The United States has designated the Kings Romans Casino in Laos as a “transnational criminal organization,” and as such has placed it and its notorious owner, Zhao Wei, on an organized crime sanctions blacklist.
The casino exists in the “Golden Triangle” of Laos, a special economic zone on the Mekong River close to its border with Myanmar and Thailand, where the three countries come together. The Lao government set up the region in 2007, with an investment from Zhao, a Chinese national who is said to run the SEZ like his own personal fiefdom.
“The Zhao Wei crime network engages in an array of horrendous illicit activities, including human trafficking and child prostitution, drug trafficking, and wildlife trafficking,” said Sigal Mandelker, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, in a statement on Wednesday.
“We are targeting key figures in this transnational criminal organization, which stretches from the Kings Romans Casino in Laos throughout Southeast Asia.”
Underground Gambling Kingpin
According to Impact of China’s Rise on the Mekong Region, a study by Yos Santasombat of Chiang Mai University, Zhao is originally from Harbin in the Dongbei region of north-eastern China where he built his fortune as an operator of illegal underground gambling dens.
Fearing arrest by Chinese authorities, he relocated to Laos, where he built the Kings Romans Casino, which has become a “lawless playground” for wealthy Chinese visitors, according to authorities.
“I have come to help the poor farmers of Laos out of poverty and drug problems by turning this area into a tourist city,” Zhao declared at the time. But rather than delivering the local populace from drug addiction, the US Treasury alleges he has been an enthusiastic contributor to criminal drug activity.
The study explained further: “Operating largely through the Kings Roman Casino, the Zhao Wei TCO facilitates the storage and distribution of heroin, methamphetamine, and other narcotics for illicit networks, including the United Wa State Army [a separatist guerrilla separatist movement], operating in neighboring Burma [Myanmar].”
According to Santasombat, Zhao has been permitted by friends in the totalitarian Laos government to establish the Golden Triangle special economic zone with its own rules on taxation, rent, fees, and punishments. Chinese residents of the zone refer to Zhao as “Tu Huangdi,” which translates as “the local tyrant” or “emperor.”
The British-based Environmental Investigation Agency says Zhao fluats international environmental law as well, providing a place for his customers to openly buy and sell products from endangered species smuggled from Asia and Africa.
Additionally, Kings Roman visitors have reported some protected species—including tigers, bears, and pangolins—appearing on the casino restaurant’s menu.