On 19 June 2017, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) organised a General Assembly debate to warn that crime groups are globalising and are now primary threats to security and development. The debate also featured a special briefing on Southeast Asia, a region that is particularly vulnerable to the reach and influence of organised crime.[i] The study found that transnational organised crime groups have expanded their operations to this illicit traffic and are engaged in smuggling drugs, people, weapons, timber, wildlife and counterfeit goods across borders. The conservative annual estimated value of this regional illicit market is a staggering US$100 billion dollars. The regional illicit drug market is estimated to be worth over US$30 billion per year.
Southeast Asia hosts the world’s largest methamphetamine market, as well as the second largest opium and heroin market. While opium cultivation and heroin production are geographically confined to the lawless areas in the ‘Golden Triangle’ of northern Myanmar and parts of Laos the production and trafficking of methamphetamine has proliferated throughout Southeast Asia at an alarming speed. Transnational organised crime groups have grown the business by exploiting weaknesses in state capacities to regulate precursor chemicals, as well as gaps in law enforcement and regional cooperation as well as widespread corruption within government structures.
With organised crime groups in China, the Triads, also producing and trafficking significant quantities of methamphetamine into and through the region, Southeast Asia is now the world’s largest methamphetamine market. Its markets are not only confined to the region but extend to Europe, North America and, especially, Africa. The word used for methamphetamine in Africa is “Tik”; that is methamphetamine in a powdered crystalline form. It is widely distributed by Asian organised crime gangs from Pakistan and the Chinese Triads. Indian organised crime gangs specialise in “Mandrax”. After its discovery in 1950, mandrax abuse became the legal way to get high. It produce states of euphoria and sensual or intimate moods. These reactions explain the drug’s vicious popularity. Thousands of legal and illegal pharmaceutical firms produce and then distribute the drug in India. Major States like Delhi, Maharashtra and Rajasthan are among the regions legally and illegally manufacturing mandrax. To manufacture one Mandrax tablet only takes 99 paise-they are sold for around Rs. 40 each. The profits keep the market afloat and support much of the organised crime groups in India.[ii]
Myanmar’s drug lords have extended their reach beyond the production of heroin and opium for the manufacture of Tylenol-sized pink meth tablets, known in Thailand as yaba. Each year, two to six billion pills are exported to neighbouring Thailand and China, and more recently Bangladesh.
As many of the ruling parties in the nations of Southeast Asia are military regimes or regimes dominated by the military, there has been a concomitant growth in the symbiosis of these militaries and organised crime groups like the Triads, the warlords of the Shan States, the Afghan Pushtun mafia and the international criminal gangs of India and Pakistan. While this is not an entirely new phenomenon the symbiosis of these organised criminal groups, operating under the aegis of military regimes, has opened the door to the massive funding of Islamic terrorist groups which exist in the same political space. The payoff for the militaries in tolerating and working with terrorist and organised crime has been a surge in their revenues and the ability to use these criminal and terrorist groups as covert mercenaries in the subversion of their neighbours and throughout the worldwide community.
The impact of this relationship became evident to the wider world in March 1993 with a series of 12 bomb explosions that took place in Bombay, India (now known as Mumbai). Following local riots and disorders emanating from India’s secular divide, a series of thirteen bombs were exploded in Mumbai resulting in 257 fatalities and 713 injuries. These attacks were co-ordinated by the largest organised crime gang operating in Mumbai, Company D, run by Dawood Ibrahim. However, the planning, funding and direction of this bombing campaign lay elsewhere. The planning and co-ordination of these bombs in Mumbai originated across the border in Pakistan, whose ISI Department of the Pakistan Army controlled and directed the attacks. The Company D leadership of the bombings included Dawood Ibrahim and the brothers Tiger Memon and Yakub Memon. Dawood and Tiger Memon escaped, but Yakub was caught and later executed.
The Indian security authorities were on a high state of readiness before the bombings but failed to use the clear evidence they had before them. Three days before the bombing police had apprehended a criminal tied to the personal team of Tiger Memon, ‘Gullu’ (Gul Noor Mohammad Sheikh). He had just returned from Pakistan and had been trained by the ISI in terrorist tactics. He was one of nineteen such trainees sent by Tiger Memon to Pakistan. When apprehended at Nav Pada police station, Gullu confessed his training in Pakistan and revealed the bombing plot. The police ignored his confession.
After the bombings and the international outrage at the enormity of the attack on India the police arrested hundreds of suspects. In a subsequent trial a hundred of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to long terms in prison. In reality, many of the convicted just disappeared rather than serve a sentence, including Tiger Menon, the mastermind of the bombings. Those who were detained often had their sentences diminished or quashed. The Muslim ones tied to Pakistan who were caught were incarcerated by the Indian police but many members of the Mumbai underworld who had worked closely with the Hindu regional authorities found their sentences less onerous.
Dawood and much of Company D escaped to the safe haven of Pakistan where they live in security, guarded and protected by the Pakistan Army. The remnants of Company D in Mumbai split off from Dawood and pledged their fealty to Chhota Rajan, Dawood Ibrahim’s right-hand man. Rajan’s departure divided the criminal enterprise within Company D along communal lines; among them the leadership-level Hindu aides of Chhota Rajan, including Sadhu, Jaspal Singh and Mohan Kotiyan. The ensuing gang war between Muslim and Hindu criminals took the lives of more than a hundred gangsters and still continues. Seven of Company D accused (Salim Kurla, Majeed Khan, Shakil Ahmed, Mohammed Jindran, Hanif Kadawala, Akbar Abu Sama Khan and Mohammed Latif) were assassinated by Rajan’s hitmen.
There has been a growing symbiosis of Indian and Pakistani organised crime gangs and the security arms of the two rival nations, India and Pakistan. This symbiosis has expanded, especially in Pakistan, with ties between organised crime, Islamic terrorist groups and underground criminal enterprises of drug smuggling, counterfeit currency smuggling, illegal pharmaceutical smuggling and a web of international criminal and terrorist ties across the globe in support of these enterprises. This has spread across Southeast Asia.
Background to Indian Organised Crime
There were organised gangs of ‘thugs’ in India for years (the term ‘thug’ is an Indian word) A ‘thug’ was a member of an organization of robbers and assassins; devotees of the goddess Kali. The Thugs waylaid and strangled their victims, usually travellers, in a ritually prescribed manner. They were suppressed by the British in the 1830s. This violent aspect of Indian criminality was only a small branch of the tree of crime. Most of Indian crime consisted of supplying goods, credit and services which were unavailable or outlawed by the various governmental organisations; kidnapping and ransoming rich Indians; and ‘shylocking’ among the rural and urban poor to whom the ‘zamindars’ (tax collectors and landowners) had shown little mercy or credit. Some of the bandits (better known as ‘dacoiti’) like Man Singh became legends in their lifetime due to their Robin-hood image of giving stolen money to the poor.
When India became independent many of the states which were formed were ‘dry’ states; alcohol was banned. This Indian Prohibition resulted, as it did in the U.S. and, later Russia, in a windfall of profits for the criminal communities. This illicit sale of alcohol has continued during the succeeding prohibitions both nationally and regionally.
India remains a major transit point for heroin from the Golden Triangle (Shan states) and Golden Crescent (Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan) en route to Europe. India is also the world’s largest legal grower of opium, and experts estimate that 5–10% of the legal opium is converted into illegal heroin and an additional 8–10% is consumed in high quantities as concentrated liquid. The pharmaceutical industry is also responsible for a lot of illegal production of mandrax, much of which is smuggled into South Africa. Diamond smuggling via South Africa is also a major criminal activity. In addition, a lot of money laundering takes place within the country and with the Middle East mostly through the use of the traditional ‘hawala’ system. The traditional illegal import of 10-tola bars of gold from the Gulf into India is a business which has gone on for centuries.
There are several centres of organised crime in India, based primarily on major cities. Perhaps the most important crime centre is Mumbai. After independence, due to prohibition policies adopted by the Government of Maharashtra, boot-legging or trade in illicit liquor, became a lucrative business for the criminal gangs. The first to rise to prominence in the bootlegging business was Varada Rajan Mudaliar, popularly known as Vardha bhai, who was a Mumbai based ethnic Hindu who started as a porter at VT Railway Station, took to thievery at the Bombay Docks and graduated to boot-legging in the 1960s. He acquired considerable wealth through this activity and became so influential that he used to hold ‘durbars’ in his areas of influence, to settle disputes.
Another prominent Mumbai gangster was Karim Lala, who commanded south and central Mumbai and majority of smuggling and illegal construction financing. Karim Lala and his family members’ groups operated in the Mumbai docks; they were often called the Pathan mafia or Afghan mafia, because the majority of the members of these crime syndicate’s members were ethnic Pashtuns from Afghanistan’s Kunar province. They were especially involved in hashish trafficking, protection rackets, extortion, illegal gambling, gold smuggling and contract killing and held a firm stranglehold over parts of Mumbai’s underworld. Lala controlled bootlegging and gambling in the city in 1940 and was the undisputed king of the trade till 1985. Similarly,Haji Mastan and Yusuf Patel started off as small-time criminals and later took to smuggling gold and silver: They made a lot of money and invested it in legitimate business, mainly construction and real estate.
One of the most famous of the Karim Lala gang was Haji Mastan who became the first celebrity mobster in Mumbai, expanding his clout in the film industry by giving money to directors and studios for film production. As Masan’s influence in Bollywood grew, he began to produce films himself.
These Mafia leaders found that the traditional forms of criminality were no longer the best routes to fortune and power as India began to open up into an entrepreneurial giant. Their place as leaders of the criminal underworld were challenged by younger and more aggressive criminals. After a decade of violence, the new leadership took over and moved away from the criminal pursuits of their former leaders and began to adapt to India’s new capitalist opportunities, using their cash to finance otherwise unfinanceable deals.