Goodbye, Godfather

  • Share
  • Read Later
A crowd of about 200 gathers outside the Ho Chi Minh City People's Court to hear the scuttlebutt on Vietnam's spiciest trial in memory. Nam Cam, Vietnam's most powerful and vicious gangster, is in the dock on seven charges, including murder, along with at least 154 co-accused. He will probably face a firing squad. Suddenly, police throw seven women into a jeep and drive them away. "A threat to the peace," one policeman explains. The women's crime: they were trying to sell fans and cold drinks to the spectators.

Saigononly bureaucrats and tourists call it Ho Chi Minh Cityis a notoriously freewheeling place where everyone seems to be hustling for a buck. But no one has worked the angles like Truong Van Cam, a.k.a. Nam Cam (Fifth Orange), who reigned for 15 years as the Godfather of Saigon. The 56-year-old former dockworker and soldier ran card games and cockfights, restaurants and brothels, collected protection money and loan sharked. He raked in an estimated $2 million a monthsmall potatoes for other Asian dons, perhaps, but unheard-of wealth in Vietnam. Cam needed money to buy protection, which he did wholesale. A few times a year, he'd throw cognac-fueled parties for senior police officers, offering girls along with the snacks. He once bought a new car for a police reporter. Cam was a generous friend to those he needed.

He was less gentle with his enemies. Cam allegedly neutralized a rival gangster, Le Ngoc Lam, by having henchmen pour acid on the upstart's face. His most famous feud was with a crime queen in the northern province of Hai Phong: Dung Ha, better known as Dung the Lesbian. The two fell out in 2000 after she tried to expand her empire into Saigon. The rivalry escalated after Dung sent Cam a taunting "present" for one of his soires: a gift-wrapped box filled with live rats smeared with feces, which upset Cam's party guests. A month later, Dung Ha was gunned down at an outdoor beer stall in Hai Phong. Cam reportedly threw another bash to celebrate.

But even in Saigon you can go too far. In December 2001, the government sent police from Hanoi to arrest Cam at his mistress's house, and then widened the net, trumpeting the nation's biggest organized-crime bust. Since Cam's tentacles reached far into the government, the case simultaneously became Vietnam's biggest corruption crackdown. Two of the 18 government officials on trial with him this month were members of the lite Central Committee, the Communist Party's 150-member main decision-making body. One of the accused, Bui Quoc Huy, was Ho Chi Minh City's police chief for years. Another, national-radio chief Tran Mai Hanh, is accused of writing a letter in 1996 that helped secure Cam's early release from a reeducation camp for a previous arrest. Apart from the courtroom proceedings, more than 100 police officers and other officials have been suspended from duty because they are suspected of being on Cam's payroll.

Cracking down on gangsters and corruption appeals to a population that has resigned itself to these twin evils, and following Cam's arrest, Saigon's newspapers went into a muckraking frenzy, openly asking how far the corruption went and who might be the next government figure to be arrested. After 6 months of that, the government decided that openness about official corruption might not be in the Party's best interest. On June 2002, Vietnam's ideology chairman, Nguyen Khoa Diem, ordered newspapers to tone it down. "They're afraid people are losing their faith in the government," explains a Vietnamese journalist.

So when Cam's trial finally began two weeks ago, the government faced a quandary. Should it maximize coverage to prove its seriousness in cracking down on gangsters and their dirty friends in high places? Or would that merely publicize the scale of official corruption? Hanoi chose a middle course. The opening hours of the trial were broadcast live on national television, with Nam Cam shown handcuffed and in striped prison pajamas. (Reporters weren't allowed in the courtroom; they viewed the proceedings on a closed-circuit-television monitor. "That's so they can cut the feed if they need to," one reporter speculated.) The trial itself will not be open to the press, and for good measure, a party official recently warned journalists to report "only what is good for the nation."

Cam is behind bars, but his businesses have been taken over by other gangsters with names like Xuan Leprosy and Dat Long Hair. Outside the courtroom two weeks ago, a 67-year-old retiree named Nguyen Thi Vinh professed renewed faith in the party and said she came to the trial "so I can tell my children." Well, that was one reason. The other was evident in the stack of colored papers in her lap: Nguyen was hawking lottery tickets.