First China, Now India: How Drug Cartels Get Chemicals for Meth and Fentanyl

Restrictions in China have pushed drug traffickers to source the chemical “precursors” they need in India.

Aug 26 2021, 12:00pm

Shopping for the chemical ingredients used to make fentanyl, methamphetamine, and other illicit synthetic drugs is still easy—if you know where to look. 

These so-called “precursors” were once openly sold online, mostly by China-based dealers, but an ongoing crackdown by Beijing pushed the trade underground. New suppliers are already popping up to meet demand, and a recent series of busts and intelligence reports are pointing to a new source of supply: India.

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Multiple vendors appear to offer precursors for sale on IndiaMart, a site that acts as a sort of Amazon-style clearinghouse, connecting wholesale exporters to buyers for all types of industrial and commercial products. Searching for meth ingredients turns up several listings with pictures of crystalline white powders. IndiaMart officially bans these items, but keywords like "efedrine" and "efedrina" easily bypass the site’s search filters for the common precursor ephedrine.

It’s no coincidence that “efedrina” is also the Spanish word for ephedrine. Mexican cartels dominate the meth trade in North America, and they rely on the precursor to manufacture one of their most lucrative products. Unlike cocaine, which is derived from coca plants, and heroin, which comes from opium poppies, drugs like meth and fentanyl can be cooked from scratch in clandestine labs with a few relatively cheap chemicals. No growing or harvesting means fewer links in the supply chain and more profit on the bottom line. 

The cartel pivot to synthetic drugs has brought deadly consequences in the United States, which hit another all-time record for drug deaths in 2020 with 93,331 fatal overdoses recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That total is up 30 percent over the previous year, a staggering surge largely driven by fentanyl. Synthetic opioids were directly responsible for 57,550 deaths, according to the CDC, and were also a contributing factor in 70 percent of cocaine fatalities and half of meth overdoses.

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China, which has a massive pharmaceutical industry, has long been the primary supplier of precursor chemicals to Mexico, according to both the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and independent reporting. Finding a Chinese precursor supplier used to be as easy as searching Google and chatting over Skype with an English-speaking customer service rep. But bowing to U.S. diplomatic pressure amid the surge in overdose deaths, the Chinese government restricted the most common fentanyl precursors in 2018. Since then, Chinese dealers risk facing harsh penalties (including death) and have become less open about their activities online.

Hunter French / VICE News.

There’s evidence that one of Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organizations has already turned to India as an alternative source of supply. In September 2018, Indian authorities arrested three men, including a Mexican national accused of working for the Sinaloa cartel, in the city of Indore, about 360 miles northeast of Mumbai. The suspects were caught in a clandestine lab wearing masks and gloves and in possession of 10 kilos of fentanyl, which they reportedly planned to ship from India to Mexico hidden in a suitcase on a commercial flight.

The Mexican, identified by Indian authorities as Jorge Solis Fernandez, ostensibly ran an import-export company that specialized in the trade of chemical and agricultural products, including tequila, according to Forbidden Stories, a nonprofit international news consortium that investigated the case last year. Photos posted on social media showed Solis, 43 at the time of his arrest, and several Mexican associates traveling through Japan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong and even visiting the Taj Mahal en route to meeting their Indian partners.

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Solis remains jailed in India awaiting sentencing on drug-trafficking charges. An attorney who represented him previously declined to comment, and VICE World News could not reach his current lawyer.

The cartel’s Indian connection was allegedly Manu Gupta, a businessman whose import-export company Mondiale Mercantile was linked by Forbidden Stories through business records to a Chinese firm that trafficked in fentanyl precursors.

Gupta’s lawyer, SS Sharma, told VICE World News that India’s Directorate of Revenue Intelligence had accused his client of smuggling “commercial quantities” of fentanyl. 

“Since they [the DRI] said it was a commercial quantity, it is a non-bailable offence,” Sharma said. “The trial has now been expedited and Gupta, along with Jorge Solis and Mohammed Sadiq, the third accused [who was allegedly running the laboratory], are all awaiting sentencing in judicial custody.”

Sameer Wankhede, a regional director of India’s Narcotics Control Bureau and a former DRI official, told VICE News there was also a second case in 2018 where police arrested suspects with Mumbai-underworld ties who were conspiring to ship fentanyl precursors to Mexico.  

A DEA intelligence report said the case involved four Indian nationals caught in Mumbai with approximately 100 kilograms of the fentanyl precursor NPP, which was “destined for Mexico and deliberately mislabeled.” The intelligence report, released in January 2020, concluded it was “highly likely the precursor chemicals purchased from India were to be used in the synthesis of finished fentanyl destined for sale in the United States.”

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The DEA report also noted that fentanyl and fentanyl precursor trafficking from India to Mexican cartels “may be poised to increase if China-based traffickers work with Indian nationals to circumvent China’s new controls on fentanyl.”

Wankhede, the Indian narcotics official, said the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat are hubs for illicit chemical production, with operators working out of defunct factories.

“They use a fly-by-night modus operandi, where they use these factories, which are mainly in rural areas or on the outskirts of a city, for a few days and bring in laborers and chemists from outside states to [avoid any suspicion],” Wankhede said.

India introduced new laws in 2018 to regulate the two most common fentanyl precursors, but other raw ingredients are difficult to control because they have legitimate scientific and medical uses. Drug traffickers can face harsh penalties in India, including death or life in prison, but selling precursors usually carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, and suspects are typically released on bail within 60 days, which Wankhede and others in Indian law enforcement complained has led to dealers being back in business within weeks of being arrested.

Just as in China, India’s vast pharmaceutical industry makes it difficult for the government to track chemicals and contributes to spillover into the black market. India’s loose patent laws allow for companies to reverse-engineer all kinds of generic drugs at low cost. The upshot is cheap medicine for the world, but the downside is chemicals being diverted for illegal use.

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One DEA official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told VICE World News that India is on the agency’s radar as a source of precursors but not yet considered a dominant supplier.

“It’s up-and-coming,” the DEA official said. “They have the infrastructure for it. Especially with fentanyl, you need that infrastructure to be able to synthesize the precursors. They have it and some countries don’t, and it’s kind of a natural thing for it to start coming from India.”

A Western anti-narcotics official based in Asia, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the situation, said India’s rise as a precursor supplier is a classic example of the “balloon effect” in drug enforcement. A crackdown in one area, in this case China, merely pushes the problem elsewhere. It was almost inevitable that cartels would look to India, the official said, because of disorganization between national and regional law enforcement agencies, an abundance of trained chemists, and rampant corruption at the local level.

Hunter French / VICE News.

“Frankly, India is perfect,” the official said. “It’s chaotic. From the regulatory and enforcement perspective, it’s chaotic, it’s corrupt—it’s got all the ingredients they need. If the Sinaloa cartel is getting what they need from India, I'm not surprised at all.”

Aside from 2018, however, fentanyl busts have been rare in India. Far more common are seizures of meth and meth precursors, with at least six cases involving the precursors ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in the last few months, according to India’s Narcotics Control Bureau. Authorities raided a large drug factory in Mumbai on January 21, seizing cash, firearms, packaging materials, manufacturing equipment, one kilo of meth, six kilos of ephedrine, and over five kilos of mephedrone, a stimulant sold in the U.S. as “bath salts.”

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Logan Pauley, a China analyst based in Washington, D.C., with expertise on illicit synthetic drug networks, said India is still not a major supplier of fentanyl precursors, but meth ingredients are readily available on sites like IndiaMart, often intentionally mislabeled to foil content moderators. (IndiaMart did not respond to requests for comment about apparent listings for precursor chemicals on the site.)

Pauley noted that Chinese brokers are also advertising on Indian chemical supply sites, perhaps suggesting Indian firms are still catching up to the fentanyl precursor market, which requires more knowhow and raw ingredients than meth.

“It might be equipment, it might be domestic law. Who knows?” Pauley said, listing reasons why China still eclipses India as a source of fentanyl precursors. “The amount of chemicals that goes into making a fentanyl precursor is significantly more than making ephedrine or a meth precursor, for example.”

Beyond Mexico, India’s precursor chemicals are also fueling synthetic drug production in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, a militia-controlled region along Myanmar’s border with Laos and Thailand. According to a 2020 report from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, pseudoephedrine is trafficked through the Indian states of Assam and Manipur, where the value of the chemical “increases tenfold once it crosses the border and reaches Mandalay, from where it is sent to drug laboratories dotted across Myanmar.”

In May 2020, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, narcotics police in Myanmar raided a network of illicit drug labs in Shan State, seizing an unprecedented haul that included nearly 1,000 gallons of suspected liquid fentanyl, 193 million meth tablets, and 1,100 pounds of crystal meth, along with hundreds of pounds of other drugs. One U.N. official described the operations as being highly sophisticated, “like mini-factories you’d see in an industrial park.”

The Myanmar raids also uncovered caches of “pre-precursor” chemicals—which can be used to manufacture the ingredients for fentanyl and meth. The “pre-precursors” are used for many agricultural and industrial purposes and thus not subject to strict international controls.

Chinese authorities have already acknowledged that drug traffickers are turning to common unregulated chemicals in order to skirt the country’s new drug laws. A report recently issued by China’s National Narcotics Control Commission said illicit manufacturers have “resorted to purchasing precursor chemicals that are not on the control list in a dispersed manner before synthesizing them into the required raw materials, making supervision, investigation, and blocking of such activities more difficult.”

KP Malhotra, the former deputy director of India’s Narcotics Control Bureau, told VICE World News the agency is well aware of “suspicious chemicals” being manufactured in India, but he declined to elaborate on what those might include. 

“Traffickers are now using other designer precursors, analogs, and chemical combinations to make substances that are not controlled,” Malhotra said. “We are keeping an eye on these and cannot share any more details, as we don’t want to alert anyone.”

This series is supported by Emergent. VICE News retains complete editorial autonomy.

Tagged:

worldnews, world drugs

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