Macau's gang war 'will be over this week'

Stephen Vines on a casino tycoon's strange prediction

Stanley Ho, the tycoon who runs the casinos in the Portuguese enclave of Macau, says the outbreak of vicious gang warfare in the gambling industry will be over by the end of this week.

How can he be so sure? Nobody knows, but even thougheverything about Macau gambling is obscure, one thing is clear: whoever controls the casinos has more power in the colony than the sleepy Portuguese administration. Gambling is the biggest source of revenue, attracting swarms of players from Hong Kong, where betting on anything apart from racehorses is illegal.

Nor is the need to do something about the violence in dispute. On Friday night another casino operator was professionally shot in a five-star hotel. The gunmen have disappeared. At least 16 people have been murdered and more injured in recent months as triad gangs have moved to gain control of the so-called VIP rooms where high rollers, often gangsters themselves, play. The casino operators rent the rooms to outsiders, but used to have some control over what went on. Now they appear to have lost it.

Mr Ho claims he saw off the triads when some thugs thought they could muscle in on the casino business. "I knew someone in the police," he said on American television. "They [the gangsters] don't like Macau jails very much. The rats are bigger than cats. The rats bit their ears and toes off. There was no trouble after that."

Clearly Stanley has ways of getting things done, but it is not certain whether he really owns the casinos. Sources in Macau believe the biggest shareholder in STDM, the company that owns the casino monopoly, is Henry Fok. Based in Hong Kong, as is Mr Ho, Mr Fok probably has better connections with the Chinese leadership than any other overseas Chinese businessman. Hehas access to everybody from President Jiang Zemin down.

Mr Ho, however, is the public face of the casino business. He has denied he acted as "a power broker" between the triad gangs, or that organised crime had any involvement in the casinos. He even shrugged off as sensationalism reports of gang warfare around the casinos.

Yet people have been assassinated with sub-machine guns in broad daylight, and both the Governor's palace and the central police station have been hit by fire bombs. The government has been forced to rush through a tough anti-triad bill.

The authorities know who is behind the trouble, but are powerless to act. The two main gangs, the 14K and Shui Fong, are not bashful about their presence. "Broken Teeth" Koi, self-proclaimed head of the 14K, was banned from the casinos last December, and earlier this month a further 68 "undesirables" were barred. Peace is badly needed. The incoming Chinese administration is insisting something should be done but, it seems, only Stanley Ho can do it.

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