By James Pomfret and Farah Master
MACAU (Reuters) - Wan "Broken Tooth" Kuok-koi will emerge from jail this weekend into a very different Macau gambling haven than the one he bullied in the late-1990s.
Under new leadership, chosen at a Chinese Communist Party Congress this month where corruption was a dominant theme, Beijing is sending strong signals to Macau authorities to tighten regulation and promote responsible gaming in the world's casino capital.
It's a far cry from more than a decade ago when Wan and other triad gangsters ran amok during the final days of Portuguese rule of this southern Chinese outcrop. The bloody gangland turf wars are a thing of the past, but Macau, transformed into a booming, glitzy strip of casinos, malls and hotels - many owned by U.S. tycoons such as Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn - retains a murky underbelly where dubious money transfers are commonplace and the shadow of triad gangs still hangs.
Triads, or Chinese organized crime societies, remain a vital cog in the gambling industry, as intermediaries and junket operators - recruiting and transporting high-rollers and offering credit and recovering debts around the highly lucrative VIP gaming rooms.
The leading junkets make billions of dollars from Macau's gambling industry, bringing in over 70 percent of total gambling revenue - which has soared to $33.5 billion, five times that of Las Vegas, from just $1.7 billion in Wan's heyday. As the money has rolled in, the junket operators have diversified into movies, property and stockbroking.
The once monopolistic casino empire of gambling tycoon Stanley Ho has opened up to the Las Vegas big-hitters, but Wan's 14K triad, its branches and rival gangs are still active in Macau, say people close to the industry.
"The triads retain some kind of influence in the majority of the VIP rooms," said a security executive at one of Macau's leading casinos, who was not authorized to speak to the media. "We know there's influence because we see them around the casino floor, inside the VIP rooms. It's not an offence. Unless the police can prove money laundering, they can stay there."
TAKING NO CHANCES
It's not known whether Wan - who was jailed for more than 14 years for attempted murder, loan sharking and money laundering - will return to the business.
Wan's family members, lawyers and former associates declined to comment on his plans, though his brother Kuok-hung - himself jailed for five years in 1999 - has carved out a career in the VIP junket business. Wan was visited in jail by his brother and mother earlier this week.
While few predict Wan's release from the high-security Coloane Prison will spark a return to Macau's darker days, the authorities are taking no chances.
Last weekend, a number of Wan's former associates were arrested in a sting operation on suspicion of planning to commit murder. One of those picked up was former police officer Artur Chiang Calderon, who was first arrested in 1998 with Wan over a string of bomb attacks and bloody gang wars.
"We are well equipped to handle all situations," a spokeswoman for Macau's judiciary police said, amid local media reports of tightened security and vigilance at casinos.
"This is Beijing. They want to send a strong message by doing this," said a senior casino executive.
Kenny Leong, chief executive of Nasdaq-listed Asia Entertainment and Resources Ltd and one of Macau's leading VIP gambling room promoters, did not expect much impact from Wan's freedom. "Things are completely different now. Everything is more professionally managed," he said.
"It's a different era from before. Right now, the time is not hitting and killing."
Wan, a stocky man with often garish sartorial taste, is said to be unable to straighten the middle two fingers of one hand after being mangled by meat cleavers in a street fight. Locals say he was a common sight, driving around Macau in a mauve Ferrari.
"He was very, very influential in his time," said a former head of criminal intelligence in the Hong Kong police force, who specialized in anti-triad enforcement. "He was influential because of fear. He was extremely violent and took over a lot of businesses in a violent manner."
Earlier this week, a new, white Toyota Vellfire spacewagon pulled out of a gated compound and wound its way up to the heavily-fortified hilltop prison, where a stylish lady with long hair and dark glasses stepped out with a shy-looking, bespectacled teenage son wearing sneakers.
After an hour-long visit, Wan's wife and son declined comment when asked by Reuters how they felt about being reunited as a family. "I have nothing to say," said Wan's wife.
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)