“Sol Prendido” for Borderland Beat

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Last week, the documentary The World’s Biggest Drug Lord premiered on Discovery. The film is not about El Chapo or Pablo Escobar, but about the much more unknown Tse Chi Lop. The alleged drug lord is currently fighting from the Netherlands not to be extradited to Australia. ‘I contradict all accusations.’

Lawyers in civilian clothes enter the Rotterdam courthouse on Wilhelminaplein with their gowns in a bag. A window near the entrance reads, “Rules apply in this courthouse. The light box of the Luxor Theater across the street announces new shows by Patrick Laureij and Richard Groenendijk. It is wind force 5, cyclists stomp up the Erasmus Bridge or they see off along the Nieuwe Maas.

On June 22, 2021, men with automatic rifles walked in front of the Rotterdam District Court. They wore helmets and bulletproof vests, their faces covered with balaclavas and sunglasses. Sirens sounded for minutes. Police cars drove around scanning the neighborhood. Posters hung on lampposts promoting the musical Matilda at the Luxor. 

A vehicle stopped in front of the Wilhelminaplein courthouse. The windows were blinded and bulletproof. An elderly man was led into the courthouse by guards with weapons and earpieces. The suspect was handcuffed and had to walk through quickly. The danger of escape was high and it would be an international embarrassment if this very arrestee were freed by gangsters.

Rotterdammers wondered which top criminal was being driven to court again. No one knew his name and they were surprised to learn that Tse Chi Lop is often called “the biggest drug lord in history. He deals in heroin, ketamine and meth, according to anti-drug agents. 

In English, his organization is known as The Company. Called “more CEO than drug lord” in the documentary The World’s Biggest Drug Lord, a Harvard business expert compares him to Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Steven Spielberg and Steve Jobs. McDonald’s is a big company, as is Heinz Ketchup, but Tse Chi Lop’s The Company “overshadowed them all. Interpol put him on the Most Wanted list, Tse Chi Lop was T1: Top Target No. 1. According to Australian police, Tse Chi Lop’s organization is responsible for 70 percent of all drug imports into their country, and their agents want the Netherlands to extradite him.

The suspect was led into the Rotterdam courtroom by security guards. Tse Chi Lop wore black glasses, dark slacks and a white shirt. He was thin, his black hair beginning to turn gray. He did not appear to have tattoos of tigers or snakes on his arms or neck like other Asian criminal leaders. Next to him sat an interpreter. Tse Chi Lop was wearing a mouth guard. The security guards left their faces uncovered, as did the judges and the court clerk.

Tse Chi Lop told the court president that he was indeed Tse Chi Lop and he had Canadian citizenship. He spoke softly, a security guard with an earpiece watched him from a few feet away as he made clear, “I contradict all charges. He said the media described him as “the king of a drug cartel. That was far from the truth, and he fears not getting a fair trial in Australia. The judge there will no doubt “judge him with colored glasses.

His Rotterdam lawyer André Seebregts walked forward. He found the extradition request “inadmissible” and a flagrant violation of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Tse Chi Lop was traveling from Taiwan to his home country of Canada on Jan. 21, 2021. The plane made a stopover at Schiphol Airport. Dutch agents arrested him. 

The news made newsreels in many countries around the world. Serious-looking reporters reported from the square in front of Schiphol Airport, saying in their best TV voice, “It was here at Amsterdam’s main airport that one of the most wanted men was arrested. Thomas Aling, spokesman for the Dutch police, uploaded a photo of himself and tweeted triumphantly: ‘National police arrested a suspect who was on Europols Most Wanted List. This person is currently incarcerated, and we will wait to see what will happen as it has to do with an Australian investigation.’

According to André Seebregts, it is not certain that an Australian judge will check whether the arrest was lawful, and prosecutors there will undoubtedly want to put Tse Chi Lop behind bars forever. The prosecutor wants the alleged drug lord extradited anyway, Australians have a right to see him on trial in Melbourne or another city. His crystal meth has destroyed many Australian lives and for that Tse Chi Lop must pay.

The El Chapo of Asia

Tse Chi Lop suddenly became a Known Drug Lord in October 2019 entirely against his will. That was because of investigative journalist Tom Allard, who wrote an article about him for the Reuters news agency headlined “The Hunt for Asia’s El Chapo. It includes a spectacularly executed animation that only added to Pop’s myth. The alleged drug lord is depicted as a puppetmaster, the man pulling the strings, the godfather of the international drug trade. Behind him are four kickboxers in combat gear. The “El Chapo of Asia” holds his hands above a globe like a magician, and the message then, of course, is clear: The CEO of The Company rules globally.

Tom Allard interviewed more than 25 anti-drug agents in eight countries, most of them daring to talk only anonymously. He read reports and court records and spoke with rebel leaders in the jungle near Myanmar. In his article, Tom Allard calls that region “the heart of Asia’s Golden Triangle” and the place where Tse Chi Lop became a billionaire. Tse Chi Lop’s syndicate is “transnational. The Company consists of 19 people from Canada, Hong Kong, the Chinese peninsula of Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and China. 

A Taiwanese expert called Tse Chi Lop the company’s “Multinational CEO. The Company is distinguished from other criminal organizations by the discipline of its members, according to Tom Allard. Violence attracts police attention and the leaders try to stay under the radar as much as possible. Sometimes torture occurs, but no murders traceable to Tse Chi Lop take place. The Company operates in dozens of countries around the world, and Tse Chi Lop works with the Japanese Yakuza, Chinese triads from Southeast Asia, the Sicilian mafia and Australian and Canadian bikers, according to investigators. In Canada, Tse Chi Lop formed an alliance with Vito Rizzuto, the boss of the Italian-Canadian mafia in Montreal.

Born in 1963 in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, Tse Chi Lop emigrated to Canada via Hong Kong in 1988. By then he was a member of a group of criminals who together formed the Big Circle Boys. They robbed banks and jewelers and rolled bags. The Big Circle Boys also operated internationally, with gang members traveling to North and South America, Thailand, Canada and also the Netherlands. Canadian journalist Stephen Marche delved into Tse Chi Lop’s Canadian years for Toronto Life. 

He writes that Toronto was his “training ground. In that city, he learned to become a gangster businessman and he also had to fight very hard to hold his own there. Toronto in the 1980s and 1990s was “the Wild, Wild West. Chinese criminals were at war with the police. They were making millions from illegal gambling joints, extorting business owners and shooting cops with AK-47s. They threw hand grenades at bikers; cops called it “Terror in the Streets. Tse Chi Lop survived all the violence, Marche says, and became “the world’s most innovative drug lord.

According to Stephen Marche, Tse Chi Lop first needed a few years to get used to his new country. Canadian jewelers generally did not keep cash in their cash registers, security was more sophisticated in Toronto, robbing banks also already proved less easy than in China or Hong Kong. New criminal operations had to be invented, and Tse Chi Lop was a genius at it even then. The Big Circle Boys continued to pickpocket, but Tse Chi Lop thought the credit cards and passports they stole were more important than the money. The passports were forged and used for human smuggling. The credit cards were so heavily defrauded that today a PIN must be used for major purchases.

There was no hierarchy among the Big Circle Boys and no real boss. Ethnicity was irrelevant, the Big Circle Boys negotiated with anyone if it made them richer. He made alliances and made sure the Big Circle Boys did not use too much overt violence. Tse Chi Lop was not the leader, but he was the smartest of the bunch, which is why he still made a name for himself under the radar. 

Toronto became too small for him in the early 1990s and he went into the drug business. Tse Chi Lop had heroin smuggled from the Golden Triangle, near the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, China and Laos. He became increasingly rich and powerful, especially after he had New York flooded with cheap heroin.

New Jersey narcotics agent Mark Calnan first heard whispers about a man named Lop in 1993. No one had ever seen a picture of him at the time, but according to Calnan’s sources, Tse Chi Lop really was the mastermind behind all the heroin smuggling. 

Calnan spent six years investigating Tse Chi Lop. After four years, he still had no idea what he looked like and knew nothing about his life or background. Did he actually exist, or was he some kind of Keyser Söze, the mythical criminal from The Usual Suspects? How could they ever track him down? According to his Canadian colleague Mario Lamothe, “he flew under the radar, he was hiding under the ground, he was like a ghost.

He was closely watched by local agents for four years, but in the deepest secrecy perfected his drug smuggling empire

‘We got him’

Calnan discovered that the man called Tse Chi Lop often operated out of China. That country does not extradite to America, nor do Chinese police share information with American agents. One day, Calnan received a call. Agents from Hong Kong said Tse Chi Lop existed and sometimes traveled to their country. Calnan and his Montreal-based Canadian colleague Mario Lamothe flew to Hong Kong on Aug. 8, 1998. Tse Chi Lop met with a heroin dealer there. 

The Discovery documentary The World’s Biggest Drug Lord colorfully re-enacts this scene. A clock comes into view, the hand moving to six o’clock. Real black-and-white footage shows Tse Chi Lop opening a door and sitting behind a table. Mario Lamothe’s head comes into view. He smiles and says, “We got him.

Mark Calnan was surprised when he first saw Tse Chi Lop. Until then “I really didn’t think he existed, I had never seen evidence to the contrary. Calnan and Lamothe questioned him in a spartanly decorated interrogation room. Tse Chi Lop was calm, polite and friendly. Calnan told Tse Chi Lop that he would most likely be extradited to America. 

The alleged drug lord only laughed. In the Discovery documentary, Mark Calnan calls him “impressive and different. He was shocked at how unremarkable Tse Chi Lop was. He had black hair combed into an austere parting. He could blend in with the crowd, was not strong or tall and wore clothes as drab as Mark Calnan. According to Calnan, Tse Chi Lop “could have been the manager of a local bank,” and he said, “He was very Mr. Normal.

Tse Chi Lop stood trial in New York in late 1998. Court papers say he showed “great sorrow” for his behavior. His wife was upset; his 12-year-old son had a lung condition. His parents were also in bad shape, in dire need of help, and Tse Chi Lop promised the judge that in the event of a lenient sentence, he would open a high-class restaurant. 

The verdict was on Sept. 26, 2000. Tse Chi Lop confessed guilt and received nine years. He boarded a bus with chains around his feet. Guards drove him to a prison in Elkton, Ohio. There, Tse Chi Lop befriended a man named Lee. They shared tips on how to become even better criminals and concocted the plan to get into crystal meth after their release. The cost of producing that drug is significantly lower than making heroin, and the prices per kilo are much higher.

Tse Chi Lop was granted early release in 2006 and returned to Canada. Closely watched by local agents for four years, he perfected his drug smuggling empire in deep secrecy. He returned to the jungle near Myanmar around 2010, this time to make crystal meth, according to Australian investigators. Tse Chi Lops Big Circle Boys partnered with four other criminal organizations. 

According to police, Tse Chi Lop was the leader and they nicknamed him Sam Gor, Brother Number 3 in Cantonese. Brother Number 3 thus ran The Company corporate and allowed rival gangs from several countries to close and cooperate. An anti-drug agent says in Tom Allard’s article, “They function as a global company. One explanation for its success was that customers were always compensated for intercepted drug orders. His billions allowed him to afford it, and The Company became the Apple of the drug industry, according to Tom Allard.

Curious about the rest of the article? You can read it on Blendle.

In the article you can read more about the Asian El Chapo. ‘At the stopover at Schiphol Airport, the Interpol alarm went off and Tse Chi Lop was handcuffed. He wore a white blouse, black slacks and neatly polished shoes. After 15 years of living in the shadows, the criminal mastermind with the billions will be apprehended on Jan. 22, 2021.”

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