US jails Japanese yakuza leader over alleged drugs for arms deal

Prosecutors say Japanese organised crime boss and three Thais aimed to secure US-made weapons for Myanmar armed groups and Tamil Tigers.

United Wa State Army troops in green uniforms march in formation in the town of Pansang, Myanmar.
The yakuza crime boss and his associates are accused of planning to sell drugs produced in Myanmar's Wa State to procure weapons for the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and other armed groups [File: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters]

The United States has arrested a leader of the Japanese yakuza and three Thai men, accusing them of trafficking heroin and methamphetamine and trying to acquire US-made surface-to-air missiles for armed groups in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Takeshi Ebisawa, Sompak Rukrasaranee, Somphob Singhasiri and Suksan Jullanan were arrested in New York on Monday and Tuesday on drug and arms trafficking and money laundering charges, the Justice Department said.

“The drugs were destined for New York streets, and the weapons shipments were meant for factions in unstable nations,” Damian Williams, the US attorney for the southern district of New York, said in a statement. “Members of this international crime syndicate can no longer put lives in danger.”

The men had been under investigation by US Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Thailand since at least 2019, arranging to sell an undercover agent large quantities of heroin and methamphetamine from Myanmar’s United Wa State Army (UWSA), an ethnic armed group in the country’s border area with China.

Ebisawa planned to buy automatic weapons, rockets, machine guns and surface-to-air missiles for the UWSA, as well as two other armed groups in Myanmar, the Karen National Union and the Shan State Army.

Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup in February 2021 and is battling not just armed fighters in border areas where conflict has been rumbling for years, but also from so-called People’s Defence Forces, established by civilians who have received rudimentary training and support from the ethnic armed groups.

The organised crime boss also sought to buy weapons for Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known as the Tamil Tigers, the US said. The group once controlled parts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka but was defeated in 2009 and its leaders killed. The Justice Department included a photo of Ebisawa, bespectacled and in a brown leather coat, with a rocket launcher perched on his shoulder, during the meeting.

On February 3 last year, 57-year-old Ebisawa and an associate travelled to Copenhagen where the undercover DEA agent and two undercover Danish police officers showed them an array of US military arms ostensibly for sale, including machine guns and anti-tank rockets. The charge sheet included a photo of Ebisawa handling a rocket launcher during the meeting.

They also showed Ebisawa photos and a video of Stinger missiles used to target aircraft.

“We allege Mr Ebisawa and his co-conspirators brokered deals with an undercover DEA agent to buy heavy-duty weaponry and sell large quantities of illegal drugs,” the Justice Department said.

During the investigation, Ebisawa told the undercover DEA agent that Jullanan, who has dual US-Thai citizenship, was a Thai air force general and that Rukrasaranee was a retired Thai military officer, according to the indictment.

The Justice Department did not explain how the four men came to be in the US.

The trafficking and weapons charges carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Source: News Agencies