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A Discussion Paper by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority
February 1995

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5. Vietnamese Organised Crime in Australia


5.1 For over a decade there has been concern expressed about the growth in Australia of organised criminal activity by Vietnamese, with media attention focusing initially on 'crime gangs'. For example, a 1988 media report stated: 'Criminal gangs in the Vietnamese community are increasingly heavily armed, are moving into drugs and gambling, establishing links with Australian crime figures, and becoming involved in standover rackets in their own community'. note#67 A 1991 media report quoted an unnamed police source as saying that Vietnamese groups were mainly involved in crimes against their own community including murder, extortion, robbery and petty drug dealing, with standover and extortion being the most common. note#68

5.2 Similar concerns have emerged in Canada note#69 and the United States. In 1992, a United States Senate subcommittee reported: note#70

Vietnamese gangs are known to be highly mobile. Vietnamese gang members often travel interstate, perpetrating a variety of criminal acts in a short period of time. Such gangs utilize contacts in various U.S. cities which were made in refugee camps in South-east Asia.
Vietnamese crime groups are generally considered to be less organized but more violent than ethnic Chinese organized crime groups. Some groups, such as the New York-based BTK (Born to Kill) Gang are well structured with a definite leadership hierarchy. Other gangs are very unstructured and constantly changing in affiliation. Ethnic Chinese from Vietnam (sometimes called 'Viet-ching') often play an important role as members of Vietnamese gangs or as links between Vietnamese and Chinese crime groups. ...
Vietnamese crime groups are involved in a wide range of criminal activities. ... [a witness] identified the major areas of Vietnamese-related criminal activity to include: Extortion; fraud; auto theft; terrorism (political and criminal); high-technology theft; gambling; prostitution; narcotics trafficking; and home invasion robberies.

5.3 In 1992, the then head of the Victoria Police's Asian division, Detective Sergeant Stephen Pierce, was reported as saying: 'Whilst the Vietnamese gangs lack organisation, they pose greater dangers due to their ease of mobility and transient nature, their random selection of targets, their lack of ties and ability to enact extreme violence upon their victims'. note#71 The South Australian Police Commissioner, Mr David Hunt, said in September 1994 that Vietnamese gangs were increasingly becoming involved in criminal activity in South Australia, particularly narcotics and extortion. note#72

5.4 The overview of organised crime in the Report of the Review of Commonwealth Law Enforcement Arrangements stated in relation to involvement of Vietnamese groups:

4.60 During the past ten years a number of Vietnamese criminal groups have come to law enforcement attention in Australia. In some States, these groups have come to play a prominent role in the organisation of criminal activity. Their field of operations has included distributing heroin, organising extortion and illegal gambling operations, and undertaking armed robberies of both businesses and private homes.
4.61 At the same time, it has become apparent that a number of these Vietnamese groups are organising heroin shipments, either independently of or in association with established Chinese heroin trafficking operations. An increasing amount of heroin coming to Australia appears to have been transhipped through Vietnam.
4.62 These trends are most notable in Sydney and particularly in the Cabramatta district, where one such gang has the name '5T' - a reference to a tattoo worn by some members. This gang has become prominent in the distribution of very pure heroin in the district, but also in systematic extortion, home invasion robberies and other offences. Its members are frequently armed, either with knives or firearms. There are indications that the group is extending its operations outside Sydney.
4.63 In some States, the threat of Vietnamese organised crime is already perceived by the relevant police services as being greater than that posed by Chinese organised crime. Law enforcement agencies have significant difficulties in counteracting Vietnamese organised crime, due to a lack of Vietnamese police officers, consequent language barriers, and a common mistrust of police and other government agencies by migrants from Vietnam.

Drug Trafficking Activities

5.5 Vietnamese syndicates appear to be willing to become involved at all levels of the heroin trade from street dealing to importing. They are also willing to purchase from Chinese importers and to wholesale to other groups, such as Romanian and Lebanese dealers. The heroin the Vietnamese import themselves is believed to come via Vietnam, which is apparently experiencing both increased production of opium (the drug from which heroin is produced) and increased transit of heroin produced elsewhere in the region. note#73 Vietnamese syndicates are thought to have been responsible for only a small amount - perhaps five percent - of the total heroin importation into Australia in recent years. Intelligence and seizures have indicated that the Vietnamese importers deal in smaller quantities than their Chinese counterparts, although this may be starting to change.

5.6 Western Australia's Deputy Police Commissioner, Mr Les Ayton, recently said. 'There is good intelligence and anecdotal evidence that the Vietnamese (criminals) are now emerging as major importers of heroin'. note#74 A media report in April 1994 cited Queensland police sources as believing that millions of dollars of heroin had been sent from Ho Chi Minh City to Queensland during the earlier part of 1994. note#75 High-grade heroin was freely available in south-east Queensland and at prices that indicated a plentiful supply. Smuggling by air passengers was apparently the main means of importation. Another media report, in May 1994, described how Queensland Police had set up a special Asian Task Force. The report cited police as stating that of fifteen people arrested in Brisbane on major heroin trafficking charges in the preceding three months, at least ten were Vietnamese. note#76 It also said police were treating seriously a claim that a Vietnamese woman was 'masterminding a high-grade heroin distribution ring in Brisbane's western suburbs which used shops and youths from the local Vietnamese community to retail the drug'. note#77

5.7 Until recently, the quantities seized indicated that each shipment by Vietnamese was relatively small - under a kilogram, note#78 although there were, it seems, rumours that larger shipments were occurring. These rumours may have been correct. A shipment of fourteen kilograms of heroin that arrived in a shipping container through the port of Melbourne was seized in November 1994. This shipment was apparently imported by a Vietnamese group. note#79

5.8 The Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence (ABCI) has given the following description of the drug trafficking network in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta involving the 5T gang. note#80

This network, formed around the dominant 5T gang, was engaged in securing a large market with Cabramatta as its centre, by supplying high-quality Southeast Asian heroin (from 65 to 75% pure) for the same price that lower purity heroin was sold for elsewhere (a cap of 0.03gm cost $40-50 on the street). This attracted addicts and dealers from far and wide. By organising its own importations of heroin (typically impregnated in fabric, or carried by couriers returning from Vietnam), it was able to greatly reduce its reliance (and its overheads) on the Chinese criminals who supply the greater proportion of the market. The 5T gang also cut out the middlemen, and sold directly to the street. A marked increase was noted in heroin overdoses, prompting the New South Wales Health Department to issue a public warning. note#81

5.9 The NSW Police have given particular attention to the heroin distribution in the Cabramatta area since the increase in the number of heroin offences there began in 1992. From July 1992 to July 1994, 1,360 persons were charged as a result with heroin-related offences, 518 of them with supplying heroin of different quantities. note#82 Of the 638 arrested in 1993 on heroin-related charges, 73 were juveniles. note#83

5.10 There is a belief that the sale of high-purity heroin in the Cabramatta area was a deliberate marketing strategy to compete against the Chinese groups who had previously dominated the upper levels of the trade. note#84 While this may well be correct, the Committee notes that the sale of higher-purity heroin at the retail or street level in the last few years is a world-wide phenomenon. In the United States, for example, it was said in April 1994 that heroin was now being sold on the street with purity levels as high as 70 to 72 percent, in contrast to the average of 10 or 15 per cent a few years ago. note#85 A similar trend has been observed in Britain. note#86 Rising purity-levels have also been encountered in other parts of Australia, apart from Cabramatta. note#87 The ABCI's 1993 assessment stated:

The rising purity levels encountered in most jurisdictions [in Australia] is the continuation of a trend that appeared in 1992. During that year, Australia's domestic heroin market seemed to undergo some structural changes. These included a reduction in the levels in the distribution chain, new participants and relationships formed between higher level suppliers and lower level dealers, accompanied by a rise in competition and distrust, sometimes leading to violence. In some instances during 1993, heroin trafficking syndicates also deliberately maintained purity levels high to secure a bigger share of the market than their competitors. The shake-out in the distribution chain may have led many dealers to demand a higher purity of the drug from their suppliers, and the reduction of dealer levels probably resulted in less dilution. note#88

Street Gangs, Extortion and 'Home Invasions'

5.11 There are many media reports of 'Asian gangs' in Sydney engaging in violent robberies including 'home invasions', note#89 and in extortion from small businesses, in addition to drug trafficking. The ABCI's 1993 assessment said that one of the gangs, the 5T, 'engages in extortion and armed robbery, and is involved in gambling and prostitution'. note#90 Media reports tend to suggest that most of the members of these gangs are young people of Vietnamese ethnic origin. The 5T gang has been variously described as having a hard core of 30 to 40 members and a total following of more than one hundred, note#91 or as having more than 200 members. note#92 There are said to be several other similar though smaller gangs in the area. note#93

5.12 However reports do not make clear if the members of the 5T and similar gangs are exclusively ethnic Vietnamese, or include Vietnamese-born ethnic Chinese, or also include Chinese, Cambodians, or non-Asians. For example, one report stated that membership of the 5T gang is 'predominantly Indochinese'. note#94 The ABCI's 1993 assessment stated that a typical 5T member 'is of Vietnamese extraction'. note#95 Another media report said:

Although there are several smaller Vietnamese-dominated gangs which include members from other Asian countries such as Laos and Cambodia, the most prominent gang is the '5T'. Believed to number up to 200, it consists of Vietnamese teenagers and young men ... note#96

5.13 Nor is it clear if the 5T and other gangs are merely local entities, or if some of them are part of, or operate in conjunction with, larger or more widespread criminal organisations. note#97 The 5T gang is said to have links with Southeast Asia and with people in Victoria. note#98 This point is of some importance to whether the gangs can be seen as mainly a problem of juvenile delinquency, or should be regarded as 'organised crime' on a par with Italian and Chinese organised crime. In a July 1994 interview, NSW Police Chief Inspector Alan Leek was quoted as saying of the 5T gang:

We can label it a gang but it's the same as any group of people banding together; young people who have similar problems. It's a very normal part of every society to have delinquent young people. I presume they band together for mutual support and as some sort of social basis. note#99

5.14 This is not to deny that what today may be mainly a local problem of juvenile delinquency has the potential to become a more serious problem of organised crime if nothing is done. In March 1994, Mr John Newman noted the fairly high arrest rate for juveniles in Cabramatta and said: 'They were simply being used as runners for drugs and other offences. They are easy prey for some of the Mr Bigs in the area to use, and that is what is happening.' note#100

5.15 A further issue is the extent to which the gangs like the 5T are actually responsible for the violence and extortion that is occurring, or said to be occurring in the Sydney area. One youth worker has pointed out that 'when anything happens, people blame the 5T gang'. note#101

5.16 There have also been reports of violent extortion rackets and home invasions in Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria. note#102 However, it is far from clear to what extent persons of Vietnamese extraction are involved, and, to the extent that they are involved, to what extent they are organised in any meaningful way. On one view the extortion from businesses that occurs does not show much organisation or continuity. Some of it is very amateurish: when requests are made to small business-people for 'donations' or 'presents', no sanction follows if the threat is refused. However, the full scope of what is happening is not clear because many victims are apparently reluctant to report petty extortion, and also some more serious extortion, to the police.

5.17 In October 1994, a New South Wales Police spokesman said that there was no direct pattern to home invasion crimes: they occurred across all four NSW police regions, and neither offenders nor victims were restricted to any specific ethnic group. note#103 The New South Wales Police Minister, Mr Garry West, told the Legislative Assembly: 'From out studies of these crimes we know that up to 50 per cent of all offenders cannot be described in any detail. Of the remainder, 26 per cent are caucasian and 10 per cent are Asian.' note#104 In November 1994, the Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics was reported as saying that there was a likelihood of copy-cat home invasions, and that there were reports of Australian and Mediterranean gangs as well as Asian gangs being involved. note#105 A Queensland police spokesman was reported as saying in November 1994 that the early indications were that the home robberies there were not being carried out by organised gangs. note#106

5.18 However, statistics on 'home invasions' have to be treated with particular caution because it seems that not all occurrences are reported, in part at least due to fear of reprisals and culturally-based distrust of police. Some police believe that the real number of cases is several times higher than the number reported to police. note#107 An additional difficulty is that 'home invasion' has not been a defined category for the purposes of crime statistics, and therefore accurate long-term statistics of occurrences are often not readily available. note#108

5.19 Clearly Vietnamese organised criminal activity is increasing, particularly in relation to heroin. However, the Committee notes that a 1991 intelligence assessment warned against attaching undue weight to perceptions that a new ethnic group was moving into the criminal environment:

On the basis of the information available to the team, we have come to the view that since any ethnic group is capable of (and quite probably involved in) any form of criminal activity, then the periodic shifts in law enforcement focus on specific groups itself produces a skewed perception of what is happening. As more information (on a new group) becomes available as a result of change in operational and intelligence focus, and less (of the old) comes to notice, then this phenomenon will strengthen the already-formed impression that 'a new group' is moving into the criminal environment. note#109

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67. "Police warn on Viet gangs", Sydney Morning Herald, 2 January 1988, p. 1. See also for example, "Call to probe Vietnamese crime gangs", The Age, 28 December 1987, pp. 1, 5; "Gang violence outbreak hits Vietnamese family", Sydney Morning Herald, 9 January 1990, p. 1; "Police report predicts rise in Asian crime", The Age, 10 August 1992, p. 1.

68. "The Asian Connection" The Bulletin, 2 April 1991, p. 87.

69. See for example, Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, 1993 Organized Crime Committee Report, Ottawa, 1993, pp. 50-53.

70. United States Senate, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, The New International Criminal and Asian Organized Crime, Report, December 1992 (US Gov. Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1993), p. 13.

71. "Police report predicts rise in Asian crime", The Age, 10 August 1992, p. 1.

72. "Fear of gang ties to prostitution", Advertiser, 22 September 1994, p. 9.

73. See for example, United Nations, Economic and Social Council, Commission on Narcotic Drugs, 37th Session, General Debate: Examination of the World Situation with Respect to Drug Abuse, Including Illicit Demand, Illicit Trafficking and Illicit Supply, Reports of Subsidiary Bodies, 15 February 1994 (E/CN.7/1994/10), para. 30.

74. "Triads linked to Australia", West Australian, 7 September 1994, p. 4.

75. "Viet gangs take over heroin trade", Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 24 April 1994, p. 33.

76. "Police hit Asian link to crime", Courier-Mail, 23 May 1994, p. 6.

77. For subsequent reports of arrests relating to this group see "Six on heroin counts", Courier-Mail, 17 September 1994, p. 14; "15 held after Jupiters drugs bust", Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 18 September 1994, p. 29.

78. For three recent examples, see "Vietnam jails Australian for smuggling", Canberra Times, 29 January 1994, p. 3 (Australian of Vietnamese origin arrested at Ho Chi Minh City airport on departure for Australia carrying 688 grams of heroin); "15 held after Jupiters drugs bust", Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 18 September 1994, p. 29 (two Vietnamese arrested at Sydney airport trying to smuggle half a kilo of heroin concealed in their shoes); and "Airport drug arrest", Canberra Times, 2 October 1994, p. 2 (Australian of Vietnamese descent arrested at Ho Chi Minh City airport about to board a flight to Australia carrying 100 grams of heroin).

79. See "Five in court over $24 mil heroin haul", The Age, 25 November 1994, p. 2. See also Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, 1993 Organized Crime Committee Report, Ottawa, 1993, p. 49 for a report of arrests of members of a Vietnamese group in relation to 10 kg of heroin destined for shipment from Vietnam to Canada.

80. It is said that "5T" represent the Vietnamese words tinh (love or sex), tien (money), tu (prison), toi (crime) and thu or tra (revenge): "How gangs hide secret signs", Sun-Herald, 11 September 1994, p. 2. Mr John Newman, MLA gave a slightly different version, saying the fourth T stood for "death" and the fifth T for "conviction" or "charge": NSW, Legislative Assembly, Parliamentary Debates, 15 March 1994, p. 738.

81. Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, Australian Drug Intelligence Assessment 1993, p. 40.

82. NSW Police Chief Inspector Alan Leek quoted in "Free rein for plaza drug trade", West Australian, 22 September 1994, p. 14.

83. "Ethnic gangs easy targets", Bulletin, 20 September 1994, p. 26.

84. See for example, "Out of Asia", Courier-Mail, 8 September 1994, p. 9, where an unnamed senior police officer is quoted as saying:

Everyone is geared towards the Kings Cross drugs market, but the fact is that these [Asian] gangs have taken over, simply by providing a superior product at the same price to a bigger market. ... It is a huge market out there in the suburbs and the gang members have cornered it in a matter of years.

85. United States, House of Representatives, Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies Appropriations for 1995, part 2B, Department of Justice, 19 April 1994, (US Gov. Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1994), p. 592 (Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration). In 1980 the average purity level being sold on the streets of the United States was 3.6%. By 1992 the retail price had declined markedly and the average purity had risen to 27.6%, with the average purity for New York City being 48.4%: see United States, House of Representatives, Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, Update on the Heroin Control Strategy and Domestic Heroin Consumption, Hearing, 9 June 1992, (US Gov. Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1992), p. 43 (Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration). By 1994, the average street purity in the United States was reported to be 65%: "Heroin Finds a New Market Along Cutting Edge of Style", New York Times, 8 May 1994, p. A14.

86. "Nine arrested as death toll mounts", Times (London), 22 January 1994, p. 7: high-purity (60% plus) heroin appearing on British streets as a result of rivalry between dealers.

87. In Western Australia, for example: "Cheap Asian heroin blamed for deaths", West Australian, 8 September 1994, p. 10 (12 heroin related deaths in Perth in the previous two months).

88. Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, Australian Drug Intelligence Assessment 1993, p. 37.

89. These are cases in which a gang enters while the residents are at home and assaults and robs them. A report in the Sun-Herald on 30 May 1993, p.12, "Terror as Asian gangs rule the streets", stated that "in the past 12 months, 34 Asian families have been tied up and assaulted in their Sydney homes, most in Cabramatta".

90. Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, Australian Drug Intelligence Assessment 1993, p. 40.

91. "Young police win heroin war", Sun-Herald, 26 September 1993, p. 21.

92. NSW Legislative Assembly, Hansard, 15 March 1994, p. 737 (Mr John Newman).

93. ibid., pp. 737-38 and giving the Trai Lu Lac gang as an example. Another report says some 15 gangs have been identified, including ones called Sing Ma, Wan Hop Ho and the Asian Invasion: "Out of Asia", Courier-Mail, 8 September 1994, p. 9.

94. "Ethnic gangs easy targets", Bulletin, 20 September 1994, p. 26.

95. Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, Australian Drug Intelligence Assessment 1993, p. 40.

96. "Scrutiny sends gangs underground", Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 1994.

97. Compare: "In both Northern and Southern California, ethnic Chinese organized crime groups often use young members of Vietnamese street gangs to protect gambling dens, extort merchants and conduct home invasion robberies": United States Senate, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, The New International Criminal and Asian Organized Crime, Report, December 1992 (US Gov. Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1993), p. 24.

98. "Death of a 'difficult man'", Sunday Age, 11 September 1994, p. News 15; Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence, Australian Drug Intelligence Assessment 1993, p. 40.

99. Quoted in "Ethnic gangs easy targets", Bulletin, 20 September 1994, p. 26.

100. NSW, Legislative Assembly, Parliamentary Debates, 15 March 1994, p. 738.

101. "Ethnic gangs easy targets", Bulletin, 20 September 1994, p. 26 (quoting Mr Cuong Nguyen of the Bankstown Multicultural Youth Service).

102. See for example, "Terror gangs target Asians", West Australian, 6 March 1993; "Vietnamese gangs a major worry: NCA", The Age, 7 September 1994, p. 9; "Murder fear in break-ins", Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 20 November 1994, p. 31.

103. "Home invasion inquiry likely after latest raid", Sydney Morning Herald, 18 October 1994, p. 18.

104. NSW, Legislative Assembly, Parliamentary Debates, 27 October 1994, p. 4862.

105. "Gang raids: the terror that waits at home", Sydney Morning Herald, 5 November 1994, p. 27.

106. "Murder fear in break-ins", Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 20 November 1994, p. 31.

107. "Death of a 'difficult man'", Sunday Age, 11 September 1994, p. News 15.

108 See for example, NSW, Legislative Assembly, Parliamentary Debates, 13 May 1994, p. 2825 (answer to a Parliamentary Question, saying statistics not available).

109. G. Wardlaw, D. McDowell and J. Schmidt, Australia's Illegal Drug Problem: A Strategic Intelligence Assessment, (A paper prepared by The Criminal Environment Assessment Unit), April 1991, Attorney-General's Department, Canberra, para. 5.39.