The Asian gambling mecca of Macau is bracing itself for the release of an organised crime boss who was at the centre of the gangland violence that plagued the city in the late 1990s.
Wan Kuok-koi, also known as "Broken Tooth Koi", is due to walk free from Coloane Prison between midnight and noon tomorrow after serving most of a 15-year sentence, the Macau government said.
Wan was convicted of money laundering and being a gang leader and loan shark in November 1999, a month before Portugal handed control of Macau, its colony for more than four centuries, back to Beijing. As head of Macau's 14K triad, Wan waged a brutal war with rival triads, or crime gangs, for dominance of the lucrative VIP rooms in Macau's casinos.
He was arrested shortly after a bomb destroyed the car of Macau's director of investigative police, Antonio Marques Baptista, who was out jogging when the vehicle exploded.
According to news reports in Macau and nearby Hong Kong, authorities have been preparing for his release by warning hotels and casinos to tighten security and plan to keep a close eye on him after he gets out.
They fear Wan's release could be followed by a return to the gang violence that rocked Macau before the handover claiming dozens of lives, including 37 in 1999 alone. Some worry he will try to get involved again with junkets – middlemen who arrange for wealthy, mainly Chinese, gamblers to come to Macau, lend them money and make big profits by collecting on debts.
But analysts say that when Wan leaves prison, he will probably find he has lost much of his power and influence following Macau's decade-long transformation from a seedy and corrupt, crime-ridden backwater into the world's top gambling market.
Macau's decision to end a four-decade casino monopoly in 2002 opened the way for foreign operators to modernise the industry. Las Vegas Sands, MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts have all opened glitzy resorts in recent years. Macau is the only place in China where gambling is legal.
"Wan Kuok-koi is yesterday's man," said Steve Vickers, a former head of intelligence at Hong Kong's police force who now runs the business intelligence and risk consultancy SVA.
"There is just no room for the wild bunch in Macau any more. He will be neutralised should he create trouble," said Mr Vickers, who noted that while Wan has been in prison, Macau's gambling revenues have rocketed from £1.5bn in 2002 to £21bn last year, more than five times the amount earned on the Las Vegas Strip. Tourists, who once stayed away because of the violence, now flood in to the city. About 28 million, mostly from mainland China, arrived in the year to September.