Ex-Toronto man dubbed ‘Asia’s El Chapo’ runs synthetic drug empire thriving amid COVID-19, international investigators say

A former Toronto resident who’s nicknamed “Asia’s El Chapo” is the target of an international police manhunt into a mega-syndicate that allegedly supplies illegal synthetic drugs like fentanyl, methamphetamine, ecstasy and ketamine around the world.

Tse Chi Lop, 56, a Chinese-born Canadian national, is accused of sitting atop a multi-billion dollar enterprise called Sam Gor, or “The Company,” which authorities say has thrived during the global pandemic.

“In a sense, the pandemic is an opportunity for them to increase market share,” Jeremy Douglas of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a telephone interview from Bangkok.

Authorities say Sam Gor factories are based in areas with deep governance problems like the Golden Triangle centred on the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, and protected by private militias.

“While the world has shifted its attention to COVID-19, all indications are that production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and chemicals continue at record levels in the region,” Douglas said.

Sam Gor is Cantonese for one of Tse’s nicknames, “Brother No. 3.”

Sam Gor has profited wildly since it was formed sometime after 2010, authorities say.

Through it all, Tse — among his aliases are Tse Chi Lap, Brother No. 3, Sam Gor, T1, Ah Lap, Dennis and Xie Zii — has kept an extremely low profile, even though authorities like Douglas compare his syndicate and wealth to that of imprisoned Mexican drug lord Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman and Pablo Escobar, the former head of the Medellin cartel in Colombia, killed in 1993.

“Several reports indicate Mexican cartels have been impacted by COVID-19, and that they can’t meet North American demand,” Douglas said. “But it is not surprising given they’re dependant on trans-Pacific supply chains which have slowed, and they do not have the same relationship with suppliers.”

Tse, who has a Canadian passport, travels by private jet — guarded, police say, by a security contingent of Thai kickboxers — and rubs shoulders with a group of drug traffickers and makers nicknamed the “Billionaire’s Club,” authorities say.

While he’s accused of trafficking billions of dollars in synthetic drugs, he’s not known to be a drug user, although investigators say he once lost about $66-million at a casino in one weekend.

Wherever he is now, it’s a long way from his old Toronto days of the 1980s, when he was a little-known crime boss.

Tse was born in Guangzhou in 1963 and immigrated to Toronto in 1988 as part of the wave that left Hong Kong after the U.K. agreed to hand the city over to China.

In Toronto, he was part of a criminal group known as the Big Circle Boys, part of the Big Circle Gang, which was originally formed by imprisoned members of Mao’s Red Guard during China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

The Big Circle Gang is now is part of Sam Gor, a network of five triads that were often at war with each other during the 1990s.

Those groups also include the three biggest Hong Kong and Macau triads: 14K, Wo Shing Wo and Sun Yee On, as well as the Taiwan-based Bamboo Union.

Tse served prison time in the U.S. from 1997 to 2006 for heroin trafficking after being arrested with some senior members of the Montreal-based Rizzuto Mafia family, which had representatives in the GTA.

Among those convicted with Tse were Emanuel Raguso, an inlaw of Montreal Mafia boss Vito Rizzuto, who died in 2013, and Salvatore (Sam) Nicolucci, a close Rizzuto associate who also served prison time for cocaine trafficking.

Tse spent most of his prison time in Elkton, Ohio, and then returned to Canada. He was back in Hong Kong by 2011.

An opening for Sam Gor came when the Chinese government made a massive crackdown on established methamphetamine producers between 2012 and 2015.

The pandemic has provided another boost, as Mexican competitors flounder with supply chain problems, authorities say.

Meanwhile, Sam Gor “basically have an uninterrupted supply of precursor chemicals — they have unique access to industry,” Douglas said. “They maintain stockpiles, they can source what they need when they need to, and they can produce another ton or shipment on demand.”

That means that during the pandemic, Sam Gor and other Asian syndicates have been able to keep prices down and continue to flood markets, Douglas said.

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They also have a reputation for being able to guarantee shipments, as well as a reputation for high-quality drugs, Douglas said.

“The chemists they use are amongst the best in the world,” Douglas said.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report on the syndicate in May, saying that the synthetic drug market in East and Southeast Asia continues to expand and diversify, as the price of methamphetamine drops.

Seizures of methamphetamine in East and Southeast Asia have continually increased over the past decade, but that hasn’t put a dent in the synthetic drug trade, authorities say.

“In short, organized crime groups are in a position to provide better quality methamphetamine at much cheaper prices compared to a decade ago, increasing affordability and harm at the same time,” Inshik Sim, an UNODC Illicit Drugs Analyst said in a prepared statement.

Making synthetic drugs requires no agriculture and because the drugs are concentrated and potent, they are compact and simpler to smuggle.

The primary ingredients in methamphetamine are ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, and authorities say they are smuggled out of pharmaceutical, chemical and paint factories.

The Sam Gor syndicate adopted a business model that was hard to refuse.

Any delivery that was intercepted by authorities was replaced, at no extra cost, or deposits from customers were returned.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the Sam Gor syndicate made between $8 billion and $17.7 billion a year by 2018.

Its branding signature was to include drugs in packets of tea.

Authorities hit back with Operation Kungur, an Australian-led project which It encompasses authorities from Myanmar, China, Thailand, Japan, the United States and Canada.

It has been called the largest-ever international effort to combat Asian drug trafficking syndicates and Canada plays a role in part because four of the 19 alleged Sam Gor leaders are Canadians, including Tse.

In that project, Tse has been dubbed “T1,” for Target No. 1.

Peter Edwards is a Toronto-based reporter primarily covering crime for the Star. Reach him by email at [email protected]

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