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An undated handout image of Tse Chi Lop, the alleged senior leader of a transnational drug trafficking syndicate known as 'The Company.'

Handout/X80001

A Canadian citizen called one of the biggest drug kingpins in history has been arrested on his way to Canada, placing into custody a shadowy figure with roots in Toronto who, experts believe, stood astride a vast empire of factory-made narcotics.

Police in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport arrested Tse Chi Lop, 57, on Saturday, after a years-long investigation by the Australian Federal Police into international networks of drug manufacture and trafficking. Mr. Tse, whose wealth and alleged influence earned him comparisons with El Chapo and Pablo Escobar, had been living in Taiwan.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says the underworld conglomerate overseen by Mr. Tse manufactured drugs in war-torn areas of Myanmar and distributed them broadly from there, supplying Southeast Asia, Japan, South Korea and Australia with methamphetamine, fentanyl and other narcotics. Its estimated 300-tonne annual output of meth alone is enough to make 10 billion doses.

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Australian authorities accuse Mr. Tse’s group of bringing nearly 70 per cent of the illegal narcotics into Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. Australian police issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Tse in 2019 and authorities plan to formally request his extradition.

The UNODC has identified Mr. Tse as the leader of a narcotics syndicate named Sam Gor – “Brother Number Three” in Cantonese – whose revenues are estimated at between US$3.8-billion and US$17.7-billion.

“The syndicate targeted Australia over a number of years, importing and distributing large amounts of illicit narcotics, laundering the profits overseas and living off the wealth obtained from crime,” the Australian Federal Police said in a statement.

Mr. Tse had been living in Hong Kong, but moved to Taiwan in 2019, said Jeremy Douglas, the Southeast Asia regional representative for UNODC. He left for Canada this weekend from Taiwan, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Global Affairs Canada is aware of the arrest of a Canadian citizen in the Netherlands. Consular services are being provided to the Canadian citizen. Consular officials in the Netherlands are in contact with local authorities to gather additional information,” said spokesperson Grantly Franklin.

Though the allegations against Mr. Tse have not been proved in court, the estimated scale of operations make his arrest the most important drug takedown in Asia “in a very, very long time,” said Mr. Douglas, who has spent the past few years tracking Sam Gor through the work of police in Australia, Myanmar, China and elsewhere.

It will “send some tremors through that world,” he said.

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Suspected Asian drug kingpin laid groundwork for empire in Toronto

Born in Guangzhou, Mr. Tse immigrated to Canada in 1988, where he came to the attention of police as a Toronto-based member of a Canadian gang called the Big Circle Boys. He is believed to have built the foundations of his drug trade by importing heroin from the Golden Triangle to North America.

Mr. Tse, who served nine years in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking before his release in 2006, remains a member of the Big Circle Boys, according to Mr. Douglas, with family still in Canada.

But Mr. Douglas says Mr. Tse also formed Sam Gor around 2010 and, through that group, transformed methamphetamine into a volume business, collapsing prices and building legions of new customers. Sam Gor used the protection of armed ethnic groups in northern Myanmar to build production facilities that produce high-quality methamphetamine.

“It’s a triad-like organization, so it’s actually got members from different triads that bring with them different skill sets,” he said. “It’s a group of common interests that has formed to advance and scale up the drug business in Asia, and they did it unbelievably well.”

One of Sam Gor’s key breakthroughs: a product delivery guarantee that replaced, at no cost to the buyer, any seized drugs.

Mr. Tse’s associates include people with elite government connections that have extended their reach into infrastructure investments through the Belt and Road Initiative, a heavy-spending program to extend Chinese influence promoted by President Xi Jinping.

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In December, the U.S. Treasury Department issued human-rights sanctions against one of Mr. Tse’s top associates, Wan Kuok Koi – known as “Broken Tooth” – accusing him of corruptly using Chinese projects to legitimize money through investments in casinos, real estate and cryptocurrency. Broken Tooth is a member of the Communist Party of China’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a key advisory body, the U.S. Treasury Department said.

Also known as The Company, Mr. Tse’s organization posed “a huge threat to Australia … not only in terms of illicit drugs but in terms of people smuggling, in terms of firearms,” Karl Kent, the deputy commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, told 60 Minutes Australia.

The COVID-19 pandemic has so badly interrupted regular air and sea service that it has slowed the movement of drugs out of Southeast Asia, Mr. Douglas said. But production appears to have continued apace, with the greater Mekong area in the region seeing noticeable increases in narcotic availability.

Still, it is “shocking” that Mr. Tse believed he could find a haven in Canada, said Mr. Douglas, who is Canadian.

“It must have represented something for him – family and safety,” he said.

The arrest should serve as a “wake-up call” to police forces around the world, he said – both in the nature of the modern drug trade, and the steps necessary to combat it.

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