Degrading the Precursor Chemical Supply Chain to Reduce the Distribution Of Fentanyl in the Homeland
This article first appeared on Homeland Security Today
February 8, 2023 - Every day, millions of kilograms of illicit substances make their way around the world and into various countries including the United States. Yet it’s not just the end product that raises concern: the raw ingredients needed to produce the vast amounts of illegal drugs are of just as much a concern. Drug suppliers use the raw ingredients to produce drugs such as fentanyl that cause thousands of yearly overdose fatalities. Disrupting the production and distribution of essential precursor chemicals ingredients used to produce illegal drugs is key to combating the problem.
Drug cartels acquire the needed precursor chemicals mostly from Transnational Organization Crime groups and their proxies operating primarily in China and India. Breaking this supply chain is an ongoing challenge. These are the key challenges that homeland security and law enforcement agents must focus on to help prevent the manufacture and sale of fentanyl in the U.S.:
The Chemical Supply Chain
Effectively fighting the drug war by reducing the manufacture, distribution, and sale of fentanyl begins with the ability to target the precursor chemical supply chain between China and Mexico. The challenge is to identify these chemicals often mislabeled as other commercial products such as green tea or herbal medicine as they begin the journey to points of manufacture. Vulnerabilities in the supply chain for both brokers and dealers transporting ingredients used to produce narcotics leave a digital footprint. This footprint includes data that identifies shipping anomalies linking them to suspect precursor chemicals consignments. However, because precursor chemicals are manufactured overseas, international assistance to obtain the required information is essential. Some governments aren’t exactly cooperative in this area. Data on precursor chemicals must often be gathered through other means including human intelligence and technology.
The movement of drugs and their precursors along the supply chain can be disrupted using a combination of digital footprints and human experts in the field. For example, finding anomalies in maritime containers or express international parcels can be accomplished in part by using postal inspection and customs agents. Additionally, scanning parcels for ingredients along transit routes can help break the transport cycle.
Sometimes elements in foreign governments may be involved in supporting cartel activity related to the transport of precursor ingredients along the supply chain. This places additional pressure on agents as they are required to be constantly vigilant to identify and track any alternative routes used to get chemicals to their destinations.
Mislabeling and Identification of Precursor Chemicals
Another factor complicating precursor chemical supply chain disruption is the intentional mislabeling of precursor chemicals by cartels combined with false transshipment information. Chemicals can essentially hide in plain sight among the millions of containers and express air parcels moving globally every day through a method called shot-gunning. Since a large number of particles and/or air cargo are shipped daily, detecting the right parcels concealing precursor chemicals is comparable to finding a needle in a haystack. Only a small number of parcels are actually caught.
Mislabeling also proves to be a significant issue for customs and police officers on the ground. The challenge that they face is that they have limited resources to identify the key ingredients used for the manufacture of fentanyl and other narcotics. Further complicating matters is the fact that there’s not always a record of parcels existing. Advanced technologies and added due diligence is needed to help combat this. Laser identification technology can be used to scan parcels and detect substances regardless of labeling in a relatively efficient manner.
Once a mislabeled parcel is identified and seized, the information from the parcel concerning both the shipper and recipient can be researched in order to identify previous shipments and the possible source of supply for the chemicals.
Overcoming Skills Challenges
While intentional mislabeling of parcels containing precursors is a key strategy capitalized on by cartels, corruption, and lack of skills on the part of many foreign governments also makes it difficult to effectively target cartels – a key aspect of degrading the precursor chemical supply chain. This makes it almost impossible to develop an uncontaminated strategy that will work. Until this is resolved, forward progress will be extremely difficult to achieve.
Involvement of foreign governments doesn’t always help solve the problem of cartels. While people tend to think the government is at war with the cartels to end their rule, some elements within governments attempt to control the trade and others simply look the other way when taking money. However, this has caused the cartels to grow beyond government control, which is where conflict starts.
Skilled counter-narcotic law enforcement officers from willing foreign governments on the ground are required to help degrade the precursor chemical supply chain. The lack of access to technology to identify precursor chemicals further complicates the problem. The host country partnership is the most important relationship that enables U.S. law enforcement agents to identify precursor chemicals. These partnerships facilitate for effective investigations. Yet some governments, for political and personal reasons, refuse to help develop such a strategy, allowing drug cartels to win.
Developing any successful investigation requires specialized skills, technology, and investigative capabilities. A DEA foreign operations platform is primarily used to help willing foreign partners enhance their own capabilities. However, variables such as corruption, lack of proper technology, and lack of investigative competence can result in cartels having an advantage with the ability to bribe, outsmart, or outright kill law enforcement officials.
A very important additional skill needed for degrading the fentanyl precursor supply chain involves the ability of data analysts to track and interpret online information and find anomalies that the untrained eye may not pick up.
Accessing Actionable Data
The war on drugs will be won or lost on the technological capabilities of U.S. law enforcement targeting the large amount of shipping data related to transshipment of precursor chemicals required to manufacture narcotics. If U.S. law enforcement can’t break the precursor supply chain at least in part using data analysis, the threat posed by precursors can’t be broken outside of the use of military action against cartels. There is no peaceful, diplomatic way to accomplish this.
To help break the distribution cycle, an intelligence analytical task force should be formed to identify, collect, and analyze digital data related to maritime vessel container shipments and international express parcels and cargo. This includes shipments sent via common couriers typically used by consumers.
Once mega shipping data is analyzed and suspect shipments are identified using data analytics and other methods, specialized analysis technology can be employed to immediately conduct an accurate presumptive analysis of precursor chemicals. Such technology allows checks at customs, including at the streetcar level where the final drug or its precursors may be detected in a vehicle.
Officers can help break the precursor supply chain by also scanning for drugs and their precursor chemicals on the streets. The difficulty of fighting cartels only highlights this need. The tendency of drug dealers to transport precursor chemicals in an attempt to evade identification can be addressed at the local level.
Regardless of method of transport, chemicals are often concealed by mixing them with other products, making identification of precursors especially important. New substances can also be detected since they are made by combining existing chemicals that are often commonplace. Dual purpose chemicals can be combined with other ingredients to make new drugs.
The war on drugs has raged for decades, but technology is catching up to the problem. Vast amounts of data from various sources including online databases have played a major role. A renewed focus on precursor chemical analysis to reduce fentanyl distribution in the U.S has also contributed significantly. Skills of agents are improving, and the drug supply chain is being broken using technology and data.
For all of this to work, the need for adequate and updated skills on the part of agents and willing anti-narcotic foreign partners can’t be understated. There must be training on what precursors are and how the precursor chemical supply chain network operates. Strategies must be developed to identify cartel infrastructure that is responsible for coordinating the procurement process for the required chemicals for production and distribution of fentanyl and other drugs.
A combination of effective, updated technology and skills will always be required to degrade the precursor chemical supply chain to reduce fentanyl distribution in the U.S. Having the correct technology to quickly analyze mega data, the personnel with a deep understanding of data analytics, and the ability to identify precursor chemicals quickly and accurately is paramount. Host countries must be able to disrupt precursor transshipments by cartels as well.
It must be remembered that while those fighting the drug war strategize on how to do so, cartels and their partners are constantly planning on how to avoid detection. They understand that identification of precursor chemicals is possible and becoming more common, which adds an additional layer of complexity. However, making it more costly for them to do business and thus causing cartels to lose money helps put pressure on them.
At least for now, one of the most effective ways to address the drug crisis, including fentanyl, is through analysis of precursor chemicals to degrade the supply chain. After all, the more precursors that can be interdicted in transit before they make their way to drug labs, the fewer overdose deaths that will occur.
Michael W. Brown is the global director of counter-narcotics interdiction partnerships at Rigaku Analytical Devices. He has a distinguished career spanning more than 32 years as a Special Agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Most recently he was the DEA Headquarters staff coordinator for the Office of Foreign Operations for the Middle East Europe-Afghanistan-India. Prior to that he served as the country attaché in India and Myanmar providing foreign advisory support for counter narcotic enforcement. He also spent 10 years in Pakistan as a special advisor to the US Embassy on various law enforcement issues. Michael is a graduate of the United States Ranger Training Battalion and has a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Technology and Management from the University of Eastern Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org