Macau puts the bite on flamboyant triad leader


When 24 firebombs exploded in Macau yesterday, wrecking cars, motorcycles and shops, no one in the Portuguese enclave on the south Chinese coast had any doubt who was responsible - associates of the suspected mob leader, Wan Kuok-koi, alias "Broken Tooth". The flamboyant, gum-chewing Wan, whose Lamborghini is a familiar sight in Macau's narrow streets, is the reputed boss of the 14K triad crime organisation, believed responsible for a series of gangland killings in the city of casinos, brothels and high-class hotels. "Broken Tooth" is such a legend that the Chinese audience in a Hong Kong cinema broke into applause when his name appeared in the credits at the premiere on Wednesday of Casino, a film about his dare-devil life as a triad leader which he financed himself. But the stout, crew-cut, underworld figure was not in the cinema to enjoy his moment of stardom. He was in jail, having been arrested for a bombing too far.

On May Day, as he was enjoying a dinner with cronies in Macau's Lisboa casino, the doors burst open and dozens of armed police surrounded his table. They were led by Judicial Police Director Antonio Marques Baptista, otherwise known in Macau as "Rambo". Wan and five others were hauled away from the restaurant for investigation into several murders, attempted murders, forgery and drug-trafficking. "Broken-Tooth" had goaded "Rambo" for months with his cocky defiance of the law, but that morning he had apparently overreached himself and tried to kill Mr Baptista. The 45-year-old Portuguese crime fighter had gone jogging. Because it was a holiday he did not have his usual four bodyguards and was accompanied only by his golden retriever. The dog, trained to sniff explosives, sprinted ahead as Mr Baptista jogged back to his car and barked at a package hidden under the driver's side. It exploded as the area was being cleared. Macau residents knew triad retaliation would follow Wan's arrest and yesterday's bombings appear to justify their fears. No one was injured but damage to property and vehicles was extensive. Up to his arrest, Wan had appeared untouchable. He had conducted a publicity campaign for Casino, which features triad members as tough but honourable characters, giving interviews in which he did little to deny his reputation as a top member of a criminal gang involved in racketeering, prostitution and murder. The triad leader's biggest mistake may have been to ignore the writing on the wall. His activities had become a major embarrassment not just for the outgoing Portuguese administration, but for China, which takes back the little colony in December next year and wants it to be a glorious occasion.

The Portuguese Prime Minister, Mr Antonio Guterres, visited Macau last month and promised that his country's forces would keep the enclave of 450,000 residents under control until China takes over. On Tuesday, Chinese police handed over to Macau a suspected triad member, identified only as Yuen, who is allegedly Wan's right-hand man. Macau police have arrested 20 leading triad figures and say anti-crime action will continue. In addition, they have asked China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and Cambodia for assistance in locating suspects who have fled in recent days.

"The activities associated with `Broken Tooth' would give the idea that Macau is the Casablanca of the Far East," Col Manuel Geraldes, a senior security adviser, said recently. "We don't accept that." However, the triads remain a major force in a city, whose casinos have a $1.2 billion turnover and where many young Chinese men look to characters like Wan as their role models, as the cinema audience showed.