Gangster's paradise

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It's prime time for crime as the HCMC underworld grows into a full-fledged "informal sector"

Members of a gang masterminded by Truc "Rose" were arrested by Ho Chi Minh City police at a café on Tan Phu District's To Hieu Street in 2008 as they were preparing a revenge attack on another gang. Underworld operations in the southern business hub are thriving despite intensified efforts by the police to crackdown on such activity.

Binh charges VND10 million (US$530) a month for his services.

VND10 million a month for every month the person spends in hospital because of injuries inflicted by Binh and his network of hit men.

Business is good these days for "Black" Binh whose headquarters is the area around the Mien Dong Bus Station in Binh Thanh District.

"Injuring a person so they will be admitted to hospital for one or two months is no big deal, but it is not easy to make money by killing," he told Thanh Nien.

Binh was jailed once several years ago after being convicted of "deliberately causing injury" in a case when a victim was stabbed and sustained a serious injury running from his shoulder to the elbow. The business is apparently so lucrative that the prospect of prison-time is no deterrent.

One of Binh's subordinates told Thanh Nien the gang had finished 20 similar contracts to injure others on customers' demand recently and none of the cases were detected by the police.

It is boom time for hired crime these days, a Thanh Nien investigation found after one victim approached the paper with his story.

Thirty-six-year-old Tran Huu Phuc told the paper he had borrowed VND500 million (US$26,400) for his business from a man identified only as T. who recently demanded repayment all at once. Since Phuc's business was not doing well, he requested that the repayment be made gradually, in installments.

T. refused and hired eight gangsters to attack the debtor. On April 20, they severely beat up Phuc's brother-in-law Nguyen Tri Tam who accompanied him to meet T., and seriously injuring him in the face, legs and even his brain.

Thanh Nien found on further investigation that these and worse incidents were commonplace in a rapidly growing underbelly of Ho Chi Minh City.

In a recent case, the director of a transport company in HCMC, Ho Ngoc Son, hired assailants to injure Nguyen Ngoc Chinh, an official at the Saigon Newport Company, because the latter had supposedly prevented his trucks from operating at the port. However, the contracted assailants unexpectedly stabbed Chinh to death.

Among the assailants was Nguyen Cong The, a criminal who covered his underworld activities as a xe om [motorbike taxi] driver at the Mien Dong Bus Station where "Black" Binh operates his network.

Hierarchy of jobs

Another gangster who operates at a "higher" level than Binh is 50-yearold Bay who operates his network of around 40 hit men at the Mien Tay Bus Station in Binh Tan District.

Bay recently took an order from a businessman to injure another on grounds of unhealthy competition. Several days later, the customer had second thoughts about it, fearing exposure of the illegal "contract" and called it off.

However, Bay demanded that the man pay his entire fee as compensation for canceling the contract and the client had no choice but to comply, fearing violent retribution from the gangsters.

In another case, HCMC police arrested Ngo Quang Truong, director of real estate investor Hoang Hai Ltd. in Hoc Mon District, in November 2009 on charges of fraud and for allegedly hiring killers to take out Dang Xuan Si, his deputy who had blown the whistle on Truong's fraudulent land dealings.

Investigators said Truong had hired Vu Van Luan to attack Si; and Luan had then hired five other men to attack Si on Hai Ba Trung Street in District 1. The gang stabbed him several times and fled on motorbikes. The 51-year-old was rushed to hospital where he died.

Turf wars

It appears that ever since Vietnams' most notorious gangster, Nam Cam, was executed in 2004, HCMC's underground networks have been caught in a power vacuum with emerging gangs competing for territories, displaying a strong taste for blood, vengeance and money.

On March 9, HCMC police arrested five men allegedly involved in a fight on the previous night at a corner of the East-West Highway in District 1, during which a man from the group shot at others with a gun.

The bullet hit the glass cabinet of a roadside eatery, terrifying passers-by.

The arrestees confessed that the fight had broken out after a gang member refused to pay VND120 million ($6,336) he lost to a member of another gang in a football wager, and a meeting between the two gangs to settle the payment a week earlier had failed. One gangster said it was not just the money that provoked the firing, but the need to display greater power and influence in the underworld.

Territorial disputes had led to a violent fight between two gangs in Tan Phu District in 2008, led by "Half-blood Phuc" and Truc "Rose", two notorious names among gangsters in the area.

Phuc ordered his subordinates to stab Truc after the latter failed to pay VND10 million ($528) to a member in Phuc's gang, also over a football wager. Several people said that the actual reason for the action was territorial expansion, and the small sum was just a pretext.

Truc and two of his subordinates were set upon with swords and knives at a café in Tan Phu District. Truc then gathered other members of his gang and prepared vengeance in similar fashion, but all of them were arrested by the police before it happened.

"˜Benevolent' godfathers

Delving a bit deeper into the HCMC underground reveals the luxurious life led by major gangster kingpins who oversee the operations of several gangsters and gangs.

A Thanh Nien reporter recently visited the large garden house of a rich godfather, known only as D., in District 9. He has opened a café on his land in which he has built a valuable old wooden house bought in Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands.

D. said he and his friends "help the poor" by solving their disputes. "For instance, a debtor was cheated of tens of billions of dong by swindlers. He can win the case at court, but is unable to collect money due to lack of thorough enforcement of the verdict. Or a normal family is threatened by some gang. We solve these issues peacefully by persuading them [the parties involved] to do the right thing."

He admitted he was part of the illegal debt collection service in HCMC, but rejected notions he was making money through violence.

D. also said dozens of people in HCMC are operating the debt collection service, solving disputes among enterprises' and even conflicts between gangs. While D. conceded the success of his enterprise was based on his underworld influence, he categorically denied using criminal gangs to get his work done.

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