Once-Sleepy Macao Awakes to Find Itself a 'City of Fear'

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On a sultry April evening, a young man walked up to nurse Rosa Yiu Bo-la and fatally shot her with a Chinese military-issue pistol.

The slaying, officials said, was retribution directed at her husband, a former court bailiff reportedly connected to the organized crime gangs, or triads, that are suddenly tearing this city apart.

But the killing--which authorities have included among 15 professional hits here this year--sent shock waves to nearby Hong Kong and to Beijing. This Portuguese enclave, which will follow Hong Kong in reverting to Chinese rule in 1999, is known more for its blackjack and its vinho verde wine. It was once a model of what China hopes Hong Kong to be--peaceful, friendly to Beijing and rich.

No longer. "Macao, City of Fear," screamed a headline in Macau Hoje, a Portuguese-language daily. "The Peace Is Finished."

"The government and police have lost control--they can't stop the civil war," said legislator Antonio Ng Kuok-cheong. In the 1970s and 1980s, he said, Macao's Portuguese administrators coexisted with Chinese gangsters because the criminals did not threaten the old order. "But now," he said, "the balance has broken."

Some of the victims of the 15 alleged triad hits this year--there were a total of 21 killings in 1996--were assassinated in gangland-style shootings. In a recent case that stunned even the police, two killers on motorcycles fired nine bullets with deadly aim, killing three men after having flanked the victims' car. Other victims have been hacked to death with meat cleavers, the favored killing method of local gangsters.

As the police tell it, the slayings are one product of the worst criminal turf war in memory, in which two triads--the Shui Fong gang and the 14K--are defending territory from thugs forced out of Taiwan by a crackdown there last year.

Meanwhile, fresh gangs from China, equipped with the arms and the expertise of the mainland military, are sneaking over the border to grab a share of the rackets linked to Macao's casinos; this Portuguese territory, the "Monte Carlo of the East," relies on profits from legal gaming for more than half its government revenue.

But just as more mobsters are swarming in, an economic recession has strangled earnings from the casinos. There are almost 50,000 empty, new apartments in Macao, many built with money borrowed from China and criminal organizations, a crime expert said, adding, "The people who lent want their money back, and the people who borrowed have to find it."

And the reports of growing violence are keeping the high rollers--the lifeblood of casinos--away. "More triad groups are looking for a piece of the cake, and the cake is not growing that much," said Harald Bruning, a journalist based in Macao. "It has changed the truce of 'one casino, one gang.' "

Joao Severino, who edits Macau Hoje, said the almost daily violence has shattered Macao's image as a languid city where life beats to the rhythm of three-hour siestas and church bells, where the street talk is of gambling and good food. "Now it is very bad," he said. "Nobody goes out at night--the community is very afraid."

In the face of more gangs and violence, the police have not fared well. Officials say privately that the triads appear to have corrupted some officers, bribing them for tip-offs about impending raids.

Beijing traditionally has had more tolerance for triads, whose roots lie in secret societies that helped overthrow the corrupt Qing dynasty in 1911. Deng Xiaoping, China's late "paramount leader," even praised some of the group members as "patriots."

In Hong Kong earlier this month, Wong Man-fong, a former secretary-general of the New China News Agency--Beijing's de facto diplomatic staff in the British colony--said he had met triad leaders there. He said he had reassured them that after the July 1 British hand-over of Hong Kong to China, triads would be allowed to exist--as long as they did not threaten law and order or rob Chinese-funded institutions.

With violence in Macao growing, even Beijing has expressed alarm and sent word for the gangs to stop the bloodshed and sort out their differences, a Portuguese crime expert said. Last week, triad leaders, Chinese officials and Macao police reportedly met on neutral ground in Thailand to negotiate a truce.

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