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Asian Gangs: 'Crime Problem of the Future'

August 15, 1993|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If a geothermal map of areas plagued by Asian organized crime were laid over Southern California, one of the spots glowing red would be the San Gabriel Valley.

With its eight cities and three suburban areas containing populations more than 20% Asian, some investigators consider the valley the heart of Asian criminal enterprise.

Indeed, the region earned mention in a U.S. Senate investigation released last year that called Asian organized crime "a major new threat confronting law enforcement around the globe." Asian gangsters represent a "new breed of international criminal" against which current U.S. law enforcement efforts are clearly inadequate, the report said.

The report's findings are echoed by local authorities who say Asian organized crime members routinely outnumber, outmaneuver and outspend police.

Experts say Wah Ching members are the dominant Asian organized crime group in the San Gabriel Valley and in Los Angeles' Chinatown. Some estimate up to 300 Wah Ching leaders are active here. But close rivals are the Hung Mun, or "Red Door," who may have equal numbers. Taiwanese crime groups such as the United Bamboo and the Four Seas each have only about 50 leaders here, experts say. The ranks of these organizations, however, swell considerably when other members are factored in.

"It's clearly the crime problem of the future for the organized crime sector," said James P. Walsh Jr., who heads the U.S. Attorney's Organized Crime Strike Force in Southern California. "But there's not a comprehensive plan or program to deal with the problem of Asian gangs."

Part of the reason is historical.

On San Gabriel Valley's busy commercial streets, with their thriving Chinese-owned businesses, Chinese organized crime figures preyed on their own, quietly gaining ground since the late-1970s, police say. In those years, Wah Ching members openly held yearly conferences in Chinese restaurants, handing out T-shirts and key chains, inducting new members and electing officers, said Monterey Park Police Detective Jones Moy, an Asian crime investigator for 16 years.

Their activities were virtually ignored for more than 15 years by most small suburban police departments not equipped and not inclined to investigate Asian crime, experts say. Lack of Chinese-speaking officers and the reluctance of Asian victims to report crimes against them caused police and prosecutors to feel such cases were not worth the time and effort.

"Unless the investigator knows the culture and has an awful lot of patience, most investigators give up," said Detective William Howell, an investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department's Asian Organized Crime Unit.

Not surprisingly, the number of Asian organized criminals has increased, along with the complexity of the cases. And the crimes have spread to other geographic areas and ethnic groups, police say.

Reseda in the San Fernando Valley and Lancaster in the Antelope Valley are now reporting Asian gang crimes. Victims include American-born Japanese, Americanized Chinese and a smattering of Latinos and whites targeted for burglaries, robberies, carjackings and loan-sharking.

"They're not just picking on their own," Moy said.

Authorities estimate more than 100 Asian gangs with more than 10,000 members operate in Los Angeles County alone. Pitted against this are small two- and four-person Asian gang task forces in the Sheriff's Department and in a handful of city police departments.

Meanwhile, the U.S. attorney's office here began focusing on Asian organized crime only 2 1/2 years ago and the FBI three years ago despite more than 15 years of Asian gang activity in Southern California.

"Only 20 guys in the county know what Asian gangs are doing and only 10 of them really know what they're doing," Howell said.

Those investigators are hampered by language problems that still pose monumental problems. With 28 different Chinese dialects, the search for a translator can stall investigations and bring trials to a crawl, Walsh said.

Further, local police are simply outclassed by suspects who jump international borders after committing local crimes. Police and even federal officials lack the money to hop on planes to trail suspected criminals. And without such traditional investigative tools as mug shots or fingerprints, police have no way to identify these high-rolling suspects.

Even statistics on Asian crime are hard to come by. Street gang crime tallies, which many police departments only recently began collecting separately from other crimes, generally lump together Latino, black and Asian gang crimes.

Finally, much of the crime still goes unreported as victims, particularly newer Asian immigrants, remain reluctant to report it for fear of reprisals or fear of police.

Meanwhile, the list of criminal activities engaged in by Asian organized crime is spreading and growing in sophistication, experts say.

A recent sampling in the San Gabriel Valley includes:

* Credit card fraud

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