India, the largest manufacturer of generic drugs globally as per the 2021 World Drug Report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, is seeing an increasing diversion of prescription drugs and their precursors (ingredients) into the black market for recreational use.
In 2019, India had ranked among the ten countries reporting the most significant opioid seizures in the world.
China, the then supplier of chemical precursors to Mexican drug cartels:
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Mexican Cartels have always looked at China, a massive pharmaceutical industry, as the primary supplier of precursor chemicals for making drugs. Chinese precursor suppliers were extraordinarily available and easy to reach because the suppliers used to sell the precursors online, openly, primarily by China-based dealers.
But as the deaths due to drug overdose surged, the Chinese government restricted the most common fentanyl precursors in 2018 due to the U.S. diplomatic pressure. Now, dealers in China can face harsh penalties and even death sentences upon being caught.
Since then, Chinese dealers risk facing harsh penalties (including death) and have become less open about online activities. This pushed the business underground, and new suppliers emerged in no time to meet the demand.
India, the news source for trafficking of precursors for Mexican cartels:
Like China, India has a vast pharmaceutical industry, which makes it challenging to keep complete track of the movement of chemicals, leading to the slipping of specific precursors into the black market. On the other hand, India’s patent laws let manufacturers reverse-engineer generic drugs at a low cost.
IndiaMart, an online website similar to Amazon, is a hub for getting the precursors, as multiple wholesale exporters are easily connected to buyers. Both for industrial use and commercial products.
One can search for methamphetamine ingredients with visuals of white crystalline powders up even after them being banned. How? Keywords like “ephedrine” and “ephedrine” can easily bypass the site’s search filters for the common precursor “ephedrine”. It is worth noting that “ephedrine” is also the Spanish word for ephedrine.
These chemicals available for usage are essential to make cheap medicine available for everyone, but they’re diverted for illegal use.
A Chinese analyst based in the U.S., Logan Pauley, an expert on illicit synthetic drug networks, says India is still not a significant supplier of fentanyl precursors. Still, meth ingredients are readily available on sites like IndiaMart, often mislabeled to foil content moderators.
He noticed Chinese brokers advertising on Indian chemical supply sites suggests that Indian firms are still catching up to the fentanyl precursor market.
“It might be equipment, it might be domestic law. Who knows?” Pauley said listing reasons 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.”
In an interview with Vice Media, a Western anti-narcotics official based in Asia said India’s ascent 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. The official said it was almost inevitable that cartels would look to India as the national and state laws are disorganised, availability of abundant trained chemists, and rampant corruption at the local level.
KP Malhotra, a former deputy director of India’s Narcotics Control Bureau, says that the agency is aware of “suspicious chemicals” being produced in India.
“Traffickers are now using other designer precursors, analogues, and chemical combinations to make substances that are not controlled,” he said. “We are keeping an eye on these and cannot share any more details, as we don’t want to alert anyone.”
Indian Authorities’ busts of massive drug and precursor trafficking:
The restrictions in China have pushed the drug traffickers to India to source the chemical “precursors” they need, evident by a recent series of busts and intelligence reports.
India has already become an alternative supply source for one of Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organizations.
Back in September 2018, three men were arrested in the city of Indore. The suspects Mexican national Jorge Solis (43- at the time of arrest), Mohammed Sadiq (59- at the time of arrest) and Manu Gupta (45- at the time of arrest), both residents of Indore were caught in a secret lab wearing masks and gloves and in possession of “10 kilos of fentanyl”, which they reportedly had planned to ship to Mexico, hidden in a suitcase on a commercial flight.
Fentanyl is an opioid used in pain medication and is also used as an enhancer for various drugs. An extremely potent substance, it is added in milligrams to drugs like heroin and cocaine to enhance their effects. It is in high demand across the world, leading to international cartels trafficking it in large quantities. (More about Fentanyl at the bottom)
The Mexican national Jorge Solis Fernandez used to run an import-export company. Photos posted on social media showed Solis and several Mexican associates travelling through Japan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong and even visiting the Taj Mahal en route to meeting their Indian partners.
The cartel’s Indian connection was Manu Gupta, who again ran an import-export company, Mondiale Mercantile, and was linked to a Chinese firm that trafficked in fentanyl precursors.
In another case, in the final months of 2018, the Azad Maidan unit of the Mumbai Anti Narcotics Cell (ANC seized four drums of Fentanyl) on Wednesday night. The ANC arrested Salim Dhola (52), along with Chandraman Tiwari (41), Sandeep Tiwari (38), and Ghanshyam Saroj (43), who were in possession of the drugs.
“Inquiries till now indicate that he (Salim Dhola- Prime suspect) is an old player in the drug smuggling racket and has links that extend beyond borders. The consignment that we seized on Wednesday was to be sent to Mexico,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police Shivdeep Lande, Mumbai ANC.
A DEA intelligence report also said that the four Indian nationals caught in Mumbai had approximately 100 kilograms of the fentanyl precursor NPP, which was “destined for Mexico and deliberately mislabeled.”
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.”
The report 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.”
Indian Narcotics Department Official Sameer Wankhede said 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 labourers and chemists from outside states to [avoid any suspicion],” Wankhede said.
After these cases of 2018, fentanyl busts have become rare and seizures of methamphetamine and methamphetamine precursors, with at least six cases involving the precursors, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in the year 2021, according to India’s Narcotics Control Bureau.
New laws in India about two common fentanyl precursors in 2018:
In 2018 itself, India had introduced new laws to regulate fentanyl precursors, including the pain killer tramadol, after its name cropped up as the lead supplier in clandestine markets. The annual worldwide seizure of the drug fell from 125 to 32 tonnes in a single year.
But tramadol is only one of India’s growing drug problems because other raw ingredients used in the illegal manufacturing of drugs are difficult to control. After all, they have legitimate scientific and medical uses.
(Tramadol is a painkiller used for medical purposes as a slow-release drug that works over an extended period, with dosage not exceeding 400 mg per day. If the drug is crushed and inhaled or injected at once, it produces powerful feelings of euphoria. Non-medical use of tramadol leads to physical dependence and has been linked to seizures, psychosis and overdose deaths.)
Trafficking drugs can lead to life in prison or even the death penalty in India. Still, suppose one is caught selling precursors, in that case, they usually get a sentence of a maximum of 10 years and suspects are typically released on bail within 60 days. This has led to dealers being back in business within weeks of being arrested.
Surge in overdose deaths because of the Mexican Cartels’ switch to Fentanyl and Methamphetamine:
The Mexican Cartels, which rely on precursors to manufacture drugs, dominated the illegal drug trading of methamphetamine in North America.
Methamphetamine and Fentanyl can be cooked from scratch in labs, with few cheap chemicals, unlike cocaine, which is derived from coca plants, and heroin, which comes from opium poppies. This means fewer links in the supply chain and more profit on the bottom line.
This pivot to synthetic drugs has a devastating effect in the U.S. as the country hits a record for drug deaths in 2020, with 93,331 fatal overdoses recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This 30% upshot in overdose deaths was almost all caused by Fentanyl. Synthetic opioids were directly responsible for 57,550 deaths, according to the CDC, and were also a contributing factor in 70 per cent of cocaine fatalities and half of the meth overdoses.
In Mexico, a notorious area called El Bordo, about half a mile from the San Ysidro border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego has become a home base of sorts of the city’s drug-addicted and forgotten.
The drug market within the Mexican city itself has seen drastic changes in its drug market as the supply shifted from heroin to Fentanyl. This leads to a spike in overdoses and a war for control, skyrocketing Tijuana’s homicide rate.
This trend of a shift to Fentanyl is also being observed in cities across the borders of Mexico. This year, i.e., 2021, the border state of Baja California has seen a growing market of Fentanyl in pills, heroin, and potentially mixed with methamphetamine and cocaine.
Jaime Arredondo, a researcher, compared the situation to a “powder keg” that could explode at any moment. “Tijuana is like a thermometer for Mexico, and things are hot. Overdoses, violence, insecurity,” said Arredondo.
Possibility of a similar surge in Fentanyl and ultimately overdose deaths in India:
As India gradually catches up to the global market of drug precursors and especially Fentanyl, there might be quite the possibility that drugs mixed with Fentanyl will enter the Indian illegal drug market.
If such a thing happens, India, with billions, might see a crisis regarding overdose deaths similar to the U.S. and Mexico.
With a potentially more significant customer base for drug dealers and cartels, the more substantial population, with a similar possibility of unintentional and ignorant use of Fentanyl, either raw or mixed with other drugs, will wreak havoc.
Frontier India News Network tried to connect with the Deputy Drugs Controller of the Mumbai West Zone, for inputs on the possible outcome of Fentanyl mixed drugs entering India. Unfortunately, we couldn’t connect to the office.
The extremely dangerous Fentanyl:
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, making it, if not through prescription, extremely dangerous to those who have not built tolerance (the reduction of effects of a drug due to frequent use) to the drug and can lead to overdose and death. Fentanyl can be a more potent opioid than their bodies are used to.
Drug dealers and the Mexican Cartels are mixing Fentanyl with other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA, as it takes little money and effort to get high with Fentanyl, which makes it a leading cause of overdose deaths.
A person can overdose on Fentanyl when the drug produces severe adverse effects and life-threatening symptoms. When people overdose on Fentanyl, their breathing can slow or stop. It can reduce the quantity of oxygen that reaches the brain; a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can lead to a coma and permanent brain damage, and even death.
According to the U.S. DEA website, Fentanyl gives an “Intense, short-term high. Temporary feelings of euphoria. Slowed respiration and reduced blood pressure. Nausea. Fainting. Seizures. Death.”
It further reads, “Similar to other opioid analgesics; Fentanyl produces effects such as relaxation, euphoria, pain relief, sedation, confusion, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, urinary retention, pupillary constriction, and respiratory depression.”