The seller, who went by the name Linda Wang, was curt when asked if she sold a chemical often used to create fentanyl.
“That’s banned,” Wang replied, before quickly providing an alternative: “CAS79099 powder is best. U can have a try.”
After more than a week of back and forth, she seemed impatient. “Ok. 79099 powder in USA warehouse now…if you need. Pls order asap,” she wrote in a text message exchange.
The interaction is part of a CNN investigation that explored whether US-sanctioned chemical companies in China are evading Washington DC’s crackdown on illicitly made fentanyl – finding at least one China-based company that had links to a sanctioned entity, and a seller eager to ship potential ingredients for the lethal drug.
More than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021, and two-thirds of the fatalities involved synthetic opioids – much of it believed from illicitly made fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The drug can be 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine – and pharmaceutical grade versions of it can be prescribed by doctors for severe pain. But illegally manufactured fentanyl has turbocharged the US’s opioid overdose crisis in the last decade, according to data from the CDC.
Controlling the illegal trade of the drug has turned into a geopolitical headache for the Biden administration, as China’s vast chemicals market – which supplies the world with raw materials for everything from perfume to explosives– is also a major pipeline of the building blocks of fentanyl, known as fentanyl precursors, according to US officials.
Further complicating the fight against fentanyl is the sheer variety of precursors that can be used to make fentanyl and other illicit drugs. Most such precursors also have legitimate uses – including for medical research – and are perfectly legal to sell, making up part of the booming transnational trade.
China has strict anti-drug policies domestically, but critics in the US say it is not doing enough to help monitor or regulate purchases from buyers aiming to use Chinese-made ingredients to manufacture illegal drugs overseas.
In 2019, Beijing stepped up its crack down on the production and sale of finished fentanyl and its variants, but US-China anti-drug cooperation has since stalled amid disagreements on trade, human rights, the Covid-19 outbreak and Taiwan. Hopes that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would bring up fentanyl during a planned visit to Beijing died in early February, when Blinken postponed his trip after a surveillance balloon from China floated over the continental US.
As the opioid crisis topped the domestic agenda in 2021, the US sanctioned four companies in China accused of exporting fentanyl or fentanyl precursor chemicals. Online commercial records suggest ties between one of those sanctioned companies, Hebei Atun Trading Co., Ltd., and another China-based company called Shanxi Naipu Import and Export Co., Ltd., that continues to sell fentanyl precursors legally.
According to official public records in China, Hebei Atun Trading Co., Ltd., began liquidating in June 2021 and was formally dissolved in August that year. Shanxi Naipu Import and Export Co., Ltd. was registered in the same period, according to official records, and it shares a number of key things in common with Hebei Atun.
For example, Hebei Atun’s still-active Facebook page once linked to a now-defunct website of Shanxi Naipu – which is where CNN found Wang’s phone number.
The two companies’ websites are registered to the same email address, and at one time appeared to share an IP address. Today, Shanxi Naipu’s websites appear to be carbon copies of Hebei Atun’s since-deleted page – with the same navigation tabs, email address and stock photo of a pipette dropping amber-colored liquid into a cell tray. The Russian and Portuguese versions of the site list “Hebei Atun Trading Co. Ltd.” as their copyright holder.
One post on a Shanxi Naipu website was titled, “Hebei ATUN Trading Co., Ltd. Wishes you a Happy New Year!” (sic). It has since been deleted.
When presented with CNN’s findings, Shanxi Naipu denied ties to Hebei Atun, saying, “we are not related at all.” In statements emailed to CNN, Shanxi Naipu said it had purchased the sanctioned company’s Facebook account, email and cell phone number in order to “attract internet traffic.”
Shanxi Naipu also denied selling the fentanyl precursor that Wang offered by text, and stressed that everything they sell is legal, and said that they were taking steps to stop the repercussions from the apparent links to Hebei Atun.
“To prevent further impact from Hebei Atun, we have immediately removed relevant promotional websites and platforms,” the company said in an emailed statement.”
Logan Pauley, a China analyst who tracks criminal and drug networks, told CNN, “It’s easy on the Chinese side to start a new company to copy and paste the same text that you’re posting on social media or you’re posting on a trade website, and then just to recreate the same operation over and over again.”
And Gary Hufbauer, trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and former US treasury official, likens it to a game of cat-and-mouse. While the US government can add an entity to its sanctions list “overnight,” said Hufbauer, there may not be the resources in the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces sanctions, to keep tabs on new companies that may leverage sanctioned companies’ branding or operations.
In a statement to CNN, a spokesperson for the US Treasury said it “had not hesitated” to go after “bad actors” – citing the four sanctioned Chinese companies – and would continue to sanction companies and individuals involved in the drug trade.
“Treasury continues to monitor the effects of our designations,” they said. “If additional information becomes available that can assist sanctions compliance efforts, when appropriate, we provide that information to industry and/or the public.”
Asked if Beijing was knowingly lax in its efforts to stem the flow of precursor chemicals from its country, the Chinese Foreign Ministry pointed out that most were not controlled substances, in a lengthy statement that also questioned US efforts to treat addiction and demand for opioids.
“China has always strictly controlled precursor chemicals in accordance with international conventions and domestic laws. The US side’s so-called ‘fentanyl precursors,’ a small number of them are listed substances by the United Nations, and China has always been resolute in implementing the listed measures. But most of the rest are common chemicals that are not listed by the United Nations, China or even the United States itself,” it said in a written statement to CNN.
“Government departments do not have the right or the possibility to regulate non-listed chemicals and common commodities,” it added.
The ministry statement went on to highlight China’s harsh domestic penalties on drug trade and consumption. “The Chinese people deeply resent drugs. the Opium War was the beginning of China’s modern history of humiliation. The Chinese government has always cracked down on drug crime, and China is a no-go area for international drug dealers.”
Such unregulated precursors, like the one offered by Wang, are not illegal to sell but can be used in the manufacture of illicit substances like fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine.
Several precursors used to create fentanyl have been put under international control since 2017, but a savvy chemical engineer can combine legal precursors further up the synthesis chain to make similar compounds.
“What we have seen illicit chemists doing now is that certain components of the synthesis are now … harder for them to purchase, so what they’re doing now is they’re buying compounds that are structurally very, very similar,” Alexandra Evans, a forensic chemist with the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences, told CNN from her lab in the US capital.
Or they can create fentanyl analogues, substitutes that are chemically similar to fentanyl and which has made the crisis more deadly in recent years. One fentanyl analogue was found to be 10,000 times stronger than morphine, according to a 2021 US government report.
Controlling the stream of chemicals has turned into a deadly game of whack-a-mole – where manufacturers are able to use a variety of precursors to synthesize fentanyl and its analogues faster than either can be identified, banned, or regulated.
Many of the building blocks to fentanyl have benign purposes and are legal to buy, but a menu Wang sent of Shanxi Naipu’s chemical products for sale appeared designed to support illegal drug manufacture, according to a synthetic chemist who analyzed the list for CNN.
It was “obviously a list curated to help people create illicit drugs,” Lyle Isaacs, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Maryland, told CNN of the more than 25 chemical compounds on the menu.
At least three compounds on the list could be made into fentanyl, he said. One of the compounds, CAS 79099-07-3, also known as 1-Boc-4-piperidone, was what Wang offered to sell CNN; the other two compounds also have legitimate uses and can be found, for example, in academic laboratories researching future medicines, Isaacs said.
Still more compounds on the list appeared to be building blocks for meth, ecstasy, ketamine, and the cutting of cocaine, as well as over-the-counter drugs like paracetamol, a common pain medication that can also be used to cut heroin and other narcotics, he added.
Asked about the list, Shanxi Naipu reiterated in its statement to CNN that all products on it are legal in China, stating: “We are not professional chemists but just a trading company. Even though we don’t have an intimate knowledge of the composition and use of thousands of chemicals, we have always strictly ensured the legality of our products!”
Attempts to contact Wang through the company for comment were not successful, and the company said in its statement that she no longer works for them.
There are measures that responsible chemical sellers can take to avoid their products being used for illegal drugs.
Identity checks are a hallmark of reputable sellers, said a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official. The source spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. To sell non-listed chemicals, a good-faith seller would normally ask a buyer about the intended use of the compound, and whether the buyer had the backing of a company or institution, such as a research organization or university.
American buyers of regulated chemicals require licenses from the DEA, depending on how hazardous they are. Reputable sellers may also ask for tax identifications even for chemicals that are not controlled, like precursor materials, the source said.
At no point in the conversation was Wang aware, nor did she ask for the identities of the CNN reporters speaking to her or what CNN planned on using it for. She even offered a “door to door” precursor delivery service via warehouses in the US or Mexico – locations that CNN has been unable to verify.
In its statement to CNN, Shanxi Naipu denied that it had warehouses in either country.
The small quantity of precursor needed to manufacture fentanyl ultimately makes shipments destined for illicit ends hard to catch at the border, points out Martin Raithelhuber, an illicit synthetic drugs expert at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
“You have hundreds of thousands of tonnes (of chemicals in a shipment), and you are looking for a few kilograms, which are sufficient to produce a supply of millions of doses (of fentanyl),” he said.
Since China banned the production of fentanyl and related substances in 2019, Mexican criminal organizations have largely taken control of the drug’s production and sale, smuggling finished fentanyl to consumers in the US, according to a 2022 report from the Congressional Research Service.
Mexico is now the source of “the vast majority” of meth, heroin and illicit fentanyl seized in the US, according to the US International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) released in March 2023. “In 2022, the United States identified Mexico as the sole significant source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl analogues significantly affecting the United States,” it reads.
“Criminal elements, mostly in the People’s Republic of China, ship precursor chemicals to Mexico, where they are used to produce illicit fentanyl,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year.
“The only limit on how much fentanyl they can make is the amount of precursor chemicals they can get,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram told CNN in early March.
The Biden administration has taken aim at these groups and in February sanctioned a network of Sinaloa Cartel members and associated entities for their involvement in the fentanyl and methamphetamine trade.
Mexico’s law enforcement has also fought the trade, seizing and impounding hundreds of kilos of fentanyl precursors and pills – including a cache of over a million potential fentanyl pills in the Mexican border city of Tijuana on March 13.
Ultimately, tackling fentanyl requires close coordination between the US, Mexico, and China. Even if countries like Mexico had the best national control measures, international cooperation is needed to understand “which flows are the ones we need to watch or [be] worried about,” Raithelhuber said.
Former DEA official Matthew Donahue told CNN he would like to see Mexico do more, including cracking down on properties and other assets of those involved in the drug trade.
But as the US pressures other governments to help slow the flow of illicit fentanyl, relations between the three countries have turned into a three-way blame game.
Following the kidnapping of four Americans in a Mexican border town by cartel members in early March, US Republicans called for the US military to be allowed to fight cartels and destroy drug labs in Mexico – something Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called “an offense to the people of Mexico.”
“We are not a protectorate of the United States or a colony of the United States. Mexico is a free, independent, sovereign country. We don’t take orders from anyone,” López Obrador said at a news conference on March 9.
Washington has also called on Beijing to do more, with the latest US INCSR report describing China’s oversight functions as “poorly staffed and under-resourced to oversee its massive chemical industry.” Though it acknowledges Beijing’s harsh penalties for drug trafficking, the report laments ineffective controls on shipment labeling, customer vetting and pill-making equipment.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement to CNN emphasizes its “stringent” control of listed chemicals that could be used for drug-making and argues that Beijing has “improved” several “regulatory mechanisms such as end-user verification, leakage monitoring, and source backtracking, and has strengthened management of more than 200,000 chemical companies.”
Both China and Mexico have called on the US to do some soul-searching about demand for illicit fentanyl.
“US legislators and the authorities there are not doing their job because they are not addressing the causes (of addiction); there are no care programs for young people in the US,” López-Obrador said last week.
“Using China as a scapegoat will not solve the drug crisis in the United States … ,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement to CNN read. “We advise the US side to reflect on itself, stop shifting blame, strengthen domestic prescription drug control, enhance publicity on the dangers of drugs, and take practical measures to reduce domestic drug demand.”
Prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone – which have a similar chemical structure to heroin and fentanyl – were major contributors to the early opioid crisis in the US. Pharmaceutical giants, notably Purdue Pharma, downplayed the potentially addictive properties of the drugs and incentivized US doctors to prescribe the painkillers. But prescribing was curtailed as overdoses from prescription opioids climbed and now waves of heroin and illicit fentanyl took over, making the crisis far more deadly.
Amid the recriminations, fentanyl products continue to pour through US borders and Americans continue to die.
To raise awareness of the human toll, the US Drug Enforcement Administration last year created “The Faces of Fentanyl” exhibit at its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia where families can submit a photo of a loved one lost to the fentanyl crisis. So far more than 5,000 photos have been submitted.
“We can’t be desensitized” to the number of lives lost to drug overdoses,” Donahue, the former DEA official, said. “The pain and suffering that these families are going through. That has got to mean something.”