Tom Allard on the exclusive reporting on the hunt for Asia’s El Chapo
Earlier this month, a Reuters special report provided an inside look at the hunt for Asia’s most-wanted man, the suspected kingpin of a vast drug network that is raking in up to $17 billion a year. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Chief Correspondent Tom Allard gives an in-depth look at how he reported the story.
Q: How did you score this exclusive?
A: The story started with a tip and a nickname - there was a huge syndicate trafficking narcotics across the Asia-Pacific led by a man known as Sam Gor, or Brother Number Three in Cantonese. Within a month, after tapping law enforcement contacts from multiple nations, I identified Sam Gor as a Canadian national, Tse Chi Lop. From there, working with colleagues from Reuters bureaus across the region, I spent more than a year building a picture of the syndicate, its leader, and the unprecedented police investigation into both.
Q: What types of reporting were involved?
A: The sensitive nature of this story required a lot of old-school reporting - face-to-face interviews with law enforcement officials, militia members and drug couriers, often in secure and remote locations. There was plenty of perseverance and persuasion required to obtain internal documents and hard-to-find court records, as well as pain-staking cross-checking to verify facts and anecdotes. I also made a reporting trip to Myanmar, the epicentre of the syndicate’s drug production operation.
Q: What was the hardest part about reporting this story?
A: Ensuring we had the documentary evidence and authoritative testimony to meet Reuters high editorial standards for a journalistically and legally complex story.
Q: Why was this an important story to tell our customers?
A: Crystal methamphetamine - the syndicate’s main business - is flooding the Asia-Pacific. The U.N. estimates the retail market for the narcotic in the region has increased fourfold in five years and is worth $61 billion. This story explained why - a mega-syndicate with extraordinary reach, wealth and sophistication had hijacked the meth market and expanded it dramatically. Crystal meth is highly addictive and has a devastating impact on the health of long-term users.
Q: What makes you passionate about journalism?
A: Good journalism empowers citizens, protects the vulnerable and drives positive change.
Q: What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A: I cover Southeast Asia, with a focus on investigations and breaking news. It’s a stunningly diverse region - culturally, politically and economically. It’s also a geo-strategic fulcrum as the world’s great powers compete for influence. For these and many other reasons, there are a multitude of stories to chase.
Q: What has been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A: The most difficult stories are often the most rewarding. Certainly, the story on the Sam Gor syndicate has to rate as among the most satisfying I have been involved with. It was a mammoth reporting effort enhanced by meticulous editing and brilliant illustrations and design. The response - in terms of readership and take-up by clients - was very gratifying. Covering the siege of the Philippines city of Marawi in 2017 by Islamic State fighters was another recent journalistic highlight. It was shocking when militants suddenly seized control of a significant city in Southeast Asia, controlling much of it for many months. I was the first foreign journalist there and worked with a first-rate team of Reuters photographers and cameramen. We witnessed horrific violence and appalling persecution, but also astonishing heroism as many of the city’s Muslim majority population risked their lives to rescue their trapped Christian neighbours from the fanatical occupiers.
Q: Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? Is so, what?
A: Not really. There are higher paying occupations but few match the psychic benefits.