Japanese crime boss accused of trafficking nuclear material from Myanmar

Takeshi Ebisawa
Takeshi Ebisawa allegedly a leader of yakuza, a Japanese crime gang - via REUTERS/Southern District of New York

A Japanese yakuza crime boss has been charged with attempting to traffic nuclear materials for a bomb to Iran.

Takeshi Ebisawa, 60, is accused of showing samples of uranium and plutonium – transported from Myanmar to Thailand – to an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent.

In a DEA sting operation, the agent posed as a narcotics and weapons trafficker and claimed to have had access to an Iranian general. Samples of the seized material were later found to contain uranium and weapons-grade plutonium, according to court documents.

Ebisawa and co-defendant Somphop Singhasiri, a 61-year-old Thai, face charges of trafficking drugs, weapons and nuclear material. Ebisawa is alleged by prosecutors to be the leader of a yakuza, a Japan-based network of underworld gangs.

Anne Milgram, a DEA administrator, said the allegations represented “an extraordinary example of the depravity of drug traffickers who operate with total disregard for human life”.

Samples of seized material were found to contain uranium
Samples of seized material were found to contain uranium - US DISTRICT COURT

In a statement, she added: “The defendants trafficked in drugs, weapons, and nuclear material – going so far as to offer uranium and weapons-grade plutonium fully expecting that Iran would use it for nuclear weapons.”

The nuclear material came from an unidentified leader of an “ethnic insurgent group” in Myanmar which had been mining uranium in the country, according to prosecutors.

Ebisawa had proposed that the group’s leader sell uranium through him to fund a weapons purchase from the Iranian general, court documents allege.

According to prosecutors, the leader in Myanmar provided samples, that a US federal laboratory found to have contained uranium, thorium and plutonium.

The lab concluded that “the isotope composition of the plutonium” was weapons-grade, meaning enough of it would be suitable for use in a nuclear weapon.

The Yakuza Transnational Organized Crime group allegedly trafficked radioactive substances
The Yakuza Transnational Organized Crime group allegedly trafficked radioactive substances - US DISTRICT COURT

Ebisawa was among four people who were arrested in April 2022 in New York and had been charged with international narcotics trafficking and firearms offences. The new charges were contained in a superseding indictment.

Following a crackdown by Japanese authorities, Yakuza criminal activities have increased globally in recent years.

In 2012, the US Treasury Department said it had frozen the assets of the Yamaguchi-gumi – a powerful yakuza gang – and banned it from conducting business in the US due to alleged involvement in drug and human trafficking and money laundering.

US attorney Damian Williams accused Ebisawa of “believing that the material was going to be used in the development of a nuclear weapons programme, and the weapons-grade plutonium he trafficked if produced in sufficient quantities, could have been used for that purpose”.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew G Olsen added: “It is chilling to imagine the consequences had these efforts succeeded.”

The defendants are scheduled to appear in a New York court to respond to the charges on Thursday.

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