When Godot is an Assassin and You Don’t Have to Wait
The 2013 Thai Most Wanted Hitmen list has 100 names. The 2011 list had only 75 names. That’s a 25% productivity and employment increase in two years. If this were the economy, people would be in the streets celebrating. This list is not Thai companies on the stock exchange but a list of Thai hired killers who are in a bullish occupation.
Like the Booker Award, the 2013 list is a long one. We’ll get to the short list and the machinery to choose the winner a bit later. No literary award I am aware of has ever announced a long list with a name of 100 authors. In the real world, down those mean streets walk not writers taking notes for a great crime novel but hired killers the police would like to catch. And there are at least 100 of them, which works out about 5 or 6 hitmen for each author on a typical crime fiction award long-list.
Authors must choose their hitmen carefully. It seems there are difficulties in apprehending the Most Wanted Hitmen—they are even more careful than most authors. After all they have a lot more at stake, and more to lose.
Thailand law enforcement challenges aren’t unique (though what country exists where the citizens in huge numbers don’t believe this?). The police in every country face the same set of problems—suppressing crime and capturing criminals who refuse to be suppressed. Techniques of crime suppression and catching the bad guys are glimpses into the culture of the legal justice system and the social system.
The Thai police have used Most Wanted list and have made what translates as ‘criminal suspect calendars’, which feature a photo of the bad guys (or bad women). Maybe the photographs were old, blurry, with bad lightning and horrible angle—the usual things people say about my photos. In any event these calendars (we’re not told where they were displayed) failed to bring phone calls from the public with information that they just saw what looked like #73 eating som tum at a food stall on Sukhumvit Road. The police phone didn’t ring. Or if it did, the caller wasn’t reporting the location of a wanted hitman.
Faced with the bold facts—can’t suppress them, can’t catch them—the police decided on a new campaign to hunt down the gunmen for hire in Thailand. Social hierarchy is the lifeblood of Thai society—and the building blocks are the Lego like tropes of family names, titles, rank, private schools, and private clubs. A Thai can step back in any social scene and immediately experience another person’s place on the pyramid grid as though they had a sonar system that picks up frequencies that foreigners simply don’t perceive.
Why not rank hitmen? That seems like a logical extension to the normal way people perceive themselves and others—they are either above or below you. This genius for ad hoc hierarchy making as a blueprint for hitmen pyramid is far more impressive than anything you’ll ever find in Egypt. If you are raised and educated in seeing social relations as pyramids, why not adapt that idea to how you design your Most Wanted List.
Here’s how the new Most Wanted Hitmen List will work—according to the Thai police.
Level one is for the top gun. The Professional. A Level 1 hitman has proved himself capable, reliable, with many successful assignments on his resume. The assassins on this list are not limited to those wanted under an arrest warrant. Apparently just because you’ve committed an assassination doesn’t automatically mean you will have an arrest warrant issued. The example given by the authorities is the hitmen who has just been released from prison having served time for his last job. Apparently the concept of double jeopardy gives way to preventive action. Once you’ve done your time for a hit, you are a Level 1 guy would is wanted by the authorities.
The Hired Gunman Pro who is always wanted by the police, arrest warrant or not, is at the top of the hierarchy. It is important to emphasize this point so no one is confused or walks away from a citizen’s arrest of such a hitman who might argue there is no outstanding warrant. Get the guy. Bring him in. If you’re working at Level 1, the police want you even if there’s no paperwork other than the list. The privilege of the top rank is to be always wanted.
There’s always some new guy breaking into the game. Same as in sports. One day you are kicking in goals, and the next day you’re on the bench because some new kid can kick the ball better and farther than you. These are the semi-pros looking for the chance to play in the PGA-level hitmen’s league. They are still building a resume showing their wins. The police warrant these are the most dangerous players—young, hungry, trigger-happy and as resume obsessed as a student trying to get accepted for a Harvard MBA program. The police statement was silent as to the necessity of any outstanding arrest warrant before such a person goes on at Level 2. It might be that the arrest warrant exclusion is for only Level 1—give them a bit of hierarchy pride. As it is unclear, no doubt it could lead to arguments, and, no need to remind you, these people are heavily armed, that is never a good thing in Thailand.
Level 1 and Level 2 are your pro or semi-pro freelance, free agent players. They take assignments from anyone with the cash and the desire to see someone dead. The Level 3 hitmen are a different breed. They fit the mode of the in-house lawyers. They work for an influential figure or the mafia. Yes, in Thailand there is apparently quite a distinction between the two categories worth an essay on its own. The third level players raise an interesting policing issue. Why not check with the godfather, “Seen #43 recently?”
“No, he’s been on the sick list,” godfather. “No, he’s been transferred to sales and is attending a seminar in KL.”
“Well, if you see him, give us a call.”
“You’ll be the first to know.”
Level 3 is the place where no one ever seems to find any evidence. It all disappears down that Alice in the Wonderland rabbit hole without leaving a tiny, bitty trace. The gunman signs on for the usual company benefits, and enters the workplace where whatever evidence he leaves behind will magically disappear, and he draws a regular salary. The police admit Level 3 is a toughest nut to crack.
We are at the bottom of the pyramid on a dark night. In a sand storm. In the desert looking for whom? These guys are not yet qualified to be hitmen. No, they’ve not earned their stripes. The most you can say for them is they’ve murdered people in a conflict. That’s not what professional killers do, who have no emotional connection with the victim or conflict. The police want to put a lid on the possibility that these hot-headed, hot-blooded killers who get into lethal fights and arguments, don’t suddenly become cool under fire, chilled water running through their veins and climb up to either Level 2 or 3. The greater fear is a lateral entry into a Level 3 position with a godfather.
Supposedly 30% of the Level 4 killers have contacts with the Level 3 players and bosses. This assumes that bosses at Level 3 given a choice would take a level 2 or Level 4 guy. In a pinch, a Level 4 guy might be given a chance to see if he can kill someone he doesn’t hate without first punching him out. As a general rule, it’s horses for courses in the play book for most godfathers.
The Thai police, despite the limitations of the list, have an Ace up their sleeve. Thais are highly sociable. They are hard to separate from their parents, friends and relatives. The police have figured there is no level of assassin, which can sustain isolation. The loneliness of being on the run is too much for the Thai hitman who will sooner or later head to his parent’s house, his favorite mia noi’s room, and the hangout where he drinks and sings karaoke with his friends. The idea is the police will look for clues among the hitman’s relatives and close associates.
No discussion of hitmen can be separated from the price ticket for their services. The no frills, basic level hit of an ordinary person starts at Baht 50,000 (or roughly US $1800). Most of the hits at the low end of the market are the result of love affairs that implode like a star that blows up. Only in this case, the black hole is between the eyes. If the target is a ‘somebody’ in one of the other social hierarchies, the price can shoot up.
How have the Thai police been doing in catching the professional killer included on the 2013 Most Wanted List? Six months into 2013 they’ve arrested four, and two have died. There is no report on what level these 6 hitmen came from. The main takeaway is that your chances of being arrested for being an assassin for hire is only slightly higher than dying of old age. The next time someone mentions the word ‘noir’ in terms of crime novels, you can ask them, “And what is your view on how the Most Wanted Hitmen List for 2013 fits into the definition of noir?” To answer that question would require a multi-volume series and given a dozen books, I’d only be sweeping the sand from one side of the path leading to the base of the pyramid only to watch it blow back the next day.