Lords Of The Cellblock

Clutching a towel to his bloody scalp, an inmate staggers down a corridor of the Macau Central Prison. He gropes at the wall with his free hand and sways forward. Several guards, seeing him, go on smoking and chatting. Finally one strolls over and asks the prisoner what happened. It turns out that a bus he was repairing slipped from the jack, hitting him in the head. As the prisoner sinks to the floor, blood running down his neck, the rest of the guards turn and start to walk away. "If it had been a fight," says acting warden Lee Kam Cheong, a member of the group, "it would have been much worse."

Not much can faze these wardens. Isolated on a tiny island 1.5 kilometers off the coast, surrounded by 20-foot-high concrete walls, the dank, factorylike Central Prison reflects its society: like the rest of Macau, it is engulfed by lawlessness six months before the Portuguese colony is to be returned to China. Outside the walls, rival triad gangs explode car bombs, shoot each other and hurl grenades with abandon. A crackdown on triad leaders last year moved the same level of violence into the prison. More than 90 percent of the 720 inmates are triad members. Riots and gang warfare have left at least two prisoners dead in the past seven months, others severely beaten. "Portugal wanted to depart with some dignity; it was a question of national pride," says a law-enforcement expert in Hong Kong familiar with Macau. "But the situation is now out of control."

More precisely, the prisoners are in control. On the top floor of high-security Block C, leaders of Macau's toughest triad, 14K, wander in and out of their open cells. The gang is kept together to "keep them away from rival triads," explains a guard. The alleged leader of 14K, Wan Kuok-koi, was picked up last year for violating a court order barring him from Macau's high-rolling casinos. Privately, however, officials say that his increasingly brazen challenges to authority--including a boast that he had 10,000 soldiers at his command--were what really led to his arrest.

Wan, a.k.a. "Broken Tooth," was acquitted last month of intimidating casino employees. Key witnesses, apparently afraid of reprisals, didn't show up for the trial. But he faces a maximum sentence of 30 years when he goes to court again next month, this time on triad-related charges. As far as most of the prisoners are concerned, Broken Tooth still calls the shots. His brother and a handful of other triad leaders, imprisoned on the same floor, see that his orders are carried out. "When the other prisoners hold a hunger strike, he keeps eating," says Lee. "He's the boss; he doesn't need to do anything."

Outside the prison not much has changed. Broken Tooth and other gang leaders allegedly deployed their thugs to bribe or intimidate guards, obtaining mobile phones, color televisions and women for their cells. Portugal brought in 17 new guards over the past half year, bringing the total to 260--roughly one guard for every three prisoners. More are reportedly on the way. Families of the new guards remain in Europe, making the jailers less exposed to the sort of intimidation faced by local warders. But that doesn't make them immune to violence. After the Portuguese guards tried to make life tougher for the privileged prisoners, two officers were gunned down in a coffee shop on their day off. A third guard was shot and killed outside his apartment door.

With a nervous titter and the slight, gawky body of a teenager, the 31-year-old Lee hardly looks the part of a lawman staring death in the eye. Trained as an engineer, and formerly in charge of the prison's vocational-craft programs (such as carving Chinese characters in bamboo), he was put in charge of the entire facility after the warden left for a vacation of several weeks. (The warden has since returned, at least temporarily.) Lee seems more familiar with maintenance problems in the prison, built in 1990 but already dilapidated. He complains of "millions" spent on repairs, toilet pipes clogged with bricks, drains that never empty. Despite two toddlers at home, he is fatalistic about doing his duty. "I'm not afraid to die," he says. "I could die just by choking on something I eat."

Some jailers remember an easier time. "Our guards are not used to violence," says a Portuguese official. "They expected their prisoners to be easier to manage." Until recent years most were. The most common crime among prisoners earlier this decade was theft. Triad members started to swell the ranks of the prison after 1996, when Portugal passed a law against organized crime, an attempt to clean up the colony before the handover. "We just didn't have enough time," says Justice Secretary Jorge Noronha E Silveira. "The triads are still trying to place themselves to win this war." Inside Macau Central Prison, at least, it looks like they have already won.