‘El Chapo’ conspires with Chinese mafias to produce synthetic drugs in Latin America

The Sinaloa Cartel is obtaining precursor chemicals from 14K and Sun Yee On, two Chinese triads – organized crime groups -- which are based in Hong Kong.
Julieta Pelcastre | 19 February 2014

The Sinaloa Cartel has forged alliances with two Hong Kong-based mafias to acquire precursor chemicals which are used to manufacture highly-addictive synthetic drugs, authorities said. The Sinaloa Cartel is obtaining precursor chemicals from 14K and Sun Yee On, two Chinese triads – organized crime groups -- which are based in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reported recently.

The cartel, which is led by fugitive kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, uses the chemicals to manufacture methamphetamines in Guatemala and El Salvador, officials said. Sinaloa Cartel operatives, including local gangs, pick up the precursor chemicals from ports in Guatemala and Honduras, then drive the chemicals in SUVs to clandestine labs.

Once the synthetic drugs are processed, Sinaloa Cartel operatives transport them to illegal drug markets in the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa and Mexico. Through alliances with local gangs, the cartel also sells some of the synthetic drugs in Argentina, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Ties to ‘El Chapo’

Law enforcement agents in the Philippines and in China recently discovered evidence confirming the alliance between El Chapo and the Hong Kong mafias.

On Dec. 27, 2013, law enforcement agents from the Philippines, working in cooperation with U.S. security forces, captured three suspects near Manila. The three suspects have ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, authorities said. The three suspects were preparing and storing methamphetamine in a laboratory located on a rooster farm south of Manila, authorities said.

Security forces seized 84 kilos of methamphetamine. The precursor chemicals used to produce the synthetic drugs were provided by 14K and Sun Yee On, The three suspects had ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, authorities said.

Bartolome Tobia, the chief of Filipino anti-narcotics police forces, said the security operation confirmed that El Chapo was working with Chinese mafias. “Mexicans, who are already here, are getting help from Chinese criminal organizations linked to drug trafficking,” he said.

A week after the arrests in the Philippines, on Jan. 4, 2014, more than 2,500 Chinese security agents seized more than three tons of methamphetamine in the city of Guangdong Lugeng. Chinese authorities also arrested 182 suspects. The synthetic drugs belonged to one of the Chinese organized crime groups that is working with El Chapo, authorities said.

Deadly alliances

The alliances between the Sinaloa Cartel and the two Chinese organized crime groups are “deadly,” said Jorge Chabat, a security analyst at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City.

The Sinaloa Cartel is the largest, most violent transnational criminal organization in the world, Chabat explained. The two Chinese mafias are major producers of precursor chemicals and methamphetamines, Chabat said. The new alliances will help the forces of El Chapo produce and transport a steady supply of synthetic drugs, Chabat said.

“The Sinaloa Cartel will obtain precursors in large amounts, reduce costs, and continue to internationalize,” Chabat said. “The U.S. market for synthetic drugs is attractive to ‘El Chapo’ and the Chinese triads.”

Triads are Chinese criminal organizations based in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China.

The 14K triad, has about 25,000 members in its ranks. The other traid El Chapo is allied with, Sun Yee On, has more than 50,000 members.

El Chapo is using substances such as phenyl ethyl acetate and isobutyl phenylacetate to try to create a new synthetic drug, according to published reports.

A history of selling synthetic drugs

The Sinaloa Cartel has sold methamphetamine since the 1990s.

In the early to mid-1990s, Ignacio “El Nacho” Coronel, who at the time was one of El Chapo’s top lieutenants, “clearly saw” the great potential in the emerging market for methamphetamine, according to the “Security and Defense Atlas of Mexico 2012,” which was published by the Mexico City-based Collective for the Analysis of Security with Democracy (CASEDE).

El Nacho, who also came to be known as “The King of Crystal,” was in charge of producing and trafficking methamphetamine for El Chapo. He developed a system to transport large amounts of ephedrine, which is used to make methamphetamine, from Asia to Mexico, where cartel operatives processed synthetic drugs.

Mexican Army soldiers killed El Nacho during a gun battle in Zapopan, Jalisco, in July 2010.

A growing market

In recent years, the market for amphetamine-type synthetic drugs has been expanding. Authorities in the U.S. and other countries where the drugs are sold are reporting record levels of synthetic drug seizures and use.

About 80 percent of the methamphetamine consumed in the U.S. each year is prepared with precursor chemicals from China, authorities estimate.

Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and United States are among the countries with highest number of drug processing laboratories, authorities have estimated.

Synthetic drugs can be swallowed, injected, smoked or inhaled and are also known by popular names such as “crystal”, “glass”, “cocaine of the poor”, “yaba”, “ice” or “meth.” These drugs are highly addictive and can cause mental disorders such as schizophrenia, paranoia and aggressive behavior.

The governments of Mexico and the United States strictly control the sale of precursor chemicals. These controls have prompted the Sinaloa Cartel and other Latin American drug traffickers to forge alliances with Asian organized crime groups, Chabat said. Relatively weak regulation in the Chinese chemical industry provides local and international drug traffickers with easy access to psychoactive substances in large quantities, he added.

Hong Kong has not issued certificates guaranteeing that the people who purchase chemical precursors are the actual recipients of the precursors, according to the United Nations.

Borders not relevant to ‘El Chapo’ and Chinese triads

Organized crime is a transnational and global phenomenon, and borders are non-existent for the Sinaloa Cartel and the Chinese triads, Chabat said.

“The drug cartels are fighting to control a single territory, the world,” Chabat said.

In particular, El Chapo is trying to control drug trafficking not only in Mexico, but in the U.S., Europe, all of Latin America, Africa, Asia and Australia, aas part of a “deviant globalization strategy,” according to insightcrime.org.

“There is no doubt that the Sinaloa Cartel is one of the strongest and most powerful drug trafficking organizations on the American continent,” Chabat said.

Authorities in Asian countries have captured several of El Chapo’s operatives in recent years.

For example, in June 2011, Malaysian authorities sentenced three Mexicans from Sinaloa to death for operating a methamphetamine laboratory in the city of Johor. Malaysian police arrested the brothers Luis Alfonso, Simón and José Regino González Villareal, alleged members of the Sinaloa Cartel, in 2008. .

In November 213, Latin American security officials agreed at the “Second Regional Conference on Prevention, Control and Police Investigation on the diversion of Precursor Chemicals,” to increase international cooperation in the battle against synthetic drugs.

Latin American authorities pledged to strengthen corporate social responsibility and collaboration between the business sector and the state to enhance the control of precursor chemicals. They also agreed to improve various international programs and projects, as well as strengthen work on scientific evidence in order to convert information into knowledge for better tools in the fight against drugs.

“As part of international cooperation, institutions should be strengthened in all countries at the international level in the fight against synthetic drugs,” Chabat said.

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