'We Are Shipping To The U.S.': Inside China's Online Synthetic Drug Networks
He is a slight, bespectacled man. Colleagues at the industrial materials company where he works describe him as a humorous but diligent employee, known for driving his white Jeep around town in northwestern China's Ningxia region to meet potential clients.
Unbeknownst to them, he goes by Benjamin Chen online, where he has a whole other business: He is a popular seller of the chemicals used to make the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl. NPR has identified him but is not using his real name because of the illegal activity in which he's involved.
Chen is one of more than 100 vendors who market fentanyl or related chemicals out of facilities across China, and his story illustrates how networks are getting around international efforts to crack down on the supply chain of lethal synthetic opioids. In an interview with NPR, however, Chen categorically denied that he manufactures or sells any illegal substances.
For years, China has been a primary source of fentanyl trafficked into the United States. It is a powerful prescription drug for severe pain that's made and sold illegally. It led to more than 37,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2019, part of a national opioid crisis that has worsened this year during the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal health authorities.
Under international pressure, China's government banned the production and sale of fentanyl and many of its variants in May 2019, resulting in a significant reduction in the country's illicit fentanyl trade.
But more than a year later, Chinese vendors have tapped into online networks to brazenly market fentanyl analogs and the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, and ship them directly to customers in the U.S. and Europe as well as to Mexican cartels, according to an NPR investigation and research from the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, or C4ADS, a nonprofit data analysis group. (The center receives some of its funds from the U.S. and U.K. governments.)
Some of the substances are outlawed in China and internationally. Others are so new they are not yet banned, are harder to detect and regulate, and they can be used in basic chemical processes to produce illegal drugs.
Chinese vendors are often camouflaged by a complex network of corporate entities registered in far-flung cities along China's interior, where they use sophisticated shipping methods to bypass screening measures and where law enforcement scrutiny is often laxer than in bigger cities such as Beijing or Shanghai. Thousands of doses can be shipped together in small, hidden packages.
"Many Chinese networks involved in the production and advertising of fentanyl quickly adapted to increased legal constraints by modifying their techniques to exploit loopholes in chemical restrictions and disguise their activities," said Michael Lohmuller, a C4ADS analyst and report co-author.
Hard to ban
When China began banning fentanyl-related compounds, it was hailed as a major victory for U.S. narcotics authorities and diplomats, who had lobbied China for years to strictly regulate the substances more broadly as a class. Previously, Chinese narcotics authorities criminalized only specific fentanyl offshoots.
Months after China's class ban last year, as tensions escalated between the Trump administration and the government under China's leader Xi Jinping, Chinese-made fentanyl compounds once again became a divisive topic.
"President Xi said this would stop — it didn't," President Trump tweeted in August 2019.
China's government refutes this, saying its ban and crackdown on Internet advertising, sales and shipments have been effective.
"Currently, there is basically no information related to the illegal sales of fentanyl-class chemicals on websites within Chinese borders or pharmaceutical and chemical platforms," China's National Narcotics Control Commission said in a statement to NPR. "But due to the openness, anonymity, convenience, cross-border nature of the Internet, any country would have a difficult time completely eradicating illegal information."
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration notes that the detected amount of Chinese fentanyl shipments has dropped dramatically since the ban.
"It was all coming through the mail, aircraft, not in large quantities because it was so pure the fentanyl that they were making over in China ... but once they classified entire analogs of fentanyl, it made a huge difference," said Matt Donahue, the DEA deputy chief of operations who oversees the agency's work abroad.
Vendors create new distribution strategy
Despite the drop in fentanyl shipments from China, nimble Chinese vendors have developed new distribution strategies by producing and selling the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl.
Benjamin Chen is among the many vendors in the country who adopted these new strategies. He and his colleagues built up a robust online synthetic drug operation over the last decade at Shanghai Huilitongda Biological Technology Co. Ltd., which is registered as a pharmaceutical company, according to Chinese corporate records.
On Facebook, where he did much of his advertising, Chen had a reputation as a fast and reliable vendor, according to social media reviews left by nearly a dozen customers. "Benjamin Chen is the real deal," someone identified as a customer wrote in a Facebook post in December 2018. "If he can't do it, nobody can."
Potential clients could inspect grainy snapshots of nondescript powders and pills on Facebook. Occasionally, Chen replied directly to loyal customers, even paying for a Lyft ride to the hospital as compensation when one customer complained he had overdosed on Chen's product.
Sometimes operating under the pseudonym "King Sun" or "Sun King," he also advertised his chemical wares openly on LinkedIn, Twitter and Vimeo before and after the class ban last year.
Chen adapted to the ban by selling fentanyl precursors, or what he called "hot products for research chemicals" — compounds that are only a few chemical steps away from a fentanyl analog and that are not always criminalized. Other substances on sale included a sometimes deadly synthetic opioid also known as "pink," and synthetic cannabinoids.
C4ADS found at least 31 vendors on Alibaba, the Chinese wholesale e-commerce platform, selling four fentanyl precursors under shortened chemical serial numbers in September 2019, more than three months after the fentanyl class ban went into effect. Alibaba has since taken down nearly all listings for those four precursors.
Since April, however, C4ADS has identified 32 vendors on Alibaba advertising two other precursors that can be used to make fentanyl but are not banned in either the U.S. or China.
In a statement to NPR, Alibaba said that it "prohibits the listing by third-party sellers of any controlled substances" and that the company cooperates with law enforcement when needed.
While stricter regulation has not wiped out the fentanyl-related industry in China, it has made it more difficult for illicit vendors to operate.
A salesperson for Hebei Aicrowe Biotech Co. Ltd., a pharmaceuticals maker registered in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, said the company had drastically reduced the number of synthetic opioids and other compounds it offered because of the heightened legal scrutiny in China.
But when NPR visited the company in November 2019, the salesperson confirmed it still sold "99918," which is code for a popular fentanyl precursor, according to C4ADS analysts, and was banned in China in 2018.
"The customer has the responsibility to guarantee the compound is legal where the receiving address is," the salesperson said.
Most of the chemicals salespeople NPR spoke to for this story did not give their names. Their work could lead to harsh punishment in China, where drug trafficking is punishable by death.
Easy to make, easy to hide
Fentanyl production and exports continue apace in obscure Chinese cities. One laboratory in Hebei province was tucked inside a sprawling industrial warehouse complex.
Inside, narcotics investigators found a prolific fentanyl production operation — all contained within two small rooms with "product drying on tape in sheet cake pans," said a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official posted in China. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly to a reporter about his work on the case.
In November 2018, Chinese police — acting on a tip from the U.S. — seized more than 26 pounds of fentanyl and 42 pounds of other drugs from the lab and eventually sentenced nine people from the city of Xingtai in Hebei a year later in a major Chinese-U.S. joint drug takedown. The Xingtai government declined to be interviewed.
The successful bust won international praise but also drew attention to how easily synthetic opioids can be manufactured in small, clandestine spaces with rudimentary equipment.
"With globalization and supply chain management run by Web-savvy criminals, you don't have to have this big, scary criminal network," said the ICE official, who participated in the joint investigation. "You just have to be able to run a business and take advantage of modern technology."
Synthetic opioid vendors favor working out of China's industrial hinterlands, where policing can be less strict. Of the 92 fentanyl and fentanyl-analog selling entities C4ADS was able to identify with location details, 41% listed their corporate address in Shijiazhuang. The provincial capital, in northeastern China, is known for its once-thriving coal, steel and other heavy industries.
China has a vast pharmaceuticals and bulk chemical manufacturing sector, making compounds sold globally intended for legitimate purposes in medicine and industrial processes. Synthetic opioid vendors shield themselves behind layers of interlinked companies registered in these sectors or related fields such as biotechnology. The drug vendors NPR visited worked out of offices tucked away in shopping malls, residential towers and industrial complexes.
"You can do this sort of business from anywhere," said a salesperson at Crovell Biotech Co. Ltd., a fentanyl-analog vendor in Shijiazhuang. To keep operations secure, Crovell employees said they market and export their drugs in-house from Shijiazhuang, but the riskiest part — manufacturing the synthetic compounds themselves — was done by Crovell employees "not near here."
Chen chose to operate from a base in Ningxia, where he worked at a company selling materials used in steelmaking.
Corporate records seen by C4ADS and NPR show Chen also registered a string of export and pharmaceutical companies linked to his opioid-selling operation in Ningxia.
In September 2019, NPR managed to meet Chen at the industrial materials company where he works. He wore sneakers and a black zip-up hoodie. When asked about his online accounts, Chen ushered the reporter into a private conference room and quickly closed the door. His eyes darted around nervously, and he cleared his throat repeatedly
When confronted about his illicit business, Chen told NPR he did not sell fentanyl or precursors and denied he was the person behind the moniker "King Sun."
"I have never done anything illegal, and my work is all within legal bounds," Chen said.
Access to the Internet gives even small-time sellers in China transnational reach to market and ship their potent products.
Vendors continue to operate openly on platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Wickr, MeWe and Vimeo, advertising a head-spinning array of chemicals tagged with an obscure but internationally used numerical naming system.
"Sellers and buyers know the obscure acronyms, code names, chemical registration numbers and the like, and are able to change on a dime when one trusted member of a group is raided or arrested," said Logan Pauley, a former C4ADS analyst who worked on the report.
Facebook said in a statement to NPR that its online standards explicitly say "buying, selling or trading non-medical or pharmaceutical drugs is not allowed on Facebook. Any time we become aware of content on Facebook that is facilitating activity like drug sales, we remove it and have taken numerous measures to minimize the opportunity for these activities to take place on our platform." (Facebook is a financial supporter of NPR.)
Twitter said it does not allow its platform to be used to facilitate illegal transactions and that its advertisement policy prohibits the promotion of drugs and paraphernalia.
The video platform Vimeo said it "bans users from uploading or sharing content on Vimeo that violates any applicable law," including fentanyl and fentanyl-related compounds.
The social media company MeWe said that "any group, page, or member reported on MeWe that is found to be selling any sort of illegal drug is swiftly removed by MeWe's Trust and Safety Team and may be reported to the authorities."
Wickr did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. law enforcement acknowledged struggling to curb this online fentanyl marketplace, in part because many of the transactions are encrypted. "We know it's happening. We still cannot get cooperation from major Internet companies, service providers, to be able to get into those devices that we know [drug cartels] are utilizing," the DEA's Donahue said.
He pointed to the Chinese social media platform WeChat as particularly problematic. WeChat's parent company, Tencent, did not respond to NPR's request for comment.
"Traffickers have intelligence just like we do," Donahue said. "The Chinese have great intelligence. They know we can't get into this stuff. That's why they utilize those methods of communication to be able to ship drugs. They know law enforcement doesn't have the means or the know-how or the resources to infiltrate."
Drugs by mail
In August 2019, more than three months after China's class ban, the U.S. government issued an advisory warning federal agencies of continued shipments of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, including via the U.S. Postal Service and private express mail services. The Treasury Department has also used bank data to identify fentanyl vendors. In 2019, the department sanctioned three Chinese nationals accused of trafficking the synthetic opioids.
However, vendors still manage to send the packages within aluminum alloy bags through international mail carriers complete with tracking numbers, so customers can monitor the itinerary from halfway around the world.
"Our company [is a legal business] in China. We offer [discreet] and reliable packaging and delivery. Fast and reliable shipping within 48 hours, using courier service, DHL, EMS, TNT, FedEx, UPS," Gaosheng Biotechnology Co. Ltd. coached its sales associates to say on more than 100 social media and advertising sites, according to a company document seen by NPR. The company has advertised an array of drugs, including a popular fentanyl analog called furanyl fentanyl, according to C4ADS.
Data from 2017 and 2018 show the volume and absolute number of U.S. seizures of fentanyl-related compounds shipped by mail dropping drastically after U.S. Customs and Border Protection stepped up its screening of incoming international packages.
But vendors in China said they have managed to work around the extra hurdles.
"We ship a special way, can ensure you can receive the goods. We have the product in stock," a salesperson for Hebei Speedgain Biotechnology Co. Ltd. said via WhatsApp in May. The company describes itself as a maker of drug and pesticide intermediates.
The salesperson said the company also sold a banned fentanyl precursor, at $1,100 a kilogram.
A salesperson at a different company, Shunwei Biological, based in Shijiazhuang, said in May that it was still selling two fentanyl precursors and a range of synthetic cannabinoids to customers in the United States. "We are shipping to the U.S. and have success with deliveries to your country and others," the salesperson said.
One possible way around the screening is for vendors to ship large volumes of illicit synthetic opioids disguised within lawful bulk cargo to the U.S., where a distributor can then fulfill individual American orders domestically. In 2017, the DEA arrested a Chinese national living in Massachusetts and operating such a warehouse of synthetic opioids and other drugs obtained from China.
"It could be that the mail shipments are down in part because what has happened is that the vendors have moved to shipping it through cargo to the United States. ... That data is not being collected because all the seizures that I see are only from [U.S.] ports of entry," said Bryce Pardo, who researches drug policy at Rand Corp.
Drug supply chains are changing in other ways as traffickers engage in a cat-and-mouse game to evade law enforcement.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic temporarily paralyzed the trade. Many ingredients behind synthetic opioids are made in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus was first discovered and which authorities completely locked down for more than two months.
"The cutoffs were temporary," said Louise Shelley, a George Mason University professor who researches fentanyl supply chains and studied the impact of the pandemic on sales. "The problem has not ended. [Fentanyl sales] are still going on the open Web."
You push on a balloon, it pops somewhere else.
In the U.S., meanwhile, more than 40 states have reported spikes in opioid-related deaths this year, according to the American Medical Association. Fentanyl, which is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, is a leading cause of overdoses.
Mexican cartels have also begun distributing fentanyl products, using ingredients largely made in China. "Now the role of China — and the growing role of India — is sending precursor chemicals directly to cartels in Mexico to produce the fentanyl in clandestine labs," the DEA's Donahue said. "You push on a balloon, it pops somewhere else."
More Chinese vendors are moving to password-protected websites, where access is given only to trusted customers. They are moving away from public social media accounts, for security reasons and because many companies, including Instagram and Reddit, have implemented rules that make it harder for illicit drug vendors to operate. Chen's Facebook accounts were shut down last year, but he has created a new account.
Analysts said an entire new class of synthetic opioids — a family of compounds called benzimidazoles — is now showing up in U.S. drug busts and leading to overdose deaths. The drugs are completely different in chemical structure from fentanyl, but experts warn they can be just as deadly. Initial seizures of the drugs come from mailed packages originating in China, where their production is not controlled.
"It's still a small amount, but it's alarming because benzimidazoles could be the kind of new pathway illicit chemists have identified, a new chemical structure that's not controlled yet and that's harder to detect because it's new," said Pardo of Rand Corp. "At the end of the day, these chemists will figure out new things to get around these laws."
NPR Beijing bureau producer Amy Cheng contributed research from Beijing. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann contributed reporting from New York.
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