Cambodian card cartel

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Last month, Vietnam was rocked by the shocking confession of Tran Thuy Lieu, 41.

After nearly four weeks of media innuendo and heavy police interrogation, Lieu's sisters convinced her to admit that she had set her husband on fire on the evening of January 19.

Information about Lieu's extramarital affair and astronomical gambling debts had trickled into the popular consciousness after the gruesome assault on her journalist husband grabbed international headlines.

Lieu told investigators that she had made numerous high-stakes trips to border Casinos in Cambodia; she said she'd been pushed to kill her husband because he refused to sell their home to cover her casino losses.

Today, she has become something of a national villain.

At the Prey Vor Casino in Cambodia, however, Lieu is remembered as a high-roller.

"She was a famous patron here," a woman told Thanh Nien. "Most people thought that she must come from a very rich family in Long An."

One dealer recalled her audacity at the tables.

"She used to plunk down between VND500,000 (US$24) to VND10 million ($480) in a single bet," he said.

One casino employee, who monitors the casino's security cameras, said that Lieu used to attract a large crowd to watch her games.

A recent Thanh Nien investigation revealed that Lieu was not the only Vietnamese citizen to be driven to extremes by the Cambodian gambling dens.

Casino employees, patrons and nearby residents claim that a growing number of betting establishments in Cambodia are fuelling a vicious economy that has subjected foolhardy Delta gamblers to suicides, kidnappings and torture.

The bridge to beggar village

Locals living in the southern Tay Ninh Province's Go Dau District now refer to an unnamed bridge near the Moc Bai Border Gate as the "no-more-debt" bridge.

Nguyen Van Meo, a rice farmer living near the bridge, said he has fished the bodies of more than ten deceased jumpers out of the river that runs beneath the bridge.

"Every one of them had lost everything to gambling," he said. "I learned that they were once rich when their relatives arrived to recover their bodies."

Meanwhile, the border neighborhoods in Long An Province's Tan Thanh District have come to be known as "casino hamlets" or "beggar villages." 

Locals say they have been flooded with degenerate gamblers who have lost everything to casino loan sharks.

Neighbors say that M. fled her hometown of Tan Thanh after racking up crippling debt at casinos that sat just 20km from her front door.

One neighbor said that even after M. had sold off the families land holdings and squandered their savings to cover her debts she still owed billions of dong to money lenders.

Last week, Nguyen Van Hoa of Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Binh District was detained after attempting to rob a woman in the Mekong Delta of her necklace.

Hoa confessed that he intended to take the proceeds from the crime to the casinos where he had lost all of his savings.

Swimming with sharks

As many as 15 casinos now operate in Bavet City, just a few kilometers inside Cambodia's Svay Rieng Province.

Casino loan sharks routinely prowl the grounds of these establishments, advancing large sums of money to visiting Vietnamese gamblers.

When the gamblers find themselves owing thousands of dollars, the once-friendly lenders hold them against their will inside the casino hotel rooms.

Once in the custody of these criminal organizations, sources say that the prisoners typically call their relatives and beg them to pay for their release.

A source told Thanh Nien that more than 100 Vietnamese gamblers are being held in hotel rooms attached to Bavet casinos.

The same source charged that at least 60 people are being kept in hotel rooms inside the Bay Tang (seven storey) Casino.

"Those who owe more than $10,000 are usually treated well because the lenders know they are rich and can pay back their debts," the source said. "The others are often tortured."

Huy, a Tay Ninh man, said he makes his living holding indebted gamblers for ransom. He says that he has over 200 subordinates who are ready to torture prisoners at his command.

A man who identified himself as a manager at the hotel (also known as the Titan King Casino) denied that any criminal activity had occurred at the hotel at all.

But Bavet police say they have freed more than a dozen Vietnamese citizens who had been illegally detained in casinos this year. Each casino houses hundreds of rooms and the lenders often move their prey around, making rescues difficult to coordinate, police said.

On January 29, Cambodian police rushed into the Chateau casino, in Bavet, and freed 10 Vietnamese gamblers who had been illegally detained by criminal syndicates.

On March 11, Thanh Nien received word that a moneylender in a Cambodian casino had released a boy that had been left behind by his mother as collateral for her debts.

The mother, T., had borrowed $11,000 from a lender named Duyen after losing everything she had. After blowing the borrowed money, T. was forced to leave her son behind to secure her debt.

The loan sharks released the child after the matter was widely publicized in the Vietnamese press.

The same day, a mother from HCMC's Hoc Mon District told police that her 34-year-old daughter had been kidnapped and beaten by gangsters in Cambodia after failing to pay her debts.

Meanwhile, police are investigating charges that Hoang Thi Diem Thuy, 41, used her thirteen-year-old daughter as collateral to cover her gambling losses.

Police say the lenders had taken the mother and daughter from a Cambodian casino to a private house. The mother stands accused of having released her daughter to the loan sharks in exchange for her freedom.

Police only learned of the little girl's incarceration after the daughter managed to phone her grandmother.

On February 20, Tay Ninh authorities raided the house and released the young girl. Two men and a woman were taken into custody and charged with kidnapping.

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