More flexible than the Mafia, more savvy than Colombia's drug cartels, Asian gangs may be the future of organized crime.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has promised to make the gangs a priority, and Willard Myers III, director of the Philadelphia-based Center for the Study of Asian Organized Crime, says it's none too soon.
"Asian organized crime is already at the top of the list," he said. "It's like a giant spider web spread across the world."
* Chinese Triads, some with as many as 180,000 members worldwide, specialize in smuggling aliens and heroin into New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They smuggle military weapons out of China, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union, with the help of the Russian mafia.
* The tattooed Japanese Yakuza, experts at high-level financial fraud and almost a shadow government in their homeland, have penetrated the U.S. real estate and banking industries.
* Increasingly violent Chinese and Vietnamese street gangs in the United States specialize in home invasions, low-level drug dealing and protection rackets. They also provide muscle for Triads.
"It's the worst of both worlds," said Geoffrey Anderson, chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force in the San Francisco U.S. attorney's office. "They have an international organization that gives them access to information and commodities throughout Asia--and then they have local gangs."
Organizations like the Wah Ching, United Bamboo and Wo families now reach out of their traditional base in the Asian community, Anderson said. They have begun to victimize the world at large with drugs, guns and fraud.
Vancouver, Canada, may be the future for many North American cities, warns Thomas Ritchie, the top organized crime investigator in British Columbia. The city's organized crime is already dominated by Chinese syndicates, including the Big Circle Boys, founded by former Maoist Red Guards.
The Big Circle Boys travel freely between the United States and Canada, he said.
"I believe that Asian organized crime is going to be the single biggest concern for law enforcement in the future," Ritchie said. "It's definitely on the increase, and Asian criminals have no boundaries."
The Asian gangs have the flexibility to avoid pitfalls that brought down other organized crime empires, experts say.
La Cosa Nostra was penetrated and crippled by law enforcement, in part because of the families' rigid structure and regionalization. Colombian drug cartels made themselves easier targets because of their centralization and focus on a single commodity.
But Triad members dabble in many crimes, and think nothing of flitting from Thailand to Vancouver and on to Ohio or New York on a single caper.
Their organization is unclear.
Although there has been testimony that drug dealers in this country turned to a godfather in Macao for approval of a heroin deal, Myers said the Triads often act more as a loose network of independent contractors who team up for specific crimes--in effect, a criminal version of the Elks Club.
Japan's Yakuza, although less common in the United States, have a growing presence in property and banking, said U.S. Atty. Michael Yamaguchi in San Francisco.
"The Yakuza had a substantial investment in golf courses throughout the United States, and the strike force in Las Vegas seized a couple of them," he said. "They were also reaching into the banking system, laundering money."
However organized, the gangs can reap astounding profits.
Triad-linked groups handle an estimated $200 billion in international heroin trafficking, said Myers. They make $3 billion smuggling Chinese aliens to the United States, and millions more smuggling aliens and prostitutes into Japan.
Chinese syndicates control gambling in parts of Asia, the Dominican Republic, and in many U.S. cities with large Chinese populations.
Untold millions come from trading heroin to the Russian mafia in exchange for abandoned Soviet military weapons, and from selling outdated People's Liberation Army weapons to Japan's Yakuza--and U.S. thugs.
"They're dealing off huge stocks of weapons (that) find their way right here to the United States," said Myers. "Ask a policeman who takes a Chinese automatic rifle away from a street gang member."
The weapons trafficking particularly worries the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said Gary Thomas, head of the International Enforcement Branch in Washington.
The bureau has increasingly up-to-date information exchanges with Europe and Latin America, he said. But they are only beginning to impress their Asian counterparts with the necessity for quick, timely reports on weapons.
"What's unique about a gun is that, unlike cocaine or other kinds of contraband, it's traceable; it has a history," Thomas said.
Oakland-based ATF agent James Newberry said that despite the organization and power of the Triads, law enforcement has made some inroads.
To overcome the closed gang culture, investigators discovered young criminals could often be shamed into cooperating by bringing in a father or other relative to urge them to act with honor.
More and more Asian officers have joined police forces and can work freely in communities once suspicious of outsiders, said Newberry.
But Yamaguchi said more is needed, especially as the United States looks more and more to the Pacific Rim as a trading partner.
Several Triad suspects have fled into China, which has no mutual assistance treaty with the United States, he said. In many countries, such as Thailand, high-level corruption makes cooperation spotty at best.
But at least early action is possible because the threat is recognized, Yamaguchi said.
"When we finally dealt with La Cosa Nostra in the 1960s under Bobby Kennedy, the Mafia had become entrenched in our institutions," the prosecutor said. "But with Asian organized crime, we have an opportunity to beat this early."