The Dragon & the Lion: Vietnamese Organized Crime in the Czech Republic

Vietnamese Organized Crime in the Czech Republic
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Since 1975, the Vietnamese population in Europe has exploded. France, with the oldest Vietnamese diaspora in Europe, now reports over 300,000. Germany claims 140,000, Russia 80,000, and the Czech Republic between 60,000 and 80,000.

According to intelligence reports from Asian experts, heavier emmigration from Asia to Central Europe is around the corner. Houses and plots have been purchased by Asian traders in expectation of immigrants from Vietnam, Taiwan, China, and Korea. There will be an estimated 100,000 Asian residents in the Czech Republic by 2010.

The vast majority of Indochinese newcomers are simply trying to improve their lives and ensure a better future for their children. But a minority have brought new types of crime with them. Asian criminal bosses are planning for Czech accession to the EU, and are now building bridge-heads for the further expansion of criminal syndicates from East to West.

The origins of the Vietnamese community in the CR are unique to the region. During the Vietnam war, socialist Czechoslovakia was a main source of military materials and weapons for the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong. Especially important were exports of the plastic explosive SEMTEX, which was developed by the Czech firm Synthesia Semtin for the NVA in 1964. During ten years of war, shipments of SEMTEX and other weapons created a huge Vietnamese debt.

After the Americans left Vietnam, economic and political relations between the two socialist states grew tight. Czechoslovakia exported finished industrial products to Vietnam in exchange for raw materials and agricultural goods. Student exchanges were even initiated in 1975.

But as its debt to Czechoslovakia grew in the early 1980s, Vietnam began exporting Vietnamese labor to the CSSR, usually young men between the ages of 18 and 20. These men were trained at Czech schools and then sent to work in Czech industry for between 4 and 7 years. The workers only received between 40 and 50 percent of their wages directly, the rest of the money used to pay off the foreign debt of their government.

As word spread of the quasi-slave conditions of life in the CSSR, people stopped signing up to go, and there are rumors that the Vietnamese police collected "volunteers" off the streets of Hanoi and Saigon. Some of those who came to the CR as part of this labor program ended up marrying local girls and assimilating into Czech society. They became the base for a new wave of emmigrants who came after 1989.

How is the diaspora structured in the Czech Republic? The street dealer of goods, the cook or waiter in a Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant, or the worker in legal/illegal manufacturing is on the bottom of the Vietnamese emigrant hierarchy. Since the price of getting smuggled into the CR is between 3,000 and 7,000 USD, most newcomers arrive with enormous debt, and must work for a very low salary for mid-level Vietnamese bosses as street sellers, restaurant workers, or factory workers.

The conditions of these semi-slave contracts are usually very tough. If the street sellers are not able to make the payments regularly, the bosses seize their goods. If this is not enough, other types of pressure follow: beatings, raping of women, kidnapping of children, and murder. Under pressure to cover these debts, emigres sometimes turn to the more lucrative underground: trafficking in drugs, weapons, cigarettes, or servicing the criminal gangs.

Who are these gangs? There are approximately ten to fifteen Vietnamese gangs operating in the CR. Although they are often equated with Vietnamese organized crime as a whole, this is not true. They're just the most violent part of it. Their structure and activities also vary from groups exclusively specialized in acts of violence to groups engaged in white collar criminal business activities.

The gangs are highly mobile, and gang members often travel abroad. They are usually violent and involved in a wide range of criminal activities: extortion, theft, contract killing, smuggling of people and drugs. The gangs have from 3 to 20 members ranging in age from 14 to 35 years.

With the exception of "Czech Vietnamese," they have little knowledge of the language and are very skillful in the use of weapons. Territorially, we can differentiate three types of Vietnamese gangs now active in the CR: gangs created by "local" Vietnamese who have lived in the CR for some time; gangs coming from the post-communist East (especially Russia and Ukraine); and gangs coming from the US and other Western countries, such as Germany.

The most well-known gang of this last sort is The Flying Dragons, which was probably organized by former members of the American Flying Dragons operating in New York´s Chinatown who emmigrated to the CR. They are Viet Chings and often work for the Chinese. The gang has created a network of small subgroups distributed across the Czech territory: members of the FD are operating in Cheb, Varnsdorf and Prague.

All the gang´s members have organized small groups controlling certain territories and act as parasites on Vietnamese and Chinese merchants.

But these gangs are only the most sensational aspect of Vietnamese criminal activities. Vietnamese organized crime in the CR has a wide variety of interests, including the smuggling of people and goods, racketeering, extortion, kidnapping, enforcement activities including contract killing, usury, stealing of goods, trafficking people, prostitution, counterfeiting activities (credit cards, passports and documents) trafficking in drugs, weapons, violation of customs and tax laws, and money laundering. Increasingly, they are developing mutual relations with Chinese organized crime to enhance their power.

It is frequently misstated that Vietnamese only perform "dirty work" for Chinese organized crime. This is only partly true. The Chinese (Beijing, Fujian and Wenchu groups, are the most active in the CR) started to employ Vietnamese as interpreters, middlemen, dealers of goods and elite assassins at the beginning of the '90s.

Gradually, Vietnamese began to enter big business on equal terms. Although the structure of their groups is not as hierarchical as the Chinese Triad, we are seeing more and more Vietnamese top criminal bosses and groups operating independently and organizing their own vast criminal networks.

In many respects, they are just copying successful Chinese models. They are not mere "lackeys" for Chinese organized crime anymore, but are becoming "partners" in it, partners often expressing strong national feeling.

All of which is not anthrax to say that there is not a lot of legal economic activity in the CR on the part of the broader Vietnamese community. Thousands of independent sellers and businessmen - mostly former guest workers from the socialist era who stayed on CR territory and started business activities - have been creating a real middle class of the Vietnamese community in this country.

They typically serve as the base for other Vietnamese immigrants: members of their families, villages, and newcomers from their native districts at the moment. They have been financially supporting their families in Vietnam as well. In light of these facts, the collection of money and transporting of young men and women to the West looks like an investment in the future.

In the CR we are seeing the establishment of businesses, companies and special interest groups composed of members of the same family clans, territorial origin, and natives from the same provinces.

Midlevel businessmen are gradually enlarging their activities and even becoming wealthy men and, in several cases, "bosses" and "financiers." In terms of wealth and status, they often outdo their criminal counterparts.

- Miroslav Nozina is a leading expert in organized crime in the Czech Republic, and regularly lectures the Interior Ministry on its inner workings.

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