Kuala Lumpur: Jobless at 16 and facing the economic marginalisation 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, mustachioed gang captain, now 33, told AFP, 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, readily obtainable guns, and government policies that critics say marginalise Malaysia’s two million ethnic Indians, driving many into crime.
Public concern over robberies and street crime has escalated for years in Malaysia, but this year’s surge in gun violence has shocked a nation proud of its record of stability despite a tense mix of races and religions.
High-profile unsolved killings have included those of Malaysia’s deputy customs chief in April and a 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 that 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 language spoken by most Malaysian Indians.
Malaysian gangs started as Chinese triad organisations 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 per cent 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, as well as contract killings and armed robberies, police said.
The tough-guy glamour and easy money is hard for many marginalised 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 with majority Malays — who control politics and enjoy affirmative-action perks from the Malay-dominated government — and the large and prosperous Chinese minority.
“The federal government has, to a large extent, neglected the Indians,” said Pasupathi Sithamparam, an activist who helps Indian school dropouts.
Idle and disaffected Indian teens left out of the country’s economic success are a steady source of gang recruits, said G. Gunalan, 16.
At 13, he was recruited into the feared “08” gang and soon had 30 underlings.
“To become a leader you must do drugs, break into houses, steal, extort, or even kidnap,” he said.
He quit last year, fearing for his life.
The growth of gangs — and the violence — is underpinned by an expanding market for illegal drugs and guns imported largely from neighbouring Thailand, police and gang members said.
Authorities estimate that Malaysia has about 300,000 drug addicts but say consumption of crystal methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana and other drugs is on the rise despite mandatory death for traffickers.
Lee Lam Thye, chairman of the Malaysia Crime Prevention Foundation, called the situation “very alarming”, saying nearly 50 per cent of crimes committed are drugs-linked.
Raju, meanwhile, said obtaining a gun is “as easy as buying a fish”, even though owning one is essentially outlawed.
Police blame the recent spike in violence on the release of more than 2,000 crime suspects when a harsh preventive detention law was abolished in 2011.
“You see the emergence of a turf war. The Indian thugs are shooting one another,” said Amar Singh, deputy police chief of Kuala Lumpur.
The police crackdown appears to have silenced the gang guns.
But gang members say there are deep-rooted links between the underworld and a police force widely viewed as corrupt and brutal, on up to some political figures.
“Some of these people sit at the top of the pyramid in criminal organisations,” said P. Sundramoorthy, a criminology professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
“They are influential individuals and are difficult to prosecute in court,” he said, declining to elaborate due to the issue’s sensitivity.
For Reghu, the solution is simple.
“If you want to eliminate gangs, start with the politicians, and then with the police.”