Security at the Macau casinos is some of the toughest in the world. The Vegas online and land-based casino industry fights a daily battle against the region’s organized crime which has been, for many years, intertwined with politics. When the Portuguese ruled Macau as a colony the Portuguese administration had a cozy relationship with casino operators. Together with the general bureaucratic corruption, the situation was ripe for organized criminals to grab a big piece of the pie.
During the colonial era the Portuguese had limited authority over the casino operators. Under Portuguese rule the region’s tourism and casino industries began to grow and during this time, crime groups penetrated many of the casinos. Neither the administrative government nor the casino operators had the capability to contain the use of violence by organized crime groups.
In 1999 Macau was turned over to the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Chinese decided to intervene to restore law and order which was deteriorating even further. The Chinese intervention took the forms of penalizing the triad boss Wan Kuok-kuoi, stationing the People's Liberation Army in the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) and supporting the new Edmund Ho Government's attempts at civil service reforms.
The SAR Government also embraced American investment to liberalize the casino industry. Today the local casino operators are being forced to minimize the infiltration of triads and improve the management of casinos. Macau SAR has enhanced its relative autonomy vis-à-vis the local casino capitalists which curbs the detrimental impact of organized crime both directly and indirectly.
Today Macau is one of Asia's biggest gambling centers. While the influence of organized crime isn’t as pervasive as it once was, it is still a significant threat. The Chinese passion for gambling is one of the biggest reasons for the successes of the Macau casinos but crime remains a concern, though not on the level that it was before 1999 when gang violence was commonplace.
Some developments of note:
- In 2012, a VIP casino junket operator, Ng Man-sun, was beaten by six men in his hotel.
- Wan Kuok-Kio (known as “Broken Tooth”), a notorious gangster, was recently released after 15 years in prison.
- A casino lawyer was attacked in the street while walking his son to kindergarten.
Steve Vickers, a specialist in triad activities and a former intelligence officer with the Hong Kong police claims that Macau's gaming sector retains deep ties to organized crime. "The scene has changed over the past 10 years as the pie has vastly increased," he said. "It's not the cowboy town it was when Broken Tooth was running around. The big boys have moved in ... and they do not want visible street fights, with people being beaten up because it's bad for business and brings attention."
Vickers now runs the SVA specialist risk mitigation and corporate intelligence consultancy.
Approximately half a million people live in Macau now. The territory attracts more than 28 million visitors a year to its 3 dozen casinos. According to Vickers, the city’s big casinos work in a "messy environment." They are reliant on income high-rolling VIPs who come to Macau through Chinese junket operators.
Vickers explained that "the junkets are an integral part of the gaming scene and they facilitate the transfer of funds, the finding of the high rollers and they facilitate the breaching of Chinese capital controls. You won't find their names on the front (door) but the hard reality is that Chinese junkets are largely controlled by triad societies."
Travelers from China are subjected to tight controls on the amount of money that they can bring with them. They are limited to 20,000 yuan ($3,262) for each day that they will be traveling. Chinese citizens traveling to Macau are subject to these limits because Macau is considered a , “special administrative region” located outside of the country of China.
Vickers claims, however, that China turns a blind eye to the abuse of capital controls. He anticipates that the country’s new leaders will institute a change and crack down on corruption including incidents of officials who funnel money through the city.
Locals are upset that the triads, which flourish in the casino environment, are involved in prostitution rings and are bringing prostitutes into Macau. The activity extends to human trafficking where women fall prey to false advertisements for casino jobs but are forced into prostitution on arrival. City underpasses and sidewalks are littered with prostitutes' fliers and calling cards as well as ads for pole dancing clubs and saunas.
Presently authorities are considering how they can turn the city into a broader entertainment destination. They want to, attract families in addition to casino goers and diversify Macau’s appeal. Approvals for new resort developments that boast attractions like fake beaches, high-class dining and wave pools have already been granted but the challenge of promoting a more family-friendly environment is not a simple one in the Vegas of the East.
One new initiative that casino operators and government officials hope will bring a more secure environment to Macau involves facial recognition technology. The Macau government is considering using the technology amid reports that casino robbery reports are up by 50% and gaming-related crimes, which typically involve “outsiders” have a detrimental impact on Macau’s tourism image.
Proponents of bringing the facial recognition technology to the casinos point out that it will help casinos reinforce Macau law that civil servants may not enter casinos. If a proposed law passes that will prohibit casino workers from visiting the casino when they’re not working, it can be used in the same way.
The initiative for the facial recognition technology comes at a time that government officials are getting a handle on loan shark activity and other underworld endeavors in the Macau casinos. The police want to beef up surveillance at casinos and surrounding areas to prevent gaming-related illegal activities.
In the first 5 months of the year Macau’s Judiciary Police recorded 734 suspected gaming-related crimes. That’s up from 74 cases compared with the same period last year. They include crimes related to unlawful detention in connection to loan-sharking operations targeting casino gamblers, robberies and loan-sharking targeting gamblers.