heroin from Southeast Asia, through China to the US, since 2000. They await extradition to face trial in the US or trial and the death penalty in China.