Hospital extortionists arrested after years of impunity

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For years thugs have been extorting money from xe om drivers, street vendors and patients' families at a major hospital in Ho Chi Minh City
 
 Two women telling Vietweek about vicious loan sharks operating at Ho Chi Minh City's Pham Ngoc Thach Hospital. The police have arrested an alleged gang of extortionists who reportedly operated there for years with impunity.

Family members cry as the body of a relative is taken to the morgue at Ho Chi Minh City's Pham Ngoc Thach Hospital.

Some strangers appear and clean the body shoddily before taking it into their car and demanding a ridiculously high fee to take it home.

If the service is refused, the relatives of the dead are forced to pay the strangers exorbitant fees for cleaning the body and bringing it back to the morgue from the car.

Such was the case for years at the hospital that specializes in tuberculosis and infectious diseases. Police and witnesses say a gang has been bullying people into paying bogus fees at the hospital since 2009.

After arresting the suspects recently, police said the group had also been extorting protection money from xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers, street vendors, food stall owners and the relatives of patients.

They even attacked the hospital guards and staff for attempting to stop them, police said.

  
Nguyen Kim Cua, 45, is accused of being the extortion gang's leader
On August 15, the HCMC Police Department's Investigative Division arrested 11 people, including the alleged kingpin Nguyen Kim Cua, 45, his wife Huynh Thi Loan, his adopted daughter Huynh Nhu, 21, and eight other suspects.

Following the arrest, dozens of people have come forward to police with complaints about Cua and his associates.

In the latest incident, Nhu, Cua's adopted daughter, demanded that a street vendor, identified only as H., pay protection money.

When H. begged to be left alone, Nhu threatened her at knifepoint and stole her necklace before leaving.

Police said all xe om drivers, street vendors and stall owners near the hospital have had to pay the gang between VND500,000 and VND800,000 (US$24-38) per month each.

According to hospital regulations, relatives are only allowed to visit the patients during certain visiting hours. However, Cua's gang has taken people to visit their loved ones during off hours for a fee.

They have beaten guards and hospital staff who have tried to stop them from doing so.

In January, some of Cua's subordinates slashed a guard, identified only as V., for preventing them from taking relatives of patients inside during off hours. After that, they even stole donations the security company collected to pay for V.'s treatment of his head wound.

Over the past several years, three security companies have cancelled their contract with the hospital following conflicts with the gang.

Police said Cua and his wife only appeared at the hospital for a few minutes every day at around 2 or 3 a.m. to collect money from their gang members. Normally, Cua stays at a nearby hospital and uses drugs, according to police reports.

Their adopted daughter Nhu often leads a group of thugs to threaten those who stand up to the gang, while another subordinate, 42-year old Vuong Si Hung, leads another group that collects the protection money every day, police said.

A Pham Ngoc Thach Hospital official, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the hospital has reported the gang to local police several times over the last few years but no action had been taken.

Loan sharks

After Cua and his subordinates were arrested, several nurses at the hospital told Vietweek they had been victimized by loan sharks with links to Cua and his gang.

Hong, 52, said she borrowed VND5 million ($240) from a loan shark, identified only as Thoa, in August 2009, at an interest rate of 20 percent per month.

After paying interest of VND22 million over 22 months, she had to borrow another VND16 million last year.

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She continued to pay VND24 million in interest before a traffic accident injury in July meant she could not work anymore.

"She [Thoa] sent her people to my ward to insult and attack me several times before the guards stopped them. After that, they often waited for me outside the hospital.

"I had to ask for several days off and am now asking to resign," she said, adding that she has had to move several times so that the loan sharks do not know where she lives.

Huynh, another nurse at the hospital, also said she had been victimized by the sharks.

After borrowing VND25 million from Thoa, she gradually become unable to pay the usurious interest and was threatened by Thoa's gang right in the hospital.

"They took my ATM card and threatened to beat me and rip off my clothes in the public if I did not pay them," she said.

Both Hong and Huynh said several other nurses at the hospital were also victimized by the loan sharks.

Another nurse, Kim, said Thoa has employed Dung, who used to work as a nurse at the hospital, to seek out cash-strapped medical workers to prey on.

A doctor at the hospital, who wished to remain anonymous, said the hospital management has known about the issue for a long time.

"We have told the staff not to get involved with the loan sharks after several of them were beaten by these extortive lenders," he said, adding that many of them did not report the problems to police for fear of retribution.

Most xe om drivers and street vendors were still frightened by Cua's gang and refused to talk to Vietweek.

"His subordinates are still around," a xe om driver said.

"Many people who were summoned by police to report on the gang are frightened because they have been threatened by gang members who are still at large."

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