By Farah Master
HONG KONG (Reuters) - In Macau, three murders in the past two weeks have raised fears that violent crime, for years a rarity in the world's gambling capital, is growing more common at the same time as the island's casino operators are struggling with slower growth.
Police in the gaming and entertainment hotspot, a one hour ferry ride from Hong Kong, said a Chinese woman who also held a Japanese passport was found murdered last Thursday in a residential area minutes away from the cavernous gambling halls of Sheldon Adelson's Venetian casino.
That came just days after two Chinese nationals were murdered at the five-star Grand Lapa hotel, and at the end of June a senior figure in Macau's junket industry was severely beaten.
By contrast, only five homicide cases were recorded between June 2011 and May 2012, according to Macau police statistics.
There does not appear to be an obvious link between the June and July incidents, but security experts and Macau residents say the recent outbreak of extreme violence has its roots among Macau's junket operators - the shadowy companies that help bring China's wealthiest to the gambling tables.
"Macau is going through a period of instability," said Steve Vickers, chief executive officer of Hong Kong-based Steve Vickers & Associates, a corporate intelligence and security consultancy, referring to the recent attacks. "There seems to be a disturbance ... amongst the lower end of the junket community," he said.
Incidents involving Chinese criminal gangs, also known as triads, have been infrequent in Macau since the late 1990s when Portugal ceded control of what was then a seedy port on the heel of China's southern coast.
Triads are typically branches of Chinese criminal organizations based in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, and on the mainland. They are involved in crimes including extortion, money laundering, murder and prostitution.
Macau, which like Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, has boomed since the 1999 handover, with Las Vegas moguls including Adelson and Steve Wynn setting up glitzy casino hotels complete with fine dining restaurants, bars filled with glamorous girls, and luxury shopping outlets.
That growth, however, has slowed significantly in the past three months, forcing junket operators into more aggressive debt-collecting tactics. Many of the smaller junket firms are struggling to stay in business.
Though Macau's gambling revenues reached $33.5 billion last year and investment has continued to pour into the economy, Wynn reported worse than expected half year results last week as a result of declining revenue at its Macau and Las Vegas operations.
Las Vegas Sands is due to post results on Thursday, while other casino operators Melco Crown and MGM Resorts are due to report earnings in August.
(Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)