Heavily armed policemen who burst into the luxury pad of triad member Chi Man Ho were quickly offered the contents of his safe, about US$75,000 in cash, in return for his freedom. Ho was dragged off to prison in handcuffs instead, eventually to be convicted on a string of drug charges and an additional rap of attempted bribery. It was his misfortune to be arrested by the Scorpions, a unit that has had stunning success in fighting organised crime in South Africa with a conviction record of almost 90 per cent. Now the internationally hailed unit is to be closed, a victim of its own success, and experts say Cape Town's underworld will sleep more easily at night. 'Organised crime will sport big smiles knowing there's nobody to investigate their activities,' says Peter Gastrow, an analyst at the Cape Town-based Institute for Security Studies. The disbanding was announced in Parliament last month amid cheers from lawmakers of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and jeers from opposition parliamentarians. 'The only ones with something to cheer about are organised-crime bosses,' Mr Gastrow says. The disbanding of the unit was demanded at the ANC's December party conference, for reasons ranging from its 'biased' investigations to its enduring conflict with the regular police force. In reality it's the unit's success in arresting members of the ruling elite that has angered the ANC, critics say. Courtroom triumphs include the conviction of several dozen ANC lawmakers, including the party's chief whip, on corruption charges. More recently, the Scorpions have opened prosecutions against the country's police chief as well as the ruling party's presidential candidate. 'The people who drove this campaign were themselves wanted by the law,' says Bantu Holomisa, a one-time ANC member who now sits on the opposition benches. The Scorpions' highest-profile case is that of Jacob Zuma, who was elected ANC president in December and is likely to replace the country's president, Thabo Mbeki, when his term expires next year. Mr Zuma is accused of taking bribes from arms companies vying to sell the country high-tech weaponry. The unit is also prosecuting police chief - and until recently Interpol head - Jackie Selebi, in relation to his alleged links to an Italian crime boss, Mario Agliotti. It is the unit's pursuit of corrupt politicians that may be its undoing, but it was the fight against organised crime where it made its mark. Its success came from its unique composition. A team of prosecutors, detectives, accountants and computer experts gave the Scorpions an edge over the regular police. The unit also had an asset forfeiture squad of bean counters whose sole purpose was to track down criminals' contraband profits. When a fishing company was found to be cheating on its catch quota in the late 1990s, the unit confiscated its trawler and handed it over to marine officials, who then used it to hunt down the Chinese pirate fishing vessels operating off South Africa's east coast. And when the unit seized Ho's US$75,000 to use in evidence against him, it did not stop there. The Scorpions eventually took US$400 million in assets from Ho and his co-accused, making it one of the country's largest-ever asset grabs. Chinese abalone smugglers have also felt the Scorpions' sting. South African abalone has been poached to the edge of extinction, and as a result, harvesting is now banned. Poaching is rife, however, and environmentalists say much of it ends up in Hong Kong, from which it is distributed legally throughout Asia. The poachers are usually locals who dive from high-speed boats to the abalone beds, but the traffickers are almost always Chinese. The triads pay the poachers with methamphetamine, which is then sold to drug factories, where it is cooked into a nasty speedball known as tik. Tik is now the No1 drug problem in the sprawling Cape Flats, where most of Cape Town's poor live. The highly addictive drug is linked to a wave of mental psychosis and violence, and is at the centre of incessant gang warfare that adds to the torment of residents already living in dire poverty. Police have generally been unable to make a dent in the abalone trade. In a practice dating from the apartheid era, the local cops depend heavily on a network of informants for intelligence, but the triads have been largely immune to infiltration, protected by their language, culture and blood ties among members. Another, darker reason is also given for police failure to bring the trade to an end. Many policemen are involved themselves. Police reacting to reports of poachers often arrive at the beach to find their quarry has disappeared, warned ahead of time that a raid was to take place. In contrast, the Scorpions have made inroads into the crime syndicates, both local and Chinese, that are running the methamphetamine-abalone pipeline. 'Scorpions crack abalone syndicate' is a headline that appears with growing frequency in local newspapers. In a typical bust a year ago, three Chinese nationals plus a couple of Zimbabweans were caught with almost US$1 million in abalone and loose cash. The three, named in local media reports as Xshi Xus-lei, Yang Shu-qing and Mai Rui-xuau and all from Hong Kong, were running a lucrative smuggling racket until the Scorpions swooped. A large team of detectives struck on two isolated farms the gang used outside Johannesburg during a simultaneous dawn raid. Prosecutors, who accompanied the detectives, quickly set about securing evidence, loading abalone into freezer trucks. Accountants tallied the cash and other assets even as the men were being bundled into the unit's signature jet-black Golf Gti's emblazoned with the Scorpions' logo. The prosecutors, who had been part of the original bust, then moved forward with a court hearing. As a result, the gang members were sentenced to terms of up to four years. The finale was provided by the unit's asset forfeiture team, which seized a Mercedes Benz, a truck and a van, as well as guns, computers, cash and even office furniture. The Scorpions' success, however, was not universally welcomed. The squad's activities angered politicians and some of the country's most powerful businesspeople. A fierce rivalry with the regular police developed, not least because Scorpions investigators earned up to twice as much as regular detectives. Their garish vehicles would often be followed on raids by hordes of journalists, forewarned of a high-profile bust. In contrast, regular cops often fail to turn up at a crime scene for hours because of a lack of cars, and have to endure much abuse from irate crime victims as a result. To desperately under-resourced regular police, the unit was little more than a bunch of glory seekers. The Scorpions were set up in 1996 precisely because the police were slowly crumbling under the sheer weight of organised crime. They took on the Italian, Bulgarian and Russian mafias, local gangs and the triads, who run much of Cape Town's drug trade. One of their notable successes was securing the conviction of playboy Mark Thatcher, son of Britain's former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, for his role in organising a disastrous coup attempt in the West African country of Equatorial Guinea in 2004. Despite Thatcher's initial denials, the Scorpions confronted him with a trail of paperwork indisputably linking him to mercenary Simon Mann and the coup plot. Threatened with jail time if he fought the charges, Thatcher chose a plea bargain instead and the less uncomfortable fate of a suspended sentence and deportation. But, under attack from leading politicians, the Scorpions have begun to feel the heat. Matthews Phosa, a senior member of parliament and one of the driving forces behind the Scorpions' closure, says the unit is 'just a growth from the system which we need to cut out'. Scorpions boss Vusi Pikoli has been on suspension since last year for insisting, against the wishes of Mr Mbeki, that police chief Selebi be brought to court. When prosecutors went ahead with Selebi's prosecution, Pikoli was arrested in what analysts here say was a retaliatory move. Public outrage may yet save the Scorpions. Business leaders, opposition politicians and thousands of radio talk show callers have called for their retention. But if they are disbanded, it is likely that men like Ho will freely stalk the streets of Cape Town again.