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Brazen heists suggest that crime syndicates may be back in business

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Last month, three masked robbers grabbed a suitcase stuffed with cash from a businessman who had just withdrawn the money from a bank in Fukuoka. The businessman is believed to have been planning to use the ¥380 million ($3.5 million) to buy gold.

In December, gold bars worth ¥600 million ($5 million) were stolen by men disguised as police officers, also in Fukuoka. It’s possible the two crimes are related, with several news outlets and the police suspecting that crime syndicates could be involved.

The two thefts total ¥980 million but that pales by comparison to the great ATM heist that was carried out last year.

On May 15, 2016, an international gang used forged credit cards based on data leaked from a bank in South Africa to steal ¥1.86 billion from ATMs nationwide. The gang made a series of withdrawals from 1,400 ATMs in less than three hours, with cash-dispensing machines in convenience stores primarily targeted, especially those in Tokyo, Aichi and, not surprisingly, Fukuoka.

To date, police have arrested more than 170 people in connection with the case, including members of six different crime syndicates. The Metropolitan Police Department suspects that high-ranking members of the Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate in Hokkaido coordinated the heists but have yet to prove their case.

At an April 19 trial of an Inagawa-kai gang member facing charges of electronic fraud and theft for his role in the heists, prosecutors argued that participants in the crime were given 10 percent of whatever they could withdraw. The rest of the money, they contended, went into the coffers of the Yamaguchi-gumi.

What makes this heist so unusual is not just the degree of sophistication involved, but the implication that members of supposedly rival crime syndicates were working closely together.

It’s not unheard of for rival syndicates to coexist in peace or even for members of different groups to make a pledge of brotherhood. Indeed, gang bosses have been know to send New Year’s cards to rival syndicates.

Sharing money, however, is something else altogether.

Several suspects arrested in connection with the case are members of the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi, which split from the Yamaguchi-gumi on Aug. 27, 2015. And yet the police suspect they were actually working with their bitter rivals when committing the heist despite supposedly being in the middle of a gang war.

Atsushi Mizoguchi, an expert on crime syndicates, predicted this state of affairs several years ago. Mizoguchi said gangsters who had been expelled from traditional syndicates would form cross-lateral new groups once their regular revenue streams (gambling, racketeering, etc.) dried up. This appears to be happening to some extent, except the Yamaguchi-gumi still appears to be pulling the strings in major operations.

The National Police Agency began a crackdown on the Yamaguchi-gumi in 2009. At that time, the syndicate had about 40,000 registered members, with roughly the same figure making up the numbers in other groups combined. The total number of gang members across all groups has since dropped to half that figure.

If the remaining syndicates are now working together under the guidance of the Yamaguchi-gumi, what does that mean? It’s possible the police may have accomplished what some feared: the crackdown has simply given the Yamaguchi-gumi a monopoly on organized crime and driven its rivals out of business.

In 2015, the National Police Agency surveyed police officers in the field and asked them about the state of organized crime. The majority believed the yakuza were not only maintaining power and influence but perhaps even growing stronger.

The Yamaguchi-gumi has restructured. It has shed unprofitable and risky side businesses, tossed out restrictions on crimes that were formerly frowned upon, created new revenue streams involving complicated financial transactions and moved on to theft, larceny and armed robbery. The syndicate has adapted to the times and is still in business.

With casinos heading for legalization, the Yamaguchi-gumi and its affiliates appear to have a bright future ahead. Crime syndicates understand how to generate money from gambling. The name yakuza itself (ya-ku-za, or 8-9-3) is a losing hand in a form of Baccarat. Despite its modest name, however, crime syndicates rarely lose — especially the Yamaguchi-gumi. It has outlasted most Japanese companies and business is booming. Perhaps an IPO isn’t out of the question?

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.