January 31, 2018 / 12:36 PM / 21 days ago

U.S. slaps sanctions on Laos Golden Triangle 'casino' in bid to break up narco-empire

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The U.S. Treasury Department has slapped sanctions on a gambling empire hacked from the Laotian jungle which it said was involved in drug, human and wildlife trafficking and child prostitution.

Landlocked and impoverished Laos shares a border with Vietnam and Thailand, an important “Golden Triangle” smuggling hub for narcotics and the chemicals that make them.

Hong Kong-based Kings Romans International (HK) Co. Ltd. controls a 102-sq-km (39-sq-mile) special economic zone which occupies seven km (four miles) of prime Mekong riverbank overlooking Myanmar and Thailand.

The company, which has a 99-year land lease from the government, allows visitors to openly buy endangered species products, including tigers and bears smuggled in from Asia and Africa, according to the British-based Environmental Investigation Agency.

In a statement posted on Tuesday, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) identified and targeted four key individuals, including casino owner Zhao Wei, who were part of a network that engaged in “horrendous illicit activities”, it said.

The network stretched from Kings Romans “throughout Southeast Asia”, said Sigal Mandelker, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, in the statement.

“OFAC is designating the Zhao Wei network as part of a broader strategy to disrupt the financial infrastructure of transnational criminal organisations that pose a threat to the United States and our allies.”

The sanctions aim to destabilise the narcotics trade in the Mekong area at a time of growing Chinese influence in the region.

Chinese businessmen flock daily to the special economic zone, with a Reuters report stating that the area was so large and strategically located that some fear it might one day be used as a Chinese outpost.

Operating via the Kings Romans Casino, the Zhao Wei network allowed the storage and distribution of heroin and other narcotics, the statement said. Since 2014, Thai, Lao, and Chinese authorities had seized large narcotics shipments that have been traced to Kings Romans, the statement said.

Chinese national Zhao is the co-owner and director of Kings Romans International.

Zhao, who was not able to be reached for comment, is also the defacto chairman of Laos Golden Triangle special economic zone, the U.S. government said.

Chinese national Guiqin Su, Zhao’s wife, an Australian and a Thai national were also named as targets of the sanctions. None was reachable for comment.

All assets from Zhao’s network under U.S. jurisdiction have been frozen and Americans are prohibited from engaging in transactions with it, the statement said.

Paul Bromberg, the chief executive of Spectrum Asia, a Bangkok-based consultancy firm, said the sanctions were unlikely to hit Zhao’s network in the near term.

“In the long term, this is a good thing for Laos. It could give the government some kind of impetus to improve the regulation of their gaming industry. For now, I think Kings Roman would probably stay in operation.”

Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um in Bangkok; Editing by Nick Macfie

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