How to Track a Triad,
For old Hong Kong hands Patrick Wong and Jeffrey Herbert, the art of tracking a triad gang is done from hotel room to hotel room. Clients ask them to solve crimes involving, mostly, illicit goods and counterfeits—and as they move from client to client, they organize intelligence and operations on the fly. The problem is that the crimes—whether it means Wong and Herbert need to bust a warehouse, or intercept a computer network—never seems to stop.
It’s a game of cat-and-mouse stretching back to China’s dynasties that’s taken on new contours, as increasingly tech-savvy organized crime groups diversify their portfolios and the methods by which they do business. And while the techniques used to track Chinese crime organizations—called triads—have likewise evolved, the question is whether those methods will ever be able to fully catch up with the crime groups.
Wong and Herbert run a private security company, Centinel, along with their junior staff. Both served as long-time senior superintendents of the Hong Kong Police Force. Centinel is mostly dedicated to tracking down triads, which is how Wong and Herbert spent nearly their entire careers. And while today’s anti-triad cops struggle to keep abreast of the ever-shifting crime syndicates, Centinel is one of the few organizations in the world that still has a finger on the pulse of triad activity.
When Wong and Herbert worked as cops in the 1980s, a triad bust in Hong Kong often meant stopping ceremonies that would cement the power of Dragon Heads, or powerful gang leaders. In hidden locations, advisers to Dragon Heads called White Paper Fans and Straw Sandals, with their subordinates, the Red Poles, carried out secret initiations to elect their leaders through ancient ritual. It was a time when hundreds of 49s—triad grunt men—could be deployed in the street for a fight at the drop of a hat.
But gone are the days of guns and glory when it comes to Hong Kong’s notorious triads, which have long been woven into the city’s cultural identity. When we spoke late last year, Wong and Herbert had just returned from a trip to Malaysia, where a client asked them to trace intelligence that suggested one of the Chinese crime syndicates was allegedly counterfeiting a food product.
“Triads, like all organizations, either evolve or go extinct,” Herbert said. And in this case, the crime syndicates have certainly evolved, and perhaps in an unusual way. Adapting to Hong Kong’s economic miracle of glittering high-rises, developed social services, and undeniable safety, triads now participate in softer crimes.
“The triads’ biggest headache is loss of manpower,” Herbert explained. “Traditional recruiting areas have gone, and they’ve lost rickshaw boys, transportation workers, construction workers, coolies, and shampoo boys—all virtually vanished. Manpower has shifted to the more lucrative and lighter risk areas. No triad wants his men locked up for 25 years now.”
And for the triads, which have been reinventing themselves for hundreds of years, adapting to the 21st century has proved little of a challenge.
When triad secret societies began in the Qing Dynasty of the 18 th century, their purpose was to overthrow the government. After WWII, the organizations surged in numbers and saw an opportunity in crime—and when Mao Zedong cracked down just years later when he took over mainland China, Hong Kong became their stronghold. Today, the wildly metropolitan city is making life for triads a challenge—especially, because the traditional makeup of triad structure was fiercely centralized, and the syndicates thrived from recruiting disenfranchised youth.
“After WWII, the population of Hong Kong increased dramatically and a lot of social service demands were unmet—creating a lot of opportunities for triads,” said Wong. Post-war Hong Kong desperately lacked adequate housing, transportation and access to education as the economy faltered. “At the same time, this also created a lot of frustration among youth—but when Hong Kong’s economy improved, opportunities for triads became limited.”
“With Hong Kong fishing vessels, there’s a big black hole.”
The city’s unique Anti Triad Laws make initiation ceremonies illegal, so in order to adapt to modern Hong Kong triads have mostly ditched their old family-style hierarchy and are learning new ways to survive.
Now, Wong said, triad structure has decentralized, and new recruits and grunt men keep in touch over chat apps. In-person meetings rarely occur anymore. Traditional triad rankings have been replaced with a more simple and linear “protector” system—Wong explained that a recruit gets a protector, who is assigned a grand protector, who has a great-grand protector, and so forth.
Triad recruitment isn’t getting any easier, either. “With the development of the internet and social media, more school failures stay at home,” Wong said, adding that in the past, dropouts and teen delinquents would go out of the house and run into trouble with gang recruiters.
Modern-day triads have always thrived on illicit trade, but the nature of that trade, like their structure, has changed dramatically, according to Centinel. From the 1970s to 1990s, triads famously made their money from trading firearms in and out of Hong Kong. And up until the 1980s, triads profited from the illicit trade of silver coins out of mainland China.
The illicit trade of narcotics was also an enormous moneymaker for triads, but opportunities in this market are fading fast. Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel has taken over most of Hong Kong’s cocaine trade. As for heroin, only about 0.5 percent of the population uses. Triads now are reluctant to risk dealing in the waning heroin trade, which carries harsh penalties.
Another one of the triads’ biggest moneymakers was prostitution: Triads, quite famously, endured in the city as pimps. They ran sex rings and worked as agents for sex workers—the syndicates even introduced a practice called shi gong, where a triad would test a girl’s so-called quality and then initiate her as a prostitute. But this has, since the millennium, almost completely died out and cut off yet another revenue source. Young women have become more tech-savvy and turned to chat apps and internet forums to support their own businesses, working as freelancers.
Today, the trade has certainly changed. And because there is no longer any value for Chinese gangs in sex, drugs, and firearms, they’re finding new and brazen opportunity in smuggled seafood.
Napoleon fish (Humphead wrasse) on sale in Sai Kung. This endangered fish is listed on CITES Appendix II and needs a permit to be traded. Most of those on sale in Hong Kong in recent years are being imported illegally. The species is expensive and dies quickly within a couple of weeks if not purchased. Many traders will now only supply it through special orders. Photo: Yvonne Sadovy
Hong Kong’s insatiable appetite for tropical fish gives way to one of the triads’ most unexpected—yet open—criminal operations. The government has taken little action to stop crime syndicates from smuggling in thousands of fish from foreign shores without declaring them through customs.
“Hong Kong triads have existed for a long time and have established smuggling routes—the Chinese community works on connections and someone always knows someone,” said Herbert.
One maverick biologist has set out to prove empirically that Hong Kong’s illegal fish trade is growing out of control. Yvonne Sadovy, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, recently published a report focusing on the illegal import of the Napoleon fish. It’s one of Hong Kong’s favorite seafood dishes.
The tropical fish is found off the shores of the Philippines and Indonesia, and it’s plainly illegal by Hong Kong law to bring the fish in without declaring it through customs. Through 2015, Sadovy counted upwards of 1,000 Napoleon fish at live fish shops in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, there are no official import records in 2015 for even one single Napoleon fish.
“There should be records of legal imports, and what we found were hundreds and hundreds of fish that clearly had come in illegally,” Sadovy said. Sadovy and her team are continuing surveys and will soon submit a review of current legislation to the government. They’ve so far found that fishing vessels, more often than not, don’t report their live cargo to the government because the law does not require it. “With Hong Kong fishing vessels, there’s a big black hole,” Sadovy said.
“I don’t even know to what extent Hong Kong’s fishing vessels are legal. We can’t find the ownership—it’s a secret trade altogether.”
Sadovy’s also found another major loophole that fishing vessels, working for triads, take advantage of to smuggle fish into Hong Kong—large, floating pens in the open sea. Outside of government-designated zones for marine fishing, fish smugglers hide large pens where they drop and store tropical fish.
“It’s a supply and demand system, a glut in the market,” explained Sadovy: When fish markets have the need for tropical fish, vessels go out to the illegal pens and grab what they need to sell.
For triads, the pens help to evade an important regulation at wholesale fish markets—government permits to sell. Because the requirement for a permit mostly prevents triads from selling at fish markets, they’ve adapted by keeping their fish in these hidden, open-water pens, instead.
“We know that fish is brought in illegally by boat and not being delivered to fish markets, but kept in pens in Hong Kong waters,” Herbert explained. “In the 80s, the government banned landing and selling [fish], except at fish markets—then fish markets brought in controls to attempt to break triad manipulation.”
Sadovy added the requirement for sales permit system at fish markets has done little to slow the illicit fish trade. “I don’t even know to what extent Hong Kong’s fishing vessels are legal. We can’t find the ownership—it’s a secret trade altogether,” she said. “Are these companies paying taxes? There are no records on what the import volumes are. No one seems to know what they’re doing.”
The OCTB (Organized Crime and Triads Bureau) makes a group arrest of one of Hong Kong’s crime rings. The suspects’ faces are hidden to protect their identity. Photo: Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images
Centinel also finds that seafood is offloaded into boats in Hong Kong and then brought into mainland China, to escape duty. While the Chinese government cracked down on Australia for exporting half a billion worth of its rock lobster to Shanghai illegally through Hong Kong, Herbert said that Chinese gangs are still “exploiting seafood in many areas of the world—this may range from illegal gathering to legal import to a hub [Hong Kong], and then it’s smuggled into another country.”
An obvious question is why the government hasn’t taken more action to tighten regulations, when the illicit fish trade—one of the triads’ largest sources of revenue, according to Centinel—is so glaringly obvious. Both Sadovy and Herbert agreed the government perceives it as too low priority. “It’s too difficult, and the government wants to keep a good relationship with the traders,” Sadovy said.
Herbert added that the government’s lack of action also stems from a cultural mindset that doesn’t value conservation. Although there has been some progress: The government, after being urged by Sadovy’s team, has agreed to review the law exempting fishing vessels from declaring live cargo.
When Motherboard asked the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department why no Napoleon fish were declared in 2015 despite their obvious presence in fish markets, and why fishing vessels with live cargo are exempt from declaring their import volumes, the department evaded both questions.
“Hong Kong Customs conducts checks on passengers, cargoes, postal packets, and conveyances at various entry and exit control points and sea boundary using a risk management approach and through intelligence exchange and joint operations with local and overseas counterparts to prevent and detect illegal importation and exportation of any items which are prohibited or regulated by laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” a spokesperson said.
Triads’ revenue sources today don’t stop at illicit fish. Adapting to the internet age, the gangs have also taken advantage of e-commerce—namely the Chinese site Taobao, but also eBay and Amazon—to sell counterfeit goods, Centinel finds.
“Basic stuff like selling fakes on the internet is low key and easy to secure, so if you are caught, penalties are light,” Herbert said. “The big fakes are Chinese antiques, medicines, and clothing.” Late last year, the US returned Taobao to its blacklist of “notorious marketplaces” for the rampant sales of counterfeit goods.
Centinel has also found that triads are accessing large company databases for private data to sell or abuse, or financial data to exploit—Herbert and Wong said there are billions of dollars at stake, and have been beefing up Centinel to move into computer forensics.
Some of the triads’ illicit trade, however, is still predictably traditional and happens on the street. Cigarettes, for example, are smuggled into Hong Kong from mainland China. Centinel calculates this operation alone costs triads up to $300 million a year, and it’s estimated one in every three cigarettes smoked in Hong Kong is smuggled.
“Rising taxation rates worldwide is making this trade very lucrative and a challenge for all customs agencies,” said Herbert. He added that the trade is so well set up in Hong Kong, illicit cigarettes are mostly only sold by triads through recommendations—reducing the risk of getting caught.
Triads are also profiting from what’s called “red oil”—gas that’s smuggled from mainland China that hasn’t had tax paid in Hong Kong. Centinel has found that it’s often used on busses for tourists visiting the city from mainland China. According to Centinel’s intelligence, depots for the contraband diesel are often hidden in old, abandoned stores in rural villages and also in factory buildings, where guards keep the barrels secure.
The only way to stop the evolution of today’s triads, Wong said, is early intervention—getting help for the adolescents who are susceptible to recruitment. From his decades of studying criminal behavior, he’s found that once a recruit reaches the age of 18, he’s past the precipice of turning back and will enter a life of criminal activity with a triad organization. Because of this, Wong’s spent much of his career involved in work with high-risk youth.
He’s found that establishing a positive value system for troubled young men—which takes a team of social workers, teachers, and medical practitioners—can effectively interrupt triad recruitment and cut the gangs off by the roots. In 1999, he helped establish Youth Carenet, a residential rehabilitation program for at-risk boys suffering from substance abuse problems.
Triads are still today rapidly changing to adapt to an ever-changing mega city, and show little sign of stopping. For Centinel, there’s a long journey ahead that will take them from hotel room to hotel room, as the Chinese gangs discover more revenue sources and technology—and the government appears unwilling to clamp down.
But Wong said that for those hunting down the crime syndicates, there’s still one constant: “Fighting triad crime is like a chess game—your purpose is to win.”
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