On a December evening, Bangkok's international airport is crowded with incoming visitors. Swarms of European, Japanese, and North American tourists file through customs into the arrivals hall, where tour operators wait to snap up clients.
But tourists aren't the only ones regularly arriving in the Thai capital en masse. Over the past three years, Bangkok has become a hub for global organized crime syndicates, which use the city to transport drugs, people, and arms to other countries; counterfeit money and documents; and set up international prostitution rings.
"More and more international crime syndicates are basing themselves in Thailand," says Khachadpai Buruspatana, head of Thailand's National Security Council. Crime syndicates "are coming in waves and engaging in prostitution, trafficking of women and children, and drug dealing."
Thai police arrested nearly 2,600 foreigners in the first six months of 2000, which police sources believe is the most foreign nationals they have ever jailed in a half year.
Crime syndicates from Russia to Hong Kong have reason to set up shop here. In an effort to boost tourism, Thailand has adopted loose visa policies, which allow foreign nationals to easily slip in and out. Nationals from 154 countries can enter the country without a visa, or obtain a visa on arrival. "Lawbreaking outlaws hidden among the huge numbers of tourists and businesspeople are putting at risk our national security," the Bangkok Post said in an editorial.
The lingering economic crisis of 1997 also has provided syndicates with a larger pool of impoverished potential local recruits. In the early 1980s, the top 10 percent of Thailand's households earned 17 times more than the bottom 10 percent. After the economic crisis, the gap between the top and bottom had widened to more than 37 times.
Thailand's geographical location is another asset to organized crime, criminologists say. Situated between South and East Asia, Thailand is an ideal transit hub. Singapore-based research institute Strategic Intelligence has estimated that Thailand's domestic illegal economy produces revenues equal to 20 percent of the country's licit Gross National Product. With a vibrant domestic trade in illicit gambling, narcotics, and prostitution, global crime syndicates operating in Thailand have a profitable local market for dumping some of their goods.
A September poll of 4,016 households found that Thais believe corruption among authorities is the third-most-serious problem in the country. …