The triads of China and the Yakuza of Japan are the most notorious of the Asian crime organizations, but there are countless smaller groups from Taiwan, Vietnam, North and South Korea, Thailand, Laos, the Philippines and elsewhere involved in some form of organized criminal activity.
THE ASIAN GANGSTERS are more likely than their Western counterparts to operate exclusively within their own ethnic groups, which allows them to remain largely invisible to police outside their homelands.
The Chinese gangs are best known for trafficking in heroin and opium, but they are in fact as diversified as the biggest multinational conglomerate. Among their other activities are arms smuggling, credit-card fraud, counterfeiting, software piracy, prostitution, gambling, loansharking, white-collar crime, home-invasion robbery, high-tech theft and trafficking in endangered animals and plants.
The triads are also increasingly involved in the smuggling of illegal aliens. U.S. officials estimate that up to 100,000 Chinese are illegally smuggled into the country each year, many of them forced to live in involuntary servitude for years while they work off their debt to the gangsters.
The Yakuza specializes in high-level financial fraud, while dabbling in other activities. In Japan, it frequently extorts money from corporations and lines the pockets of politicians. It also curries favor with the populace from time to time, such as when it donated food and supplies after the Kobe earthquake in January 1995.
Overseas, the Yakuza has been linked to real estate purchases in the United States, mostly along the West Coast and in Hawaii, as well as in South Korea. Golf courses are a favored investment for Yakuza money.
In recent months, authorities have closely tracked the actions of a new entrant in the Asian organized crime race: North Korea — not gangsters from that communist nation but the authoritarian government of Kim Jong Il.
Authorities in the West say that Kim’s economically strained government, faced with widespread poverty and starvation, has been linked to counterfeiting of U.S. currency and drug trafficking.
“They basically could be characterized as official state sponsors of crime, and not only for destabilization purposes ... some would say it is for survival.,” said Frank Ciluffo, who tracks organized crime for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “… Whereas traditionally organized crime tries to penetrate the state, in (North Korea) it’s sort of the inverse paradigm where the state is penetrating organized crime.”