KUALA LUMPUR: Jobless at 16, and facing the economic marginali-zation of many Malaysian Indians, Raju opted for the danger and easy money of life in the notorious “04” criminal gang.
He was nearly beaten to death by a rival gang a few years ago, his teeth and bones broken.
But he survived, and is flush with cash thanks to the lucrative drug-trafficking and protection rackets on his Kuala Lumpur turf.
“To live a luxurious life you have to deal in drugs. There is a lot of money to be made,” the burly and mustachioed gang captain, now 33, told Agence France-Presse, asking that his real name be withheld.
But these are perilous times for people like him.
Malaysian police are battling to douse a burst of gang violence blamed on drug-trafficking turf battles, easily obtained guns, and government policies that critics say marginalize Malaysia’s two million ethnic Indians, driving many into crime.
Public concern over robberies and street crime has escalated for years in Malaysia, but a burst of deadly gun violence this year has shocked a nation proud of its record of stability despite a tense mix of races and religions.
High-profile unsolved killings have included Malaysia’s deputy customs chief in April and a widely respected former banker in July.
Blaming gangs, police in August launched a national crackdown that has seen 21,000 suspected gang members arrested and more than a dozen shot dead, including “04” members.
But gangsters and crime experts warn the Indian-dominated syndicates have deep roots, including links to police and politicians.
“The gangs have been around for too long and the networks have grown too big. You can silence them for a while but not eliminate them,” Raju said in the Tamil tongue spoken by most Malaysian Indians.
Malaysian gangs started as Chinese triad organizations established in the early 1800s, police said.
Over time, poor Indians were entrusted with the more dangerous work, and when many Chinese bosses graduated into legitimate businesses like construction in the 1980s, Indians moved up.
Home Minister Zahid Hamidi—who drew fire for reportedly urging police this month to “shoot first” when confronting crime suspects—has said an estimated 72 percent of 40,000 suspected gang members in the country of 28 million were Indian.
Dozens of such gangs now dominate drug-trafficking, loan-sharking, gambling, extortion and prostitution rackets, contract killings and armed robberies, police said.
The tough-guy glamour and easy money is hard for many marginalized young Indian men to resist, said Reghu Devan Lopez, 34, a former gangster who now runs a Kuala Lumpur restaurant.
As a teen, his gang lived it up at expensive Kuala Lumpur hotels for up to two weeks after a major heist. Some bought luxury cars and watches and took holidays in America.
“We splashed our money on drinks and karaoke. With women around us, we were the envy of others,” said Reghu, who now helps former gang members find legitimate jobs.
The situation has revived a racially charged debate over the state of the Indian minority, originally imported under British colonial rule as plantation workers.
They have fared poorly compared to majority Malays—who control politics and enjoy affirmative-action perks from the Malay-dominated government—and the large and prosperous Chinese minority.