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What they weren’t told is this: According to the United States, Zhao is one of the world’s most notorious narcotics traffickers.

Hong Kong corporate records show Zhao is the majority shareholder of Kings Romans. Both Zhao and Kings Romans were sanctioned by the US government in 2018 for their purported role in the narcotics trade and other alleged crimes — meaning he was barred from using the US financial system, and any funds he holds in US banks likely would have been frozen as well.

Zhao denies the allegations and says he is a legitimate investor. In interviews, he has said his goal is to turn the GTSEZ into a major tourist destination and bring jobs to one of the world’s poorest places.

Right now, the region’s biggest attraction is a huge casino that caters largely to visitors from mainland China, where almost all gambling is illegal, and foreigners, because gambling is outlawed for Laotians.

But there are plans for massive expansion.

The government of Laos allows the GTSEZ to operate with limited oversight from the central authorities, in theory to spur more investment. But officials outside the country worry that Laotian authorities signed a Faustian bargain, trading control in the border region to an alleged drug kingpin in exchange for economic growth.

Zhao’s exact role in the new port, which is about 12 miles upriver from the casino, isn’t known. But the fact that he attended the groundbreaking ceremony alongside a Laotian deputy prime minister and the provincial governor has caught the attention of law enforcement and government officials outside the country.

If Zhao is the legitimate investor he says he is, the project could simply be a smart example of vertical integration. Constructing a modern port in an unfrequented part of Laos could help service a new tourist city.

But if Zhao is who the US government says he is, experts such as Jeremy Douglas, the Southeast Asia representative for the UNODC, worry that any involvement by the alleged drug kingpin could result in an increase in the production and export of illicit narcotics from the Golden Triangle. That’s especially worrying considering that drug smugglers appear to be increasingly using Laos as a synthetic narcotics trafficking corridor.

“To put a piece of infrastructure like this in the hands of this gentleman and his companies is, frankly, unbelievable,” Douglas said. “We’re really concerned.”

Zhao’s alleged ties to the project

The actual company behind the new investment, according to the Vientiane Times article, is Osiano Trading Sole Co., Limited. Khonekham Inthavong, whom state media reported was Osiano Trading Sole Co.’s president, said the project was meant to boost trade in goods and services in Laos, especially in the Golden Triangle.

Inthavong said the project is a joint venture “between domestic and foreign partners highly experienced in construction across the region,” per the Vientiane Times. He added that his company was established in 2012 “under Lao regulations with a network of business interests covering tourism development and agriculture, road construction and ports, real estate, insurance and a non-deposit taking microfinance institute.”

However, Inthavong and Osiano Trading Sole Co. appear to have sprouted up out of nowhere in the past two years. Searches in Laotian media and online of both Inthavong and his company turn up news of a few investments this year, but nothing before 2019.

A search through Laos’ business registry muddies the waters even further. It shows Osiano Trading Sole Co. was registered in July 2020 by Yoma Inthavong. It’s unclear if that individual is related to Khonekham Inthavong.

But Khonekham Inthavong registered a different business with a similar name, Osiano Land and Investment Sole Co., in 2018. It’s unclear what relationship these two businesses have with each other.

CNN was unable to reach Osiano Trading Sole Co.; Osiano Land and Investment Sole Co.; or Khonekham Inthavong for comment. Neither of the companies had a phone number, email address or exact physical address listed in their Laotian enterprise registration details. They do not appear to have websites, social media accounts or any sort of web presence — which is unusual for a company apparently involved in such a large-scale project. Messages sent to a Facebook account that appeared to belong to Inthavong went unanswered.

Despite Zhao’s lack of connection to the port on paper, Douglas said that “connecting dots between Zhao Wei and Osiano is not difficult.”

“Based on the intelligence we’ve received, Zhao is using a partnership with Osiano to expand the reach of his special economic zone,” Douglas said.

When asked for comment, the Laos Ministry of Public Security referred CNN to the Laos Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has not responded to CNN’s formal letter. Calls to Laos’ Ministry of Industry and Commerce went unanswered.

Who is Zhao Wei?

In media images, Zhao, 68, is frequently seen flashing a wide, confident smile.

He does not appear to have done an interview with English-language media in the past five years. He declined to speak with CNN for this story and did not answer questions via email through a GTSEZ representative.

But the GTSEZ has an active public relations arm online, especially on the Chinese social media platform WeChat, where its posts read like official dispatches from a foreign ministry. They show Zhao meeting Laotian government officials and accepting gifts at various functions. In one post, Zhao appears beside what looks like a Laotian government helicopter. But unlike a stereotypical dark-suited Chinese diplomat, Zhao is often dressed more casually in brightly colored button-down shirts.

Since taking control of the GTSEZ, Zhao has spoken with Chinese and Laotian media on multiple occasions to share his story. As he tells it, it’s a classic rags-to-riches tale.

Zhao says he was born in a rural village in northern China, the fifth of nine children. His father died of cancer when he was five. After a brief formal education, Zhao says he taught himself Traditional Chinese Medicine to support his family.

“I studied medicine hard because I wanted to help and serve others,” he said.

Zhao’s passion for entrepreneurship, he says, was sparked later in life, after a friend invited him to join a lumber business. It’s not clear how he transitioned from that enterprise into the gambling industry.

But after reportedly working in casinos in Macao and Myanmar, Zhao built his own in one of the world’s biggest illicit drug-producing regions.

The Kings Romans Casino sits along the Mekong River inside the GTSEZ and is, quite literally, its crown jewel — the massive crown that tops its roof is visible across the Mekong River in neighboring Thailand. In recent years, new buildings have sprouted up around the casino, including what appears to be a massive, gilded hotel.

This photograph from February 2018 shows a massive construction project behind the Kings Romans casino, shorty after the company was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department.
The exterior of the Kings Romans Casino and newly built structures around it are seen in early 2020.

Zhao says his company has also invested in improving the standard of living for local people by building schools, temples, roads and sports grounds in Laos, Thailand and Myanmar — claims that CNN could neither verify nor disprove.

“He’s doing all of these sorts of PR efforts back in China and in Laos to make it appear that, well, I’m actually one of the good guys,” said Jason Tower, a researcher based in Myanmar for the US Institute of Peace.

However, Zhao’s expansion in the GTSEZ has paralleled a rise in the synthetic drug trade, especially methamphetamine. In 2010, the UNODC estimated that the East Asian and Pacific meth trade was worth about $15 billion. By 2019, the next time the agency estimated the value of the trade, it had ballooned to somewhere between $30 billion and $61 billion — with most of it coming from the Golden Triangle.
The casino has been a major headache for anti-drug authorities outside of Laos. The United States accused Zhao of using it to launder dirty money, allegations he denied at a news conference in 2018 after Washington sanctioned him.

Zhao says he and his businesses “strictly” comply with the law.

The Kings Romans Casino complex stands illuminated at night in this file photograph from 2017.

Why the port matters

There’s no doubt Kings Romans is driving growth. In the past decade, $900 million has been spent on infrastructure projects in the zone, including building shopping complexes, roads, healthcare facilities and waterside landscaping. Total investment since the project began in 2007 is a staggering $2 billion, the GTSEZ says on its WeChat channel.

Zhao and his companies have, in effect, built the foundations for a tourist city that can house 50,000 people. That’s no small feat considering that the GTSEZ is built on land that was, just years ago, Laotian jungle.

A security guard stands at an entrance to a building in the Kings Romans Casino in this file photograph from 2017
Visitors have a few other options besides the casino: They can see the blooming red-flowered Kapok trees on Don Xao island or visit several quaint villages and markets, a Chinatown and some temples.

Much of that is thanks to Zhao’s vision.

He claims when he first visited the Golden Triangle, he was struck by the area’s natural beauty. It was rural and remote, like China before its economic opening in the late 1970s. Zhao said in various interviews that he saw potential for tourism and agriculture. He said he hoped to create a thriving new economy that would give locals the chance to abandon the drug trade.

“Those people are the victims of drugs because they don’t know anything else,” he said in a 2011 profile in Chinese state media.

“I think it is worthwhile to use gambling, which is small harm, to get rid of the bigger harm like drugs,” Zhao said.

So in 2007, Kings Romans signed an agreement with the Laotian government to jointly develop a tourist area in the region. Three years later, Laos’ Prime Minister signed a decree formally establishing the GTSEZ, effectively leasing the land to Zhao for 99 years.

The agreement stipulated that the GTSEZ would run its own affairs — from urban planning to municipal finances and even security in certain cases. Foreign experts who monitor the area say authorities on the ground answer to Zhao, which has effectively turned the zone into his “own personal fiefdom,” Douglas at the UNODC claims.

And the GTSEZ is only set to get bigger. Those who run the the zone want to be able to accommodate 200,000 people. They are planning to build resorts, golf courses and a museum, per the GTSEZ website. They plan to have a restaurant row along the river and a street lined with bars nearby. They want five-star hotels — the gilded building next to the casino appears to be one. And there are even plans for a plastic surgery center.

So adding a new port to supply this up-and-coming tourist destination in a remote part of the world makes business sense.

More construction projects underway in the special economic zone are seen in this photograph from November 2020.

According to the Laotian state media article announcing the Ban Mom project, the port will take three years to build, and over the next nine years other supporting facilities, such as warehouses, plant and animal quarantine centers and staff dormitories, will follow.

Experts worry that, despite the rapid development, Laos is making the same mistake at Ban Mom Port that it did with the GTSEZ: giving a man with a dubious reputation more power in an under-policed part of the world.

Brian Eyler, the Southeast Asia program director at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank, said the port project seems redundant because there are already two well-established ports on the Thai side of the Mekong River that facilitate commercial trade from China to Bangkok.

“The port is mostly unnecessary for active commercial traffic,” Eyler said in an email. “The Ban Mom Port will only facilitate commerce between China and Kings Roman Casino (Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone) and most commerce that happens around the casino is illicit trade in drugs and wildlife and human trafficking.”

Douglas explained the port could end up being used to ship precursor chemicals — the ingredients to make synthetic drugs — into the Golden Triangle and export the finished product down the Mekong, one of the most important waterways in Southeast Asia.

“There’s already a lot of allegations that he’s (Zhao) an active money launderer, he’s involved in drug trafficking and various forms of transnational crime,” Douglas of said. “If he’s involved in those activities, then the port can be used for these things.”

Upriver from the Golden Triangle, the Mekong divides Laos from Myanmar’s restive Shan State. Portions of Shan are controlled by warlords and militias who allegedly provide cover to some of the world’s biggest synthetic drug traffickers. Burmese police conducted one of Asia’s biggest drug busts in decades in Shan earlier this year, seizing nearly 200 million methamphetamine tablets, more than 500 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine and 35.5 metric tons and 163,000 liters of precursor chemicals used to manufacture illicit drugs.

This industrial-level manufacturing of synthetic narcotics requires a steady flow of chemicals to make them, and until now, transporting precursors into Shan State has been a major logistical hurdle, according to Douglas.

“The fact is, there’s only a few ways you can really get high volumes of precursors into Myanmar,” he said. “Using this port, there’s an easy entry. You just simply take a boat upriver six or eight hours.”

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)


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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers

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Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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