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Joint US-Chinese operations against fentanyl led to trafficking gang's downfall

Simone McCarthy

Thursday's sentencing of a gang of drug traffickers in a smoggy city in northern China that few outsiders are likely to have ever heard of offers a rare insight into how the US authorities are working with their Chinese counterparts to tackle a deadly scourge that has devastated communities across the United States.

After the conclusion of the case " which saw one gang member given a suspended death sentence and eight others jailed, two of them for life " a group of Chinese and American law enforcement officers gathered in Xingtai, an industrial city in Hebei province, to share details of how their joint investigation had brought down an international fentanyl smuggling operation.

It was the first public example of how the two countries have been working together to target the trade. Their cooperation began in 2012, when a spike in the number of overdoses linked to the synthetic opioid prompted American officials to reach out to China, the biggest supplier of the drug and its related forms and compounds.

While issues such as soybeans, tariffs and 5G technology have dominated the US-China dialogue in recent years, the sale of Chinese-made fentanyl has also become a factor in the trade talks, with US President Donald Trump complaining that China is not doing enough to stop the drug from reaching America.

Nine members of a drug gang were sentenced by a court in Hebei province on Thursday. Photo: AFP alt=Nine members of a drug gang were sentenced by a court in Hebei province on Thursday. Photo: AFP

But this debate has taken places against a backdrop of overdose deaths, homelessness and devastated families and communities, spurring law enforcement to carry on their collaboration throughout the ebb and flow of tensions between the two countries.

"If there's one area of cooperation globally that a lot of countries who don't see eye-to-eye on many things, like trade, do see eye-to-eye on, it's organised crime, criminality and trafficking," said Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

"That doesn't mean cooperation is always easy [but it is] hugely important".

A major priority for the US has been to stop Chinese fentanyl from flooding the US black market, both through direct mail order to American customers and dealers, as well as being indirectly smuggled over the border by Mexican cartels that ship the drug and its chemical components through Pacific ports.

"The drug overdose crisis in the United States is the worst that we have seen historically ... in terms of other public health problems, this surpasses firearm deaths and is on par with motor vehicle deaths," said drug policy expert Bryce Pardo.

He noted the increasing role in past the six years of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin and in 2017 accounted for around 40 per cent of the over 70,000 drug overdoses in America, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's very important that these two sides work together, and this requires a positive and constructive political working environment," said Pardo, who is an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation think tank's Washington office.

Thursday's meeting between US and Chinese drug enforcement officials comes at a time when the two nations are circling around an interim trade deal, although it is unlikely to include any further measures to tackle the issue.

However, the two sides still have plenty of issues beyond the balance of trade to resolve, including the export of the drug from China to the US.

"If [Trump] can add to the scope of his agreement with Xi by referencing things that China might do with respect to the fentanyl trade, that could be seen to be adding to what he has been able to achieve," said Stephen Kirchner, director of the trade and investment programme at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

The synthetic opioid has been at the heart of the US drug crisis in recent years. Photo: AP alt=The synthetic opioid has been at the heart of the US drug crisis in recent years. Photo: AP

The issue became a subject of conversation in talks between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Argentina on December 1, and reared its head again in August as Trump prepared to levy additional tariffs and raise existing ones.

"[M]y friend President Xi said that he would stop the sale of Fentanyl to the United States " this never happened, and many Americans continue to die!" Trump tweeted on August 1, as he announced further levies on Chinese goods.

A provisional agreement at the talks in Argentina led China to tighten its drug regulations as of May to treat all variants of fentanyl as controlled substances.

It was an effort to close a loophole in which producers were making minor changes to the chemical compounds for fentanyl to get around China's existing regulations on the drug, which the country's booming pharmaceutical industry produces legally for medical use.

That move and increased attention to the issue in China does appear to be having an effect, at least in the short term, according to Pardo, who said there has been a steep drop in the appearance of chemical analogues of the drug in the US, as well as reduced fentanyl seizures by US postal and delivery services.

"But there's still a lot of fentanyl showing up," he said, noting that this could be from chemicals produced by China and sent to Mexico for manufacturing, illicit cargo shipments, or even stockpiles already in the United States.

" Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 1, 2019

Part of the challenge of stemming the tide lies with law enforcement officials in China who are tasked with ensuring that legally produced fentanyl pills or the component chemicals are not being smuggled out the "back door" of factories for shipment, according to the UN's Douglas.

Many of the chemicals involved originate from China's large chemical industry, where the compounds used to make a range of everyday products such as food additives or pharmaceuticals originate.

"That is a massive challenge because you can imagine some chemicals simply get diverted out the back door of a factory or misappropriated ... it's very hard to regulate."

International investigations, meanwhile, need to keep up with criminal syndicates that may involve a host of players from China, Mexico and US " making international collaboration by law enforcement crucial.

"There's definitely been progress in that relationship, and the Chinese side has been very much trying to make an effort, they are really making a push to show good faith to the US," Douglas said, that has included "clamping down" on the back-door transactions that see drugs shipped overseas.

But the extent to which the role of China in the global production of the drug and its component chemicals has diminished is difficult to gauge, and observers agree that China remains a key part of the supply chain.

"The producers and Big Pharma certainly have tightened up, but we know for a fact that there are stockpiles of that product ... and we know that clandestine markets have been created in the wake of these regulations," said Roderic Broadhurt, a professor of criminology at Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific.

He noted that unlike drugs such as heroin or cocaine, fentanyl can also be easily produced anywhere without the "long difficult logistic trains from the hills of northern Burma or western provinces of Mexico and Colombia" as long as the necessary chemicals are available.

China defended its record on this front in September, with a senior narcotics commission official Liu Yuejin saying that Trump's claims that authorities were not stopping trafficking were "completely groundless and untrue".

No fentanyl smuggling cases between the US and China have been uncovered since the new measures were implemented, Liu said at that time.

Details of the cooperation between the two sides have been scant so far, and the decision to publicise the results of the recent joint investigation could be a goodwill effort, according to several experts, to show that progress is being made on a sensitive issue.

This case began with a tip-off from US law enforcement in 2017 when officers from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New Orleans found the telephone number of a woman suspected of smuggling fentanyl.

The US authorities passed the number on to their Chinese counterparts, leading to the arrest of members of the gang that was sentenced on Thursday and "three major criminal arrests" being made in the United States.

Members of the Chinese gang were convicted last year of a range of offences, including manufacturing the drug, advertising it on English language websites and shipping it to the US.

Law enforcement officials have indicated that there are two further cases in the pipeline, one of which is an ongoing investigation while the other is expected to be wrapped up soon.

Yu Haibin, deputy director of China National Narcotics Control Commission, and Austin Moore, an attache for US law enforcement, at a press conference after the sentencing of the drug gang. Photo: AFP alt=Yu Haibin, deputy director of China National Narcotics Control Commission, and Austin Moore, an attache for US law enforcement, at a press conference after the sentencing of the drug gang. Photo: AFP

On Thursday, the US Office of National Drug Control Policy welcomed the prosecutions as a "positive step in following through the agreement" between Trump and Xi, adding: "We look forward to further cooperation to stop the flow of these deadly substances into the United States."

It said these would include establishing regular law enforcement cooperation meetings, responding "rapidly" to new leads, expanding detection and narcotics laboratory capabilities, as well as carrying out more joint investigations.

But while such successes remain good examples of international collaboration, the real challenge will be how these law enforcement efforts are able to track what experts see as an inevitable shift of manufacturing out of a stricter China and into South and Southeast Asia.

Douglas said the challenge was that China was only one country out of many that could become involved in the drug supply.

"There are other countries where synthetic drugs can be produced," he continued, "and we just hope that doesn't become the case that fentanyl production shifts to other locations, some of which don't have the capacity to control substances like China does."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.