WASHINGTON—The insidious Chinese presence in the drug trafficking arena has been growing for years. It now dominates the global money laundering business and chemical production—both critical services to cartel operations in Mexico, Colombia, and beyond.
Chinese criminal networks supply tons of drug-making chemicals and launder billions of dollars for cartels, yet most of the attention is focused on the territorial gun battles south of the border, or when a kingpin such as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is arrested.
“Clearly the Chinese are way more dangerous, way more sophisticated, way more complex, and way more of a national security threat to America—it’s not even a comparison [with Mexican cartels],” Derek Maltz, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) special operations division, told The Epoch Times.
Agreements between cartel leaders and the heads of Chinese money laundering operations based in Mexico have cemented the relationships and provided fertile ground for rapid expansion, according to the DEA.
“China’s commercial and manufacturing industries have transformed China into a key international hub and criminal magnet for money laundering activities and illicit financial transactions,” a DEA spokesperson told The Epoch Times.
In June, a Chinese man pleaded guilty in connection with laundering more than $4 million in drug proceeds generated by large-scale cocaine trafficking in the United States, specifically Virginia.
The man, Xueyong Wu, worked with Latin American drug trafficking organizations to repatriate the money to Mexico through a “complex series of international financial transactions,” according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). Wu received a percentage of the money involved.
In March, another Chinese man was convicted of coordinating the collection of drug money in Chicago for Mexican cartels and transferring it to bank accounts in China, according to the DOJ. Xianbing Gan directed the money transfers while living in Guadalajara, Mexico, but was arrested at Los Angeles airport during a stopover from Hong Kong to Mexico.
Maltz said traditional money laundering organizations charged around 8 percent for laundering bulk cash, but Chinese networks overtook the industry by undercutting the competition and charging commissions as low as 1 percent, or even nothing.
“It’s a brilliant business idea,” Maltz said. “They set up very sophisticated, complex, trade-based money laundering schemes where hundreds of millions of dollars are picked up and used to buy consumer goods in China. And then the consumer goods are shipped into Central America, South America, all over the region in Latin America, to launder the proceeds for the drug traffickers in Mexico as well.”
Chinese nationals in the United States also operate a popular scheme, known as the Chinese Underground Banking System, which works not only to launder money for the cartels, but to help Chinese nationals living in the United States access massive amounts of cash, according to the DEA.
A prominent case involved three Chinese nationals who were indicted in 2019 but remain at large. They coordinated the collection of cash from cartel drug sales at around 300 pick-up locations in the United States, according to the DOJ. They then allegedly acted as brokers to supply cash to wealthy, U.S.-based Chinese who were restricted from transferring more than $50,000 per year from Chinese banks to overseas.
The Chinese buyer would transfer money from his or her Chinese bank account to the broker’s bank account in China. After the transfer, the U.S. cash from the drug sales would be directly released to the Chinese people in the United States. To complete the cycle, the brokers would export Chinese goods such as electronics and clothing to the cartel in Mexico, which would be sold for pesos.
Other laundering channels identified by the DEA include trade-based money-laundering (the over- or underpricing of goods, falsified bills of lading and customs declarations, and counterfeit import/export contracts); securities transactions (stocks, bonds, commodities, and precious metals); real estate transactions; casino-related transactions; and wire transfers via both formal and underground banking systems.
Numerous countries have been investigating Chinese money launderers residing in Colombia, Mexico, Canada, Australia, and the United States, the DEA spokesperson said. Furthermore, in the past seven years, Chinese banks in Italy, Spain, and the United States have been under investigation resulting in arrests and heavy fines for money laundering violations.
“China’s massive export industry has allowed hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of drug proceeds to be easily laundered on behalf of Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations,” the spokesperson said.
It’s hard to imagine that the Chinese communist regime is not somehow involved in both the money laundering operations and the drug-related chemical manufacturing, Maltz said.
“How can they not be aware of this activity? Now, whether they’re leading it, whether they’re organizing it, whether they’re directing it, that’s an unknown,” he said.
Drug cartels are primarily motivated by money and power, but the Chinese motivations go beyond that, Maltz said.
“I look at this as another avenue in China’s global attack against their adversaries,” he said. “What better way to hurt America than poison the kids and cause all these overdose deaths, at the same time making billions of dollars? I call it a form of chemical war on America, because you’re dealing with these potent lethal chemicals that are being produced in these labs in China.”
Maltz said the Chinese networks are difficult to penetrate as there’s a dearth of undercover agents and informants who look Chinese, speak Chinese, and understand the culture.
“And then when you add in encrypted communications, and you add in digital currency, it becomes very complicated,” he said.
The rise in digital currency use by criminal organizations coincides with a drop in bulk cash seizures in the United States. In 2011, agents seized more than $741 million in cash, whereas $234 million was seized in 2018, according to a recent DEA report.
Chemicals by the Ton
As smaller methamphetamine labs were being shut down in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the DEA started targeting the precursor chemicals that were being used to produce the drug.
“During that same timeframe, the geniuses in the Sinaloa cartel like ‘Chapo’ Guzman and others were aligning themselves with the Chinese organized crime groups, and they were importing multi-ton shipments of chemicals from China right into Mexico—specifically to produce methamphetamine,” Maltz said.
Super labs were set up in Mexico and the flow of meth across the U.S. border has continued to increase dramatically—along with the potency of the drug.
In 2007, a Chinese national was arrested and charged with drug offenses for his role in manufacturing methamphetamine in Mexico to be distributed in the United States. The man, Zhenli Ye Gon, was arrested in Maryland but lived in Mexico. When Mexican authorities searched his residence, they found at least $205 million in U.S. currency stacked in a room.
“That’s one guy sitting in Mexico,” Maltz said. “That gives you an understanding of the magnitude of what we’re talking about. That was just from chemical sales.”
In recent years, the amount of meth being trafficked has increased dramatically. So far this fiscal year, with three months to go, Customs and Border Protection has seized almost 104,000 pounds of meth being trafficked through ports of entry. In comparison, almost 20,000 pounds was seized in fiscal 2014.
The super labs rely on the importation of precursor chemicals from China, as well as India, according to a 2019 DEA report.
“Chemical shipments will be mislabeled in China, shipped to legitimate companies in Mexico or Central America, and then diverted by the [cartels] and smuggled overland to the clandestine laboratories,” the report states.
Last summer, Maltz said, Mexican authorities seized a meth lab in Mexico that was capable of producing seven tons of meth in three days.
“Chinese are also operating all over [in] Panama and areas of Central America, as well as working on large cocaine shipments to Asia and other parts of the world,” Maltz said. “People don’t realize that ethnic Chinese are down there in the trenches organizing large-scale cocaine shipments as well.”
China is perhaps best-known for its connection to the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl. Tons of fentanyl have been manufactured in Chinese labs and mailed directly into people’s homes in the United States through the postal system. More has been brought in via Mexico over the southern border.
Mexican cartels have also increased their production of fentanyl-related products, but still rely on China for the precursor chemicals.
Fentanyl was originally developed as a painkiller and anesthetic. It’s 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, highly addictive, and deadly. It is often pressed into counterfeit prescription oxycodone pills, or mixed into heroin, cocaine, and even marijuana. Buyers may be unaware the drugs they buy contain illicit fentanyl, of which a 2 mg dose can be fatal.
It is also an extremely lucrative drug. One kilogram of fentanyl costs about $5,000 in China, according to Maltz. If the cartels take that kilogram into their labs and cut it with other drugs or press it into pills, they can make $2 million or more by then selling it on American streets.
Fentanyl seizures just in Arizona have more than tripled each year since 2016.
In August 2019, the Mexican navy intercepted a 25-ton shipload of fentanyl originating from China and bound for Culiacán, Sinaloa—the home base of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico.
“The Chinese and the Mexican cartels have a very lethal relationship right now,” said Maltz. “Why isn’t anybody in America talking about the level of overdose deaths from this poison every day?”
In 2018, there was an average of 184 fatal overdoses per day in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The total for the year was more than 67,000 drug overdose deaths, slightly down from the more than 70,000 in 2017, according to the CDC.
About 70 percent of all drug overdoses are opioid-related, including prescription pills, heroin, and fentanyl.
In August 2018, the DOJ unsealed a 43-count indictment in Cleveland, Ohio, that charged two Chinese citizens with operating a conspiracy that manufactured and shipped deadly fentanyl analogues and 250 other drugs to at least 25 countries and 37 states.
On July 17, the Treasury Department placed sanctions on four Chinese nationals and their organization under the Kingpin Act for their role as significant foreign narcotics traffickers.
The four used a company called Global United Biotechnology Inc. to facilitate drug purchases of fentanyl and other drugs for front man Zheng Fujing, according to the Treasury.
The organization laundered its drug proceeds in part by using digital currency such as bitcoin and transmitted proceeds into and out of bank accounts in China and Hong Kong. The kingpin designation means all property of the individuals and the organization that are in the United States must be blocked and reported.
A rare action by China in November 2019 saw nine fentanyl traffickers sentenced for their roles in manufacturing and distributing drugs. The arrests were made off of a tip by U.S. law enforcement.
However, China expert and retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding expressed skepticism over China’s move in a Twitter post on Nov. 8, 2019.
“If you know anything about Fentanyl and the CCP you will know that this is all designed for the media. It represents no actual change in policy. The CCP is happy to sacrifice a few Chinese for a trade agreement. Since we don’t understand this it will be hailed as a big deal,” Spalding wrote.
The Chinese regime also pledged that it would widen its control of fentanyl analogues to try to curb the illicit manufacturing and distribution.
Stronger Than Ever
The partnership between Chinese criminal networks and Mexican cartels is stronger than ever. Each has its portion of the business, with the Chinese supplying chemicals and laundering services, while the Mexican cartels take care of the rest.
“Barring significant, unanticipated changes to the illicit drug market, Mexican [cartels] will continue, in the near term, to dominate the wholesale importation and distribution of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, and fentanyl in U.S. markets,” the 2019 DEA report states. “No other criminal organizations currently possess a logistical infrastructure to rival that of Mexican [cartels].”
Using the Chinese organizations to launder money also creates a safety barrier for the cartels, said Maltz.
“They recognize that putting the Chinese out front—who know very little about their organization and their structure—is going to be a lower risk on their organization if one of these Chinese guys gets arrested with the money,” he said.
“Remember chemicals and money are the critical components for the cartels. Without the chemicals, no drugs can be produced. Without the money, they are out of business. They are making billions of dollars and at the same time killing Americans at unprecedented levels.”