'We Are Shipping To The U.S.': Inside China's Online Synthetic Drug Networks

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One of the things that outgoing president trump did during his term was pressured. China over the drug kills tens of thousands of americans each year and much of it does come from china so more than a year ago. China banned all types of feno related compounds. Now we have learned that it sellers have adapted. They are selling the individual chemicals that can be used to make the drug and they. You're selling those ingredients more or less openly online. Our beijing correspondent. Emily fang looked into this with help from data collected by the center for advanced defense studies analyst. Michael low muller worked together that data. We spoke with both of them. What exactly to china. Due in may two thousand nineteen they decided to ban any synthetic that resembled sentinel which was a big departure from what they did. Before of banning only specific at a time a few months after this band there was a big drug bust of drug trafficking ring in china. One person was sentenced to death other people sentenced to life in prison but then there was quiet and i was curious as to wear all these people who had been selling earlier had gone and what that world look like now with this span in place how do you go about trying to find that seemingly underground world. Well that's where michael comes in. We're interested in seeing how the supply chains were operating from the point of production through sale to us and when we're looking at The salen of things we found that a lot of this activity was occurring on the open normal internet so we were looking into various advertisements that go up on these different marketplaces platforms like alibaba and other chemical and pharmaceutical marketplaces that companies reposted for in advertisements for that no one other related substances so we saw that. It was a very much out in the open. You're telling me that you could just go to a normal website Maybe not exactly amazon but alibaba's a pretty big platform mean you could go and find these things. Yes we observe that. The bulk of federal related sales activity appeared to be occurring on the clear web on ecommerce websites such as alibaba but there are also other websites that vendors use a little maintain independent websites on also using social media to facebook. It's all current very much on the open. Was it easy for you to begin. Finding the exact locations even of people who were selling ingredients offended all vendors will rarely use the actual name for drugs. So you're not going to necessarily see an advertisement that says fennel for sale. But if you know that any no holly substances are being advertise. It's very easy to find even via a simple google search. Many of these company names that are listed alongside of these advertisements are real companies. You can look them up and the chinese registry and find identifying information for them including addresses. Emily thing in beijing. What did you do with that information. Because michael had found all of these vendors with addresses. I then went to see whether these people really existed in the places. They said they were on me. Found that many of them in fact were operating in clear daylight. Many of them had offices to do sales in the middle of quite large cities in apartment buildings in shopping malls in cubicle office buildings and it speaks to how difficult it is to stop factional compounds that are cheap to make you can ship thousands of doses at a time undetected sometimes and because of the internet. These people can directly reach clients in the us and mexico and europe from an apartment building and industrial china. Would you describe your visit to one of these places. One of the main vendors that i visited calls himself. Benjamin chen line and he was one of the more active anders that see for eighty s and npr. Were able to identify. I was able to find him in remote region which is in china's northwest and during the day he worked as a salesperson selling legitimate products used in steelmaking process out there but in addition to his regular job he was also selling sentinel precursors so the type of chemical ingredients used to make fennel as well as other synthetic drugs when i met chen and his employers office. He was very nervous. He ushered me into a conference room so his colleagues couldn't hear our conversation on when i confronted him as a person who secretly dealing deadly synthetic drugs on the internet. He denied everything you know. He said he himself was not involved in any of this however headshots of him linked to fennel precursor advertisements. Do match the man that i met the phone number provided on these advertisements matches the one that chen answered and that i texted him on as did the address that he listed for some of his websites so a bottom line question then has the flow of fentanyl from china to the united states been significantly interrupted in any way by china's law enforcement. I think when it comes to finish fennel reach in the united states from china. I would speculate that. There has been a decrease in that is tough to know for sure. Though we reached out to china for comment we reached out to the national narcotics control commission which is in charge of enforcing this ban. They said that they had not seen any legal sales of sentinel class. Chemicals online within chinese borders since the ban but due to the openness and cross-border nature of the internet. Any country would have a difficult time completely eradicated illegal information. So they're saying that they have not seen illegal activity but they cannot rule out that it's not happening what we've seen in china though. Is that some kind of online activity to sell. Fennel ingredients is still happening. The us drug enforcement administration does say that. Mail shipments attentional from china to the. Us have dropped dramatically since the ban but the also says that more and more of the essential ingredients are being shipped from china to mexico where the ingredients are made into finished venture capital and then sold again into the us so the flow has not stopped but the manner by which it's reaching. The us has changed realistically synthetic drugs. Vendors are finding ways to work around the spin and some ways that are technically legal even if the effect is to be selling deadly poisonous medic drugs to people outside of

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