Powerful, dangerous, what are Chinese triads?

Jodesz Gavilan

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Powerful, dangerous, what are Chinese triads?


Chinese triads started with extortion before branching out to more 'lucrative' crimes such as human trafficking, illegal drugs trade, and prostitution, among others

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Antonio Trillanes IV on Thursday, September 7, accused Davao City Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte of being part of a Chinese organized crime group. 

The shocking allegation was made during the Senate investigation into the P6.4-billion smuggling of 604 kilos of methamphetamine or shabu into the Philippines.

According to Trillanes, proof of membership of President Rodrigo Duterte’s eldest son in a Chinese triad is the tattoo on his back. 

Paolo confirmed he had a tattoo but declined to give details nor show it. He invoked his right to privacy.

But what is this so-called Chinese triad all about? And how powerful are its members?

From ‘political’ origins to crime

The triad is a transnational criminal organization based in China, Singapore, Taiwan, and other countries that have “substantial ethnic Chinese populations.”

But the group wasn’t always associated with crimes. It functioned originally as a secret society during 17th century China with members who opposed the Qing Dynasty.  

From being imbued with culture and a clear code of conduct, the group disintegrated into many factions in 1911. 

According to a report by the United States Congress, the triad’s “political” origins eventually faded and some factions focused more on committing crimes.

Recently, the two of the known biggest Chinese triads are Sun Yee On and 14K.

Sun Yee On is considered the “most organized and wealthiest” faction with at least 50,000 members worldwide. It was founded in 1919 in Guangdong Province in China. 

14K, meanwhile, was initially established in 1945 to fight communism in Guangzhou. 

The business of illegal drugs

The triads started mainly with extortion activities before branching out to more “lucrative” crimes such as human trafficking, illegal drugs trade, and prostitution, among others. 

They were identified by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as being responsible for alien smuggling and prostitution of undocumented women in the United States.  

In Asia, the triads are mostly involved in illegal drugs – usually trafficking millions worth to sell in different countries.

In 2014, it was discovered that two Hong Kong triads already had links to the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful crime organizations in Mexico, in the production of crystal meth.  

Triads in the Philippines, meanwhile, are mostly involved in money laundering, arms dealing, and illegal drugs, according to a US Congress report,  

The two triads, 14K and Sun Yee On, are said to have operations in the Philippines, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). A Taiwan-based triad, United Bamboo Gang, is also reported to be one of the top suppliers of shabu in the country.

SECRETIVE. Triad members attend a memorial for slain triad boss Lee Tai-hung in Hong Kong. AFP file photo

Recruiting from low-income areas 

Considered a hotbed of Chinese organized crime, there are an estimated 80,000 people in Hong Kong who are members of at least 50 triads.  

Organized crime in Hong Kong is such a problem that the police force has created an Organized Crime and Triad Bureau that handles investigations and arrests of suspected triad members. 

In 2015, the bureau arrested more than 4,300 individuals as part of its crackdown on the triads. At least $13 million in cash and illegal drugs were also recovered in several locations in Hong Kong alone.  

The triads traditionally recruited young men from low income areas in Chinese-dominated countries. A former triad member in 1992 said that he joined “to escape bullying.”

They later resorted to taking in poor immigrants and refugees, promising them huge payouts. A raid in 2001 found that some triad gangs also conducted a recruitment “system” in Hong Kong schools.

Potential members undergo an initiation process called “Hanging the blue lantern” which requires them to repeat 36 oaths “of loyalty, secrecy, and brotherhood.”

Certain tattoos and appearances are also associated with Chinese triads – much like the Yakuzas of Japan.

A former triad member interviewed by the South China Morning Post said that during his time inside the group, “his hair was dyed gold, he showed off his scorpion tattoos.”

Tattoo artists in Hong Kong have long been fighting the tattoo taboo, or the association of tattoos with criminal syndicates. – Rappler.com

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.