HONG KONG Police detained more than 150 people in weekend raids on casinos and hotels in Macau after a recent spate of killings raised fears of a new gang war in the world's largest gambling destination.
In Hong Kong, police raided 21 locations on August 2 as part of the joint operation and arrested 130 people on suspicion of various crimes including money laundering involving HK$300 million, illegal gambling and prostitution. Police also seized cash, watches and cars worth more than HK$11 million.
Macau, a former Portuguese territory, was gripped by gang wars in the late 1990s and the recent murders of three people in two weeks, thought linked to the gambling industry, come just months ahead of the release from jail of triad boss "Broken Tooth" Wan Kuok-koi, who wreaked havoc at that time.
About 1,300 people were rounded up on Friday and Saturday in Macau, a one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong, and 150 of them were taken in for questioning in the operation codenamed "Thunderbolt".
"This operation is an annual exercise to maintain public security. It is a joint exercise undertaken by police in Guangdong province, Macau and Hong Kong to crack down and prevent crime in this region," a Macau police spokeswoman said.
The Macau raids came just weeks after a Chinese woman was found murdered in a residential area minutes away from the cavernous gambling halls of gaming magnate Sheldon Adelson's Venetian casino.
That followed the murders of two Chinese nationals at the five-star Grand Lapa hotel in Macau and an attack at the end of June on a senior figure in Macau's junket industry, which extends credit to rich gamblers.
By contrast, only five homicide cases were recorded between June 2011 and May 2012, according to Macau police statistics.
"We are not too concerned about these operations. Macau is a gambling city and whenever gambling is involved, sex and drugs will be involved," said Macau legislator Au Kam San.
"Most times the government will keep one eye shut, but sometimes it needs to show it is doing something ... because when such vermin that breeds gambling and drugs exist and you completely ignore it, it could become uncontrollable."
Macau, which like Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, has boomed since the 1999 handover from Portugal, with Las Vegas moguls including Adelson and Steve Wynn setting up glitzy casino hotels.
That growth, however, has slowed significantly in the past three months, forcing junket operators into more aggressive debt-collecting tactics.
Many of the smaller junket companies, which collect gambling debts in exchange for a commission from casino operators, are struggling to stay in business.
The raids and recent upsurge in violence will likely draw unwanted attention to gambling operations in Macau and the companies that operate there.
In addition to Sands and Wynn, tycoon Stanley Ho's SJM Holdings also has casinos in Macau. Other operators include MGM Resorts MGM China, Galaxy Entertainment and Melco Crown.
(Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree, Tan Ee Lyn and Clarie Lee; Editing by Michael Perry)