The Asia-Pacific drug trade has a new kingpin, at least according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and some Western anti-narcotics officials.

His name: Tse Chi Lop, a Chinese-born Canadian citizen also known as Sam Gor, or Brother No. 3 in Cantonese, who is reputedly the leader of a gang that controls most of the region’s illegal and wide-reaching methamphetamine trade.

In October, Reuters published an in-depth investigation exposing Tse’s new “Asian meth syndicate”, which according to report controls the bulk of the region’s rampant trade in the narcotic.

The Reuters report referred to him as “Asia’s most-wanted man” who runs a “vast multinational drug trafficking syndicate” in alliance with “five of Asia’s triad groups.”

The UNODC, the report said, estimates Tse’s syndicate’s 2018 revenues at US$8-17.7 billion in 2018, with Asian sales reaching from Japan to New Zealand. Tse, who’s whereabouts are unknown, has not responded to the allegations.

In the report, Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and Pacific representative for UNODC, was quoted as saying: “Tse Chi Lop is in the league of El Chapo or maybe Pablo Escobar. The word kingpin often gets thrown around, but there is no doubt it applies here.”

Undated and blurry portrait of alleged drug kingpin Tse Chi Lop, also known as Sam Gor. Photo: Twitter

Other seasoned observers, however, take issue with the Hollywood-like portrayal of Asia’s drug trade, which they argue is instead run by loosely and informally organized networks, and not by an over-arching, all-powerful “kingpin.”

Ko-lin Chin and Sheldon X Zhang, two of America’s most accomplished criminologists, have shown in seminal books like “The Chinese Heroin Trade” and “The Golden Triangle: Inside Southeast Asia’s Drug Trade” as well as numerous papers and articles that “Chinese [drug and crime] networks are horizontally structured, fluid, and opportunistic.”

They have also argued that, in private conversations, “even US drug enforcement officials in the field have acknowledged that there are no drug kingpins, or at least they have not seen any in China or Southeast Asia.”

Chin and Zhang state categorically in their books and research papers that they have never uncovered any evidence of significant triad involvement in the drug trade. Some triad members may deal in drugs but their main illicit income derives chiefly from enterprises such as construction, extortion, gambling, prostitution and fraud.

Indeed, the use of the term “kingpin” is and has always been misleading when referring to narcotics suppression in the Golden Triangle, the notorious drug-producing area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, and other notorious drug-making areas in Asia.

A “kingpin”, by definition, is the pin at the center of bowling and if toppled all the other pins often fall as well. But history has shown time and time again that this is not how the Asian drug trade is structured; as one alleged “kingpin” falls, others are left still standing and conveniently in place to take on the misnomer mantle.

The notion of a drug “kingpin” is often manufactured as a distractionary focal point while other actors including supposedly legitimate businessmen and even state officials wheel and deal narcotics under the radar. But naming and shaming supposed kingpins could have diplomatic as well as legal consequences.

In the early 1970s, Luo Xinghan, or Lo Hsing-han, a warlord from the Kokang area in Myanmar, was crowned “king” of the Golden Triangle by media and some Western anti-narcotics officials.

Lo Hsing-han in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

“Lo Hsing-han,” said senior US narcotics adviser Nelson Gross at the time, “is an international bandit and responsible for a growing proportion of Asia’s and America’s drug-caused miseries.”

In fact, Lo began his career as a government-recognized militia commander and was informally allowed to traffic in opium in exchange for fighting ethnic and political rebels in Myanmar’s Shan state.

As such, he had a formidable armed force at his disposal, one he was able to leverage to protect and organize three to four convoys a year carrying opium, jade and other contraband down from Lashio in Shan state to the Thai border at Tachilek, the apex of the Golden Triangle.

At the same time as international anti-drug authorities were trying to focus the world’s attention on a single trafficker of moderate status and importance, the drug “kingpin” of the age, two relatively unknown opium merchants in Kengtung, Shi Kya Chui and Yang Sang a.k.a. Yang Shi-li, were in fact trading in much larger quantities than Lo.

Because they were more conveniently located at Kengtung, only 168 kilometers north of Tachilek, they were able to make ten drug-running trips or more per year. In Tachilek, other traders took over the drugs and it is doubtful whether Lo, Shi or Yang knew much about their networks and how they operated.

As for Lo, most of the opium he and his army transported down to the Thai border did not actually belong to him. Because he was a militia commander, he could provide protection for individual opium traders who lacked their own armed forces.

Only some of the opium was actually Lo’s, while the bulk was owned mostly by Panthay, or Chinese Muslim, traders in northern Shan state, again reflecting the age-old, largely leaderless complexity of Southeast Asia’s drug trade.

Lo Was arrested in Thailand in 1973 and extradited to Myanmar, where he was charged with “rebellion against the state”, reference to a brief alliance that he had forged with the insurgent Shan State Army. Drug-trafficking charges were not brought forth because of the understanding he had with the Myanmar military.

Lo was sentenced to death but pardoned and released during a general amnesty in 1980. He later returned to Lashio, formed a new home guard unit and built a base known as the Salween Village south of town. He also established Asia World, a private company that now is one of Myanmar’s most powerful business conglomerates with interests in construction, trade and ports.

Khun Sa at his Golden Triangle redoubt in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

But Lo’s removal as “kingpin” did not cause other drug dealer pins to tumble. Another “kingpin” emerged on the scene: Zhang Qifu, or Khun Sa, a Sino-Shan warlord who, like Lo before him, had a huge army and therefore was highly visible in the area.

Like Lo, Khun Sa also started off as a government-recognized militia commander and only later went underground. Once known as “King of the Golden Triangle”, Khun Sa was also seen as the man behind most of the region’s trade in heroin and, at a later stage, methamphetamines and other synthetic drugs.

How much he actually controlled of the trade is disputable, but not much changed in drug-trafficking terms when he surrendered to Myanmar authorities, disbanded his army and moved to the then capital of Yangon in 1996. His associates quickly established themselves in a variety of legitimate businesses.

The next in line of the region’s alleged “kingpins” was Wei Xuegang, a Chinese businessman associated with the United Wa State Army (UWSA) who reportedly took over most of the Golden Triangle’s drug trade from Khun Sa.

In January 2005, a US court indicted Wei along with his two brothers Wei Xuelong and Wei Yueying for their alleged involvement in the narcotics trade.

Like Lo and Khun Sa before him, Wei has significant investments in different types of business, including jade mining, retail trade and other enterprises in Myanmar. How much, if at all, those businesses are used to launder funds from drug dealing is unclear.

Nor was it was ever clear that he actually monopolized the Golden Triangle drug trade, as some suggest.

Authorities uproot opium-producing poppy plants in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Now, another mysterious and elusive Chinese-Canadian “kingpin” has reputedly taken over the Golden Triangle’s narcotics trade, though if and where he may have any associated businesses is still unclear. Nor is it clear that he actually dominates the region’s wide-reaching meth trade, as the UNODC and anti-narcotics officials seem to think.

Chin and Zhang quote in their book about the Chinese heroin trade US sociologist Patricia Adler, who, in her study of drug dealing communities in San Diego, California, concluded: “This is not an area dominated by a criminal syndicate but an illicit market populated by individuals and small groups of wheeler-dealers who operate competitively and entrepreneurially.”

That is also an apt description of how the Asia-Pacific drug trade actually works. While tales of “kingpins” and “syndicates” may make for good movies and sensational media reports, the multilayered, multi-actor reality behind the loosely organized trade is far more complex.