05/18/2024

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The Synthetic Silk Road: Tracing China’s Grey-Market Precursor Chemical Trade

The Synthetic Silk Road: Tracing China’s Grey-Market Precursor Chemical Trade

The Synthetic Silk Road: Tracing China’s Grey-Market Precursor Chemical Trade

We were in a remote city in mainland China, also referred to as the People’s Republic of China, when we met Wang.* Wang is short and has a protruding belly that on that day stretched the buttons on his brown, Louis Vuitton shirt. His jewelry shop is tucked away in the lonely recesses of the city. Given the location and timing — China was still living under the government’s strict COVID-19 pandemic restrictions — we did not expect much fanfare. 

But inside, we noticed a plethora of treasures from what could have been a lost pirate ship’s booty — among them, a few random emerald rings, a pair of diamond bracelets, and a dusty gold ring with a sapphire square embedded in it. 

Baffled by these treasures, we asked Wang if he would mind sharing the secret of his success. He stopped and looked at us.

*This article is part of a series of investigations into the flow of precursor chemicals for fentanyl and methamphetamine production in Mexico. Read the other articles of the series here.

“Do you smoke?” he asked, pointing to a big tobacco jar on his desk. 

We nodded. He rolled a thin, tightly wound cigarette. Then, with a Cheshire grin, he guided us toward the backroom of his shop, where we smoked, and he told us he was connected to an organization that specialized in a peculiar form of debt collection, which he called, zhengyi fuchou (正义复仇). Roughly translated, it means divine justice. 

We probed further — perhaps he could elaborate on this “divine justice”? 

But he ignored our questions. Instead, he started talking about the intricate web of legal and covert businesses that had sustained him during the pandemic. From fish markets to tea shops to construction sites, Wang had a remarkably diverse portfolio. It was able to sidestep the Chinese government’s strict COVID sanctions in part due to what Wang claimed were his high-level contacts in the government. 

These contacts had also opened the door for him to plunder others of their wealth. Wang bragged that the treasures we’d seen at the entrance, for instance, were once the property of high-ranking political elites who’d been imprisoned during President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption sweep. For Wang, this was divine justice.

“Many people wish to have a piece of the big cake, especially from the ‘tigers and flies’ (老虎苍蝇),” he said, referencing a term used by Xi Jinping to describe allegedly corrupt elites.

The revelations left us stunned, but Wang was just getting started. Many of his regional associates, he said, had vested interests in illegal enterprises. He hinted that their products had a local reach and an international footprint, peddled to clients across the globe.

“Have you dealt in chemicals?” we asked. 

“More than that, but yes, chemicals also, very profitable,” he responded in a jumpy, declarative way. 

Still, Wang claimed he had no first-hand involvement in the industry, seemingly wanting to maintain a cautious distance from what he knew to be a touchy international topic.

That was because the Chinese chemicals in question are the chemical precursors for fentanyl, among many other synthetic drugs. Those ingredients are sold in large quantities from China to criminal operators in places like Mexico, where fentanyl is produced clandestinely in massive amounts. It is then laced into counterfeit pills or kept in powdered form, before being trafficked in considerable quantities north to the United States, where tens of thousands of people overdose on the drug per year.

The fentanyl market, and China’s role in it, has helped disrupt bilateral relations between the United States and China, and as we talked, Wang remained cagey. But he kept alluding to a sprawling black market within China, a shadowy industry filled with well-connected individuals and covert chemical enterprises, some intricately linked to local governors and prestigious academic institutions.

“Some of my friends do it,” he said, referring to the sale of highly regulated chemicals. “But it’s too complicated and costly to start that business. You have to be really connected, [and have] very good guangxi (关系),” he said. 

Guangxi means a lot of things in Chinese. But in this case, it means corrupt or high-level connections that can provide extra-legal protection and contacts, all of which makes a grey-market business like precursor chemicals hum.

The Dark Web

Piqued by our visit to the jewelry shop, we began to see if we could find anyone with knowledge of the precursor chemical market. Soon, we got a tip from what would be our first anonymous source. The source pointed us to the dark web, where anonymity cloaks buyers, sellers, and their transactions. Not surprisingly, it is a hub for numerous underworld products, including illegal drugs, highly regulated chemicals, modified weapons, and stolen credit cards, among other goods. 

Our initial mission was to unearth suppliers shipping precursor chemicals from mainland China, which excludes Hong Kong and Macau, that were destined for Mexico. Using the information from our source, we began poking around chemical supply sites. Posing as a buyer from Mexico, we accessed the dark web via Tor. 

Tor is a browser that allows for anonymous communication and it is the most common form of accessing the dark web. Once open, we did a series of searches with the word “fentanyl.” Eventually, one of them popped up with a product identification number. When we clicked on this site, it brought us to MicroDroper.

An advertisement by MicroDroper on the dark web for CAS 125541-22-2, or 1-Boc-4-AP, a fentanyl pre-precursor

From the shipping information on their website, MicroDroper appeared to be a China-based distributor. It seemed to permeate all corners of the dark web and the dark web’s most notorious sites, such as Nemesis, Tor2Door, and RoyalMarket. These websites act like Amazon with numerous listings, and MicroDroper was among them.

“We are MicroDroper team,” a typical product description read. “7 years in the Dark Market. Over 16k reviews. 100% satisfaction.”  

The company’s inventory boasted a wide spectrum of chemicals, including those earmarked for the production of designer drugs and synthetic cannabinoids, as well as chemicals used for the production of methamphetamine and fentanyl. With over 16,000 transactions at the time we did the research, MicroDroper stood apart from the other sellers. What’s more, it had a devoted following.

“Arrived quickly again! New shipping method with even better stealth,” wrote one buyer.

“Great communication. All aspects handled very well. Highly recommended!” remarked another.  

We spent the next few weeks analyzing the chemical concoctions MicroDroper was selling. This was difficult because, as we found, they use elaborate means to disguise their products. One of these methods is the use of a Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) number. The CAS is standard industry practice. It is akin to a serial number and is used to identify chemical substances and pharmaceutical products. For example, the number 125541-22-2 mentioned in the product description above is the CAS number for 1-N-Boc-4-phenylaminopiperidine (1-Boc-4-AP), a pre-precursor that can be used to produce fentanyl. According to InSight Crime interviews with various fentanyl cooks in Sinaloa, Mexico, in early 2024, this is one of the main substances they use to manufacture the synthetic drug in their clandestine laboratories.

Another MicroDroper advertisement of CAS 125541-22-2, or 1-Boc-4-AP, on the dark web

The CAS number is the easiest way to find these chemicals on the dark web and beyond, and it was the product identification we had stumbled upon in our initial search. But while this coded nomenclature has become a hallmark of this shadowy industry on the dark web and on the clearnet, it is often only part of a layered marketing campaign to draw in customers. The companies also combine the CAS numbers with other key search terms they know can garner the attention of search engines. For instance, one distributor we found on the clearnet used the CAS number and the keywords, “Chemical,” “Mexico,” and “US” to draw buyers to their site.

Some website display a number of keywords to draw buyers to their site

The Sellers

With time, we began to interact online with these sellers. Our interactions with the companies transpired predominantly through encrypted email correspondence, safeguarding our identity and theirs. We also used a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access the Internet. The usage of a VPN and secure messaging applications is typical in China, where a formidable government firewall exerts strict control over conventional Chinese platforms. The majority of the population is aware that the messaging applications that are permitted, such as WeChat, are under strict surveillance and avoid them. Instead, they use Telegram, WhatsApp, and Wickr, or they use encrypted email services.

Some of these sellers also maintained fictitious identities, and, to endear them to buyers, they often projected kinship and a shared ethnicity. For instance, some adopted Latino names like “Ana Sofía” or “Daisey,” presumably to make us feel more comfortable that we were doing business with Mexican or Latino counterparts.  

Still, to our surprise, the sellers were more than willing to engage. In fact, once we indicated interest in buying precursor chemicals, they provided us with CAS numbers as well as the names of the chemicals they sold that can be used to synthesize fentanyl. They often went to great lengths to ensure that we had the right CAS number and any additional information we needed to find the chemicals.

Relationships stoked, we sent a message to several contacts asking for 20 kilograms of CAS 125541-22-2, or 1-Boc-4-AP, which would give us enough raw material to make roughly 20 kilograms of fentanyl. 

Less than 24 hours later, we had our first answer.

Other sellers sent messages on Telegram, WhatsApp, or Wickr. Some followed these up with phone numbers and messaging application usernames. 

In one instance, we asked about and added a warning to the seller that it was “difficult to pass customs.” We also mentioned that we had a “contact” — in other words, an insider at customs, which could pick up the shipment. Implied was a simple question: Could the seller affect the sale and move the chemical?

The Marketplace

Over time, our communications with MicroDroper unveiled a connection to a chemical company operating under the name The Grateful Chemicals (TGC-RC Chemicals). From the information we could gather via the clearnet and dark web searches, TGC-RC Chemicals was a Chinese company that produced everything from opioids to psychedelics and stimulants. On its website, the company listed many of the same chemicals that we had seen MicroDroper selling.

TGC-RC Chemicals, we later found out, was based in mainland China. According to their DarkNet Trust, a registry for dark web vendors, it had been a member since December 2019. To be sure, its website, which was riddled with cryptic codes and enigmatic names, served as a crucial gateway for further explorations into both the dark web and the clearnet.

Within these chemical company websites were detailed descriptions of quantities and pricing structures. The vendors seemed to have a shared look and approach. In the case of MicroDroper and TGC-RC Chemicals, for example, they appear to have a very similar bear logo. Many of them also had similar company descriptions, some of which seemed to have been badly translated from the literal Chinese. 

“A company mainly engaged in high quality pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals pharmaceutical intermediaries and other related products research and development and sales for the integration of high-tech enterprises,” one read. 

Over time, we found a network of analogous chemical firms, which used the same conventions as TGC-RC Chemicals: CAS numbers, keywords, and a professional website. One of the companies most responsive to our queries was Wanjiang Biotechnology. Vendors there seemed willing to sell precursor chemicals for the manufacturing of fentanyl to just about anyone, including us. 

Suspicious these overzealous vendors were laying a trap of some sort, we stopped communicating with them. But they kept communicating with us. 

In their follow-up, they peddled more chemicals vital to the production of fentanyl, including N-(tert-Butoxycarbonyl)-4-piperidone (also called 1-boc-4-piperidone), a pre-precursor. This chemical is widely used among clandestine producers in Sinaloa, Mexico, according to InSight Crime’s fieldwork. What’s more, in June 2023, the US Justice Department indicted four employees of a Chinese chemical company, in part, for trafficking this same chemical to the city of Culiacán. The substance was also mentioned in the indictment against Ana Gabriela Rubio Zea, a Guatemalan broker who allegedly arranged chemical shipments from a company in China on behalf of the Chapitos faction of the Sinaloa Cartel.

We also established connections with other sellers and manufacturers. At times, it was difficult to tell them apart. Many enterprises operated through websites facilitating the sale of these chemicals, as well as international shipping. And numerous websites shared identical images, mission statements, and product descriptions, pointing to the possibility that they were either under the same umbrella or managed by the same individuals. 

What’s more, some of these companies had ventured beyond the mere trade in chemical precursors, extending their operations into teaching consumers how to synthesize fentanyl and other synthetic drugs. In fact, a few offered detailed recipes and instructions as part of their sales pitches. 

“Hey friends, here you can buy the very strong old 4f-adb. Since the product is illegal in China what we can offer is the semi-finished product. Here is the instruction how to change the product final product,” one seller wrote, referring to synthetic cannabis products. 

A website advertising a kit and instructions to produce a synthetic cannabis product.

Synthetic cannabis products are illegal in China. But to avoid those restrictions, these companies  sell “semi-finished products.” In sum, the final products are the semi-finished compounds, as well as the recipe, the chemicals, and the laboratory equipment to complete the chemical synthesis. 

“DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME AND YOUR MONEY WITH OTHER KITS FROM OTHER LABS. OUR SCL-KITS IS THE STRONGEST IN THE MARKET AND INCLUDE ALL YOU NEED TO PRODUCE HIGH QUALITY AND STRONGEST PRODUCT!” another seller wrote.  

Before highlighting in red,“You can also buy all the lab equipment needed to finish the product by yourself easily!”

The seller followed with a link that took us to a product listing where they sold lab equipment kits. 

“If you buy this list you will receive safely: Three-necked Flask (glass reaction), Thermostat, Agitator (electric mixer), and Centrifuge,” the website advertising the kit read.

An advertisement for lab equipment by TGC-RC Chemicals

During our research, we did not find any similar kits for fentanyl. However, during field work in Sinaloa, one clandestine producer said he had purchased such a kit for the production of fentanyl from a China-based vendor. 

‘Stealth Shipping’

A striking dimension of these covert chemical companies resides in their meticulous construction of an illusory façade of legitimacy and legality, a veneer effectively captured in the imagery they flaunt and the practices they pretend to follow while doing business. To begin with, they artfully cultivate an image of operating well within the boundaries of the law. MicroDroper, for example, maintained a presence on the clearnet, even while they did business on the dark web. However, some are more duplicitous. For example, a few asserted they had approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Yet, upon closer scrutiny, none of these affiliations seem to lead to authentic credentials.

A few of the websites displayed alleged certificates from government agencies

This façade of legitimacy extended to how they said they communicated with potential buyers. In our case, we identified as having a base in Mexico. While the substances they were shipping were often not controlled or were lightly regulated in China, they were tightly regulated in places like Mexico. The difference in the regulatory regimes of China and Mexico gives them some plausible deniability in the event of a seizure. 

However, most of the sellers we dealt with seemed readily aware of the strict regulations in Mexico and did not question us about these regulations. Indeed, they frequently offered to circumvent that system. TGC-RC Chemicals, for example, offered the option to ship their product to multiple addresses for an extra fee. 

This modus operandi corresponds to what we found during field work in Culiacán. One independent fentanyl producer InSight Crime interviewed in September 2023, who imports his own chemical supplies from China, said he rented several properties around Sinaloa or surrounding states where he received precursor chemical shipments.

Other sellers on the internet prominently advertised “stealth shipping” as an option, a service that came at a premium. Still, some added they could not offer any recompense if the chemicals were seized. In fact, some explicitly warned on their websites about the risks involved in shipping to these regions, another indication of their awareness that regulatory and legal frameworks were vastly different in these countries, and that they may be transgressing the law. 

A website warning about the risks of shipping chemicals to Latin America

Still, nothing seemed to deter them. In one case, we asked if they had contacts with customs authorities and whether they had “stealth shipments” to avoid detection in customs. 

The same seller also offered to send it via Guatemala. From our investigations, we know that third countries like Guatemala are used as transit points. 

Through our multiple exchanges, we were also able to ascertain that they were willing to entertain all kinds of requests, including bulk orders exceeding 25 kilograms of precursor chemicals for the production of fentanyl. It was as though it were an everyday transaction.  

Checking out was also remarkably similar to most name-brand vendors’ websites. On one chemical website, for example, after adding the items to our online shopping cart, we clicked on the check-out button. On the next page, we could see the product, a coupon code, the option to use a gift certificate, the shipping estimate, and the estimated tax. 

Slide through to see the checkout process.

Perhaps the only major difference between this and name-brand vendors’ websites were the options to pay. Transactions were predominantly done with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. After selecting the payment option, it asked us to confirm our order. We clicked, at which point it gave us a Bitcoin QR code to scan.

That is where we stopped.

The Players

With time, we began to make human contact. We met businessmen in underground tea shops, bars, and nightclubs who claimed to own legal and illegal enterprises. As it was online, these businessmen were not ashamed of their economic prowess. They were showing it off.

One of the first people we met went by the name “Fat Man.” He was introduced to us at a bar by the owner. The next day, we met for tea with the bar owner and some of their associates. The meeting took place in what, from the outside, looked like an unremarkable, freshly built condo in an obscure enclave of Fujian province. But inside, it housed a covert tea shop. 

In China, tea time is a ceremony — a ritual to relax and connect with others. But the pouring itself can be a choreographed performance, which reflects Chinese aesthetics, cultural values, and harmony. It is also a way to do business.

The ceremony we saw that day was a delicate dance, from selecting the Fuzhou jasmine tea leaves to the meticulous pouring of water to the graceful presentation of our accompaniments: dried apricots, osmanthus cakes, and an assortment of seeds spread across hand-crafted plates and bowls. 

One man called himself “Master.” He claimed to own various businesses, as well as to being a spiritual and religious guru. He would later give us several talismans, rosaries, and prayer books, to – as he put it – protect us on our spiritual journey.

But he and his associates were also involved in the precursor chemical industry that was supplying these raw ingredients to criminal groups in places like Mexico. The duality was typical in China: tradition and legitimate business facade on the top; grey businesses lurking below. 

In between sips of tea, the men talked about their expansive networks, which reached far beyond the borders of China. They casually disclosed who their acquaintances were in Latin America, some of whom they said lived in Mexico City.

“We have many friends in Latin America,” one remarked. “Business is getting bigger there.” 

“Some of my family members live in Mexico City,” another said. “We do a lot of business back and forth.”

We asked what ties they had specifically with people in Mexico and whether these people also helped with the “international businesses.” 

But like the jewelry shop owner we had met at the onset of this investigation, they ignored our questions. It was typical of the exchanges we had that day. Throughout, the businessmen exhibited a certain level of detachment from the nitty-gritty details of their enterprises. In fact, they asserted their companies were just part of a set of diverse businesses, which included casinos and prostitution in China, and the sale of cheap, Chinese-manufactured goods abroad.  

“Not only chemicals, but many of my friends are also now dealing with a lot of home appliances and other cheap goods,” Master said. “These sell well in Mexico.” 

SEE ALSO: How Fentanyl Is Synthesized in Mexico

Master was wearing a burgundy tunic and orange vest, which separated him from others, who were dressed in athletic leisure wear.

“Some of my family members studied in Mexico, you know?” said another man, in between sips of tea. 

As we began to ask another question, there was a knock on the door. A man got up and opened it, and in walked two women who looked no older than 20. One wore a short, beige, strapless dress and high heels, while the other wore a bright-green dress and tall black boots. They sat down, one in Master’s lap and the other on top of Fat Man. 

“If you want to try some,” Fat Man said to us, stroking the hair of the woman on top of him, his eyes widening slightly and his voice trailing off. 

“You can always try our QR codes,” added Master, taking out his wallet and showing me a sticker with a QR code and an explicit photo of another woman, which appeared almost like a cartoon. 

Everyone on their side of the table was male, and during the conversation they made it clear that women were prohibited from participating in the administration or ownership of these enterprises. In fact, as we were witnessing, women were often reduced to a form of currency offered as entertainment or collateral. Some of these men, for example, said they had supplied women like those in the room to the sons and grandsons of high-level government officials. 

This sordid exchange was portrayed as a method of maintaining guanxi – friendly relations that often result from a corrupt exchange — between these officials’ families and their businesses. The guanxi is part of securing the bǎohùsǎn (‘保护伞) — roughly translated as protective umbrellas, which refers to government officials who use their power to protect organized crime groups in exchange for bribes like sex, promotions, or money.

“I am friends with everyone here,” Master said, as the women got up to serve us more tea. “If you need anything, I know people.” 

The ‘Red Mafia’

During our meeting, Master and his associates explained that having contact with local political leaders meant less scrutiny of their business operations. The quid pro quo was simple: money. The politicians called whenever the municipality needed money. The money made the politician look good and thus move up the ranks in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

These relationships were critical for their businesses, they said. Without them, they could not compete with the state-owned enterprises, which had their own connections and benefits. It seemed like a mutually beneficial arrangement: prosperous businesses thriving under the protection of influential figures, while their political allies reaped the rewards of their success. This alliance, often dubbed the “red mafia,” originates from the upper echelons of political power within the CCP. It strategically exploits common interests and shared benefits for its advantage. 

As long as these businesses continued to generate profits and provided financial support to politicians, thereby stimulating the local economy, ambitious local cadres found opportunities to advance their careers. In return, they leveraged their influence to further empower and protect these enterprises, reinforcing the sway of the black market and the politically connected red mafia. 

“Without guanxi, you are nobody,” one of the businessmen remarked. 

The ripple effect of these businesses extends to local universities. The companies regularly recruited chemical engineers, biologists, and other scientists. Within the intricate web of vendors we engaged with, a distinct subset maintained close affiliations with renowned Chinese universities, notably Zhejiang University and the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (SIOC). One company, for example, which we found regularly sold precursor chemicals that could be used to make fentanyl, advertised on its website its access to the “analytical facilities” of Zhejiang University and SIOC.

A chemical company claiming to have “analytical facilities” at Zhejiang University and SIOC

Zhejiang University in the city of Hangzhou is one of the country’s most prestigious universities. The university is highly regarded for its strong emphasis on science, engineering, and technology, and it consistently ranks among the top universities in China. Chinese media often portrays Zhejiang University as critical in advancing China’s scientific and technological prowess. 

Similarly, the SIOC is a prominent research institution in China. It is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and has gained international recognition for its contributions to scientific research and innovation. This institute is often seen as a symbol of China’s commitment to scientific excellence and technological progress, contributing to the nation’s reputation in the global scientific community. 

We spoke with numerous students pursuing their degrees at those universities and others. Most of the students did not seem concerned that some of the companies and websites that were courting them may have connections to the precursor industry. To the students, these entities appeared legitimate, offering avenues for financial independence and income to help their elders. 

In sum, the prevailing sentiment was firmly rooted in pragmatism. They recognized that despite these companies not being multinational giants or state-owned behemoths, they presented a viable means of livelihood. 

“As long as I can take care of my parents, especially because they sacrificed a lot for me,” one student told us.  

Economic Lifeline

After the meeting at the tea shop, we kept in touch with a few of the businessmen. Over tea, they shared more tidbits about their businesses and political connections. They seemed proud of their achievements and blissfully unaware of the destruction their chemicals wrought halfway around the globe. 

On one level, it made sense. The Chinese chemical industry is enormous. In 2022, Chinese-produced chemicals accounted for a staggering 44% of all global chemical sales,  according to the European Chemical Industry Council. The ripple effect of these sales in the communities where these companies operate is palpable in China. Put simply, chemical production and sales are lifelines for many provinces and their people. 

SEE ALSO: Beyond China: How Other Countries Provide Precursor Chemicals to Mexico

Those that make precursor chemicals are just a tiny subset of this giant industry. From previous research, we found these companies seemed to be concentrated in the provinces of Hebei, Hubei, and Shanghai. From our more recent research on the dark web, we also found companies in the provinces of Zheijang and Fujian. Specifically, we found companies operating in the Haidian District in Hebei, Hangzhou in Zhejiang, and Xiamen in Fujian. 

The Haidian District, often called the “Silicon Valley of China” due to its concentration of technology companies and research institutions, is in the northwestern part of Beijing and features a mix of residential areas, parks, and cultural sites. When we spoke to foreign government officials, they identified Hebei as the pre-eminent precursor chemical hub.

Located in eastern China approximately 180 kilometers from Shanghai, Hangzhou is the capital and largest city of Zhejiang province. It is a town that blends ancient history and modern development. It has traditional tea houses and temples that sit alongside modern buildings with booming technology and other business offices.

Xiamen is a coastal city in the Fujian province, in southeastern China, across from the Taiwan Strait. Xiamen is a major port city and center for trade and commerce. The city has a rich cultural history due, in part, to its port, which has long drawn people from around the region and beyond.

Hangzhou, Haidian, and Xiamen have a lot in common. Each is doing well economically — Hangzhou and Xiamen, in particular. Each has easy access to ports, which shapes them culturally and economically. And Hangzhou and Haidian are known for a workforce trained at the highest technological and educational levels. 

Perhaps most notably, all three cities are in mainland China, a fact often belied by Chinese officials who have long portrayed the illicit industry as concentrated predominantly within Hong Kong, Macau, and Xinjiang.  

The Port City

Towards the end of our investigation, a business contact invited us to tour his storage space near a major port. It was part of the contact’s keen desire to ensure “client satisfaction” and to dispel any doubts regarding the legitimacy of his business. 

We arranged to meet the owner at a bus station near a major port city in a nearby province. As we walked to the storage space, the owner said we would only be shown limited areas of the business, but that it would include cargo that was ready to be loaded onto a ship. There was no mention of chemicals, and from the outside of the storage area, there was no indication of them. 

However, as soon as we entered, a chemical smell hit our noses. As it turned out, the core of the business consisted of an expansive warehouse with a large laboratory and storage area. The scale of the warehouse was staggering, with hundreds of metal drums filled with chemicals stacked one on top of the other, waiting to be put onto shipping containers. 

Containers of chemical products ready to be shipped from a port in China (Photo: 穆小姐/InSight Crime)

The cargo was powdered chemicals. Each metal drum had a 30-liter capacity, our host told us, but most of the powders were either packaged in small boxes or stored in carton drums. He later sent us a photograph detailing the different packaging options.  

As we watched, the workers consolidated the drums into a single container, which was slated for overseas shipment the next day. The drums with the labels were positioned around the perimeter of the container, while unmarked ones were placed in the center. 

Unlabeled drums with chemical products ready to be shipped overseas from a port in China (Photo: 穆小姐/InSight Crime)

It was a fitting end to our quest. Were they doing anything illegal? We don’t know. Maybe they didn’t know either. Maybe that was the point. 

Indeed, it was part of the troubling and disquieting normalization of the business. From prominent businessmen to high-ranking government officials to university students, the overwhelming sensation we got during this journey was one of widespread acceptance and pride that China was providing the world with much-needed chemicals. 

*All the names mentioned in this investigation are pseudonyms.

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