HONG KONG – Macau police said Monday they arrested 150 people in raids at casinos and hotels across the Chinese territory following violence that raised fears of gang warfare in the world’s most lucrative gambling market.
Police questioned 1,300 people in an exercise named “Operation Thunderbolt 2012” carried out with authorities in Hong Kong and mainland China. They would not name the casinos or hotels.
The operation follows a spate of murders and the bashing of a veteran operator of casino VIP junkets that had many worried the Chinese territory could see a return to the violence that rocked it the late 1990s. That’s when triads, or organized criminal groups, unleashed a wave of car bombings, assassinations and gangland killings as they battled for control of lucrative casino VIP rooms in the final days of Portuguese colonial rule.
“This was an annual operation held jointly by Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong,” said Jacqueline Chan, a police spokeswoman. “The operation didn’t have any specific target. Rather, it was aimed at preventing and tackling crime.”
Macau, bordered by the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and an hour by ferry west of Hong Kong, is the only place in China where casino gambling is legal. After Portugal returned Macau to Chinese rule in 1999, violence abated and the city overtook the Strip as the world’s top gambling market, raking in $33.5 billion in casino revenues last year.
The Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn Resorts Ltd. and MGM Resorts International all operate Macau casino resorts.
The recent outburst of violence includes an attack in June on Ng Man-sun, who is recovering in a hospital after reportedly being beaten by six men in his own hotel in an ownership dispute with an ex-lover. Ng operates VIP casino junkets, which lend money to gamblers.
That was followed in July by the deaths of two mainland Chinese men at the five-star Grand Lapa hotel and the killing of a mainland Chinese woman in a residential neighborhood near the Venetian Macao casino. All remain unsolved.
Hong Kong police said last week they raided 21 locations in the Asian financial center as part of the operation, arresting 130 people suspected of money laundering, illegal gambling and prostitution. Cash, cars and watches were seized in the raids.