The ABC Media has uncovered evidence that criminal networks are recruiting problem gamblers into the drug trade. A study of the parole records of Vietnamese drug offenders in Sydney’s south-west has revealed almost three-quarters of them blame problem gambling for their crimes.
The investigation by the ABC’s News Online Investigative Unit found criminal networks are actively recruiting problem gamblers playing poker machines at pubs and clubs, to traffic heroin and cultivate cannabis.
Of the more than 600 ethnic Vietnamese drug offenders surveyed, 72 per cent said they were enticed into the drug trade to pay their gambling debts.
But the recruitment of problem gamblers to carry out criminal activities is not isolated to Sydney’s south-west and is occurring in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
The ABC News Online Investigative Unit has spoken to offenders, police, defence lawyers and psychologists about this common pathway to drug crime and can reveal:
- Organised crime networks observe gamblers in pubs and clubs and cultivate friendships
- They watch a problem gambler lose large sums of money and offer a cash loan
- They continue lending money and do not seek repayment
- They call in the loan once the debt is built up and cannot be repaid
- The problem gambler is asked to engage in criminal activity to repay the loan
This week, police in Sydney’s south-west have continued to raid homes as part of Strike Force Zambesi, which has seized hydroponic cannabis worth an estimated street value of $25 million since March.
So far, half of those interviewed by police blame gambling debts for their crimes.
“To date there are about eight people who participated [in police interviews] and of those eight, four gave information that they were participating in the cultivation to help pay off gambling debts,” South-West Metropolitan Region Assistant Commissioner Frank Mennilli said.
“These are criminal enterprises that are virtually operating as a franchise. They are targeting people to sit in these premises to tend the crops. The individuals are recruited on the basis that they may have debts of some kind – [it’s seen as] an opportunity for quick money.”
One court psychologist who regularly assesses the mental health of problem gamblers caught up in such drug crimes describes the problem as “rife”.
“Over the past three years, I have completed in the order of 120 reports and, in about 50 per cent of those cases, gambling on poker machines has contributed significantly to the offence,” he said.
The psychologist, who does not wish to be identified, is so alarmed by problem gambling’s links to drug crime that he has written a letter to independent federal MPs who are considering proposed gambling pre-commitment legislation.
In the letter, he writes:
“The person is not able to repay the loan and is therefore at the mercy of the loan shark. The loan shark says, ‘If you can’t pay the loan, you have to work for me. You have a house, you have to let me use the house to grow marijuana.’ These people are, according to my assessment, rarely criminally inclined and would not normally commit an offence of this nature of their own volition.”
One problem gambler who spoke to the ABC, but did not wish to be identified, borrowed $4,000.
At the time, he thought he would “try to win it back” but failed. Two weeks later, he borrowed a further $5,500 and it went straight into the poker machines.
One month later, the debt was called in. He says he was fearful for his family’s safety and agreed to turn his house over to cannabis cultivation.
“They let you spend it,” he said, recalling a Vietnamese saying, “then they’ve got you by the blade.” (Meaning he was left holding the sharp end of a knife, while the syndicate gripped the handle).
While many offenders are entrapped by cash loans, some knowingly sign up to criminal enterprises in a grab for easy cash.
In another case, a man who still has related matters before the courts is serving a sentence for crop cultivation.
In his statements to police, he told of being befriended in a club by a syndicate broker posing as a punter. On hearing his financial woes, the broker recruited him to cultivate cannabis in a syndicate’s growing house.
The man was plunged further into debt, this time owing the syndicate $30,000 for “start-up” costs.
He had no criminal history prior to the drug bust. Like many, he was unemployed, depressed, spoke English as a second language, and had incurred thousands of dollars of debt due to gaming machine addiction.
An examination of court records reveals a similar pattern among many drug offenders with histories of gambling.
Ambrose Dinh, a Vietnamese client services officer with Fairfield’s Probation and Parole Office, surveyed 600 ethnic Vietnamese drug offenders living within the municipalities of Bankstown, Fairfield and Liverpool.
While Mr Dinh recognises that some clients may create a story of gambling addiction to try and discount their sentence, he says most are genuine.
“Seventy-two per cent of them claim that their offence is caused by their gambling habit and because they lose money and go deep into debt from the loan shark and they could not repay them and because of that they are forced into doing so,” he told the ABC.
The survey was concluded in 2008, but the results have never been released.
Last night he told the Online Investigative Unit that the problems have since worsened as a result of larger, more sophisticated syndicates.
He says the recruitment of problem gamblers is more prevalent today than three years ago.
In April this year, nine people were arrested in New South Wales and Victoria as part of Operation Rattlesnake-Joinery, which targeted four drug networks allegedly trafficking heroin into Australia from Vietnam.
The head of NSW’s Asian Crime Squad, Detective Superintendent Scott Cook, says most of those arrested were recruited around poker machines in gaming venues.
“Asian organised crime is far more networked now. So people run, essentially, small businesses and network with each other. They come together to commit a crime,” Detective Superintendent Cook said.
He says the various people involved in crimes such as drug importation or growing cannabis hydroponically are brought together by “brokers” who recruit people to fill the various roles required to commit the offences.
“In the case of gamblers, they are usually recruited by these brokers to participate in certain activities such as house-sitting a crop of cannabis; importing heroin, internally concealed; delivering firearms, money, and that sort of thing,” Detective Superintendent Cook said.
“Now these brokers generally recruit people from what we can gather from places where there is gambling … it’s not just Asian communities … it occurs in other communities as well.
“I think over the past 20 years or so, with the access to gambling venues and with an increase in our population, it’s probably been a proportional increase.
“I would say it is larger than it was 20 years ago, but I don’t think it’s necessarily out of proportion with what’s occurred with our population in that time. So it’s certainly noteworthy – it’s of concern.”