From Nanjing, a bustling city on the south bank of China’s Yangtze River, the package traveled over 8,000 miles to make its way to an unassuming barbershop along Miami’s Coral Way.
It didn’t contain hair-care products.
At a Miami Customs warehouse, suspicious federal inspectors flagged the nondescript brown paper parcel sent from someone named only Alva. Inside, they found a variant of methylone, one of a host of synthetic chemicals sold as the euphoric club drug known as Molly.
A records check revealed that in just two months, 21 similar packages from China had been mailed to the Heads Up Barbershop just outside Coral Gables. After a 20-month investigation, which included an undercover agent posing as a mail carrier, federal authorities this spring quietly arrested a 28-year-old former Florida International University honors student named David “Sway” McConnell. He was using the small shop as a drop for an illegal party-pill operation — built entirely on chemicals imported in bulk from China.
For McConnell and other dealers in South Florida and across the country, the loosely regulated pipeline of synthetic drugs from China has created a new model for doing business in the digital age. Tech-savvy dealers order from overseas suppliers with just a few mouse clicks and pay with simple money transfers. They don’t need go-fast boats or drug “mules,” long the smuggling tools of old-school narco-traffickers. Dealers in the booming synthetics trade use the trusty U.S. Postal Service or big-name parcel shippers.
“There is no typical drug dealer anymore,” South Florida’s U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said. “It’s easy to get access to this stuff. It’s less dangerous and less risky. These new drug dealers are using the Internet, and all they need is a runner to go intercept the package from overseas.”
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Bath salts. Molly. Spice. Flakka. NBOMe. Despite their crude street names, the drugs themselves also are products of fast-evolving technology. They’re concocted by underground chemists in China constantly tweaking formulas, even just by a molecule or two, as they race to stay one step ahead of U.S. authorities and drug laws.
For instance, much of the Molly sold in South Florida has been touted for years as a purified version of the once-popular club drug ecstasy. In reality, lab tests routinely show it consists of various untested and sometimes unknown substances that can be lethal.
“They’re way ahead of us,” Kevin Stanfill, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Miami Field Division, said of illicit Chinese distributors. “They watch the news; they see the reports. It’s ever changing, and we have to change with the times.”
Flakka, a psychoactive stimulant technically known as alpha-PVP, has gotten most of the attention in South Florida for good reason. In Broward County, more than 40 people have died with the drug in their system over the past year. About half were overdoses involving multiple drugs, such as cocaine and painkillers.
But it’s just one of an array of dangerous, potentially deadly synthetics. Since 2011, crime labs in South Florida and statewide have reported more seizures of so-called bath salts (cathinones) and synthetic marijuana (cannabinoids). They have detected an ever-increasing — though still relatively small — number of them in the bodies of rape, homicide and overdose victims.
By far the most dangerous drug is the illegal version of the potent painkiller fentanyl, which is passed off as synthetic heroin or mixed with the real thing. Fentanyl or illicit chemical variants have been found in a staggering 52 overdose cases in Miami-Dade over the past year.
Although prosecutions have been rare, investigators believe the China pipeline is a chief source. Several federal investigations into fentantyl trafficking are currently under way, the Herald has learned. One ring was recently indicted in North Dakota on allegations of using encrypted “Dark Net” Internet servers to import the drug to Florida.
Fighting the surge of synthetics are U.S. customs officers who inspect millions of packages daily and South Florida agents scouring the Internet, working informants, and posing as delivery personnel or drug buyers.
“We can’t control it at the supply end, but we can try to stop it from coming in,” said Alysa Erichs, special agent in charge of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in South Florida, which has taken an aggressive approach to tracking down synthetics dealers. “We’re the first line of defense that polices the mail to try to get it before it enters the country.”
With little fanfare, Homeland Security Investigations, the DEA, U.S. Postal inspectors and other South Florida agencies have arrested dozens of importers and their associates since 2012. Few defendants risk trials. Overwhelmingly, most plead guilty and cooperate against other dealers in hopes of securing shorter sentences.
But halfway across the world, Chinese manufacturers have little to fear from U.S. law enforcement that has no jurisdiction there. McConnell and three others, including a barbershop employee, were arrested, but the company he ordered from, Egbert Limited, operates unhindered.
A correspondent for McClatchy newspapers in China could not track down Egbert or a number of other synthetic drug distributors because all used bogus return and Internet addresses.
But quickly responding to email price inquiries from a Miami Herald reporter posing as a buyer, an Egbert representative named “Mr. Bellick” quoted prices of $1,700 for a kilogram of ethylone and $3,800 for a kilogram of a variant of fentanyl.
“about the payment, we can accept bitcoins, western union, Moneygram and bank wire,” Mr. Bellick wrote in one email. “we have very good channel to US. 100% pass customs.”
An expanding marketplace
Synthetic drugs are not new and they still haven’t supplanted cocaine, heroin, prescription pill abuse and home-cooked crystal meth on the problem-drug chart. But they’re moving up and fast.
For years in South Florida, there was really only one big synthetic. The European-made drug MDMA, better known as ecstasy, dominated the designer-drug scene.
But law-enforcement crackdowns and increased penalties, combined with the changing tastes of Miami’s club scene — Madonna famously asked Ultra Music Festival revelers in 2012 if they’d seen “Molly” — all but dried up the supply of MDMA. But the demand for designer drugs remains and the market has dramatically expanded since — largely, authorities say, because the China pipeline makes going into the drug business relatively cheap and easy.
Sending drugs through the mail isn’t exactly cutting edge. In the late 1980s, federal agents took down notorious Chinese gangster Johnny “Onionhead” Eng, who used peppers and spices to mask the smell of heroin concealed in tea boxes and stuffed animals. But few major drug enterprises in Colombia, Mexico or other countries will risk using mail services to send products such as cocaine, which might cost more than $30,000 a kilo by the time it is smuggled into the United States.
“Nobody is going to send cocaine through the mail because it’s easily detected,” Stanfill said. “That would be stupid. But [synthetics] are different because they’re so cheap and easy to send.”
That’s where China comes in. Legal loopholes in China allow unregistered chemical companies to produce narcotics that can be easily exported abroad, said Georgetown University professor Jeremy Haft, author of Unmade in China: The Hidden Truth About China’s Economic Miracle. While it’s easy to picture the communist country’s economy dominated by large state-owned companies, there are really millions of small operations, he said.
“The chemical industry is no exception,” Haft said. “A small lab opens up, hangs a shingle on the Internet, and conducts business. If there’s a threat of law enforcement, they shut down quickly and disappear, only to open up again in another form somewhere else.”
Those shingles abound online, where a simple Google search of “China research chemicals” nets dozens of websites, some crude, others slick and professional.
Jamon Thiry, a South Beach nightclub regular who lived in the swank Flamingo Tower, found his methylone supplier through a company called Kaikai Technology. The company’s website features images of attractive female chemists in lab coats, a page for “hot products” and photos of various drugs.
“I received the pack and is of very great quality thank u so much!” Thiry wrote in numerous emails sent to his supplier, identified only as “Kevin.”
In all, federal agents found that Thiry, using the pseudonym “David Rugby,” had sent 68 wire transfers to China, sometimes with help using a fellow clubgoer, Ramezy Roque, whom he jokingly called his “intern.” The methylone usually arrived at South Florida post-office boxes in packages labeled “Original Pudding.”
His own emails, analyzed by federal agents, cost him. Thiry pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess and distribute methylone. In March, a judge sentenced him to 7 1/2 years in prison.
Kaikai is still accepting business. Reached via the messaging service Skype, “Kevin” did not answer questions from a Miami Herald reporter.
Replacement if seized: Guaranteed
According to the DEA, many of the chemical factories are clustered in the Hebei region outside Beijing. They send packages using American shipping companies, often labeling them as tea or herbs with fake return addresses. Buyers stateside use shipping company websites to track the packages in real time.
The Chinese government has taken some steps to ban certain synthetic chemicals, including methylone, a Molly drug that flooded the streets of South Florida in 2012 and 2013. Since the ban took effect in January 2014, most Chinese “research chemical” websites marketing to the United States have stopped selling it. But they also have switched to similar substances, such as ethylone and alpha-PVP, aka flakka. In China, unlike in the United States, there is no “analog” law that allows for controlling drugs with similar formulas to banned substances.
There are more than 300 synthetic drugs imported into the United States and more than 500 distributed globally, most of them produced in China, according to the U.S. State Department.
The U.S. government has raised the problem as a “top priority” and gained some cooperation from Chinese officials in recent years, leading to some bans and intelligence on certain synthetic drugs, State Department officials told the Miami Herald.
The United States and China also have collaborated under the auspices of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which is holding a conference next April on psychoactive substances. “The Chinese were not initially open, but they are now less reticent,” said one State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
(Update: On Friday, Justice Department officials announced they held two meeting this week with their Chinese counterparts to discuss international drug trafficking, including differences in their legal systems, investigative practices and national problems. The discussions, which included DEA officials, covered the "emerging threat" of "designer drugs" exported from China to the United States.)
Despite the dialogue, the China pipeline remains very much a buyer’s market. In their own highly competitive industry, some Chinese suppliers will even fully guarantee products, often promising replacements if packages get lost or seized. Email exchanges between a Chinese supplier and a Hialeah man named Enrique Enriquez — who pleaded guilty to a distribution charge on Monday — reveal suppliers are wary of U.S. law enforcement but hungry for American money.
“next order will be fast as we have study shipping tactics already,” the supplier wrote to Enriquez, who federal prosecutors say was part of a Hialeah gang known as Y-LO. “fedex is a little bit tight as most supplier sent K powder and many illegal products via fedex to USA. so usa customs notice that and it reason why most products are stop in custody.”
In emails obtained by the Miami Herald, a supplier calling himself Vladimir insisted that several parcels lost in transit would arrive. Enriquez replied: “we trust u. we will not order from other supplier. we will keep doing long term business with u. business is booming.”
More drug marketing
And business has boomed — so much that suppliers are even marketing attractive new packaging options.
Through the Web, South Florida dealers can buy synthetic drugs as any variety of colored pills, capsules or raw crystal forms, or packaged in brightly colored pouches with the names of cartoons. In July, for example, Miami federal jurors convicted Ronen Nahmani, 41, who imported synthetic cannabis, in liquid and leafy form, from China for distribution throughout Florida. Some of the packages were labeled “Scooby Snax.”
The sheer variety of synthetic options also has mushroomed. Miami-Dade police chemists identified 26 different types last year alone, a four-fold increase since 2011.
“Once they are controlled at the state levels, then enterprising chemists will develop another drug,” said Oliver Spicer, a managing chemist with Miami-Dade Police’s crime lab. “These drugs came about to circumvent drug laws.”
But buyers don’t know that. Take the moniker Molly, a catch-all name agents believe is a play on the word “molecule” and was originally hawked as a pure form of the club drug ecstasy. In 2013, at least one Miami importer tried to pass off a few kilos of alpha-PVP as Molly, but the product didn’t sell because it didn’t give the right euphoric high to enhance the club experience. In one case, a Miami Ultra festival attendee named Adonis Pena Escoto died of an alpha-PVP overdose.
“These young kids and adults are playing Russian roulette because they have no idea what they’re putting in their bodies,” said Ferrer, the U.S. attorney in Miami. “When they believe they’re taking Molly, they have no idea what it is.”
Alpha-PVP or flakka — a synthetic drug that provides a fiery wave of stimulation to the brain — surfaced in Miami-Dade and Broward in 2014. But flakka — Spanish slang for “skinny” — really took off among the transient and homeless population in Broward.
Police have blamed the drug for people doing everything from streaking naked in the streets to breaking into a police station. Flakka has been found in the system of more than 40 people in Broward who died in multi-drug overdoses, murders, accidental drownings and suicides. But, contrary to numerous media reports, the drug has been listed as the direct cause of death in only one overdose case, according to the Broward Medical Examiner’s Office.
Low risk, big profit
Despite public and law enforcement scrutiny, perpetrators continue selling synthetic drugs because the profit margins are so high. A kilo of ethylone might cost $1,500 and net $100,000, a big score even for dealers used to plying the streets with traditional drugs such as cocaine.
Pompano Beach’s Kevin Bully, 25, has a long history of arrests dealing cocaine and other drugs. But federal prosecutors say he found his niche by ordering alpha-PVP from a company based in Hong Kong. Flush with new money, Bully moved to affluent Boca Raton before he was arrested in July. He is awaiting trial.
But many South Florida dealers are not stock-in-trade street toughs. At least six young men arrested in significant synthetic cases over the last few years attended FIU. “These young men are unusual because they were middle-class students who were pursuing their college degrees while they were involved with the Molly trade,” said Andrew Levi, a criminal defense attorney who represented one dealer.
McConnell, for instance, was described by his lawyer as a brilliant young man who built his Molly operation in the mold of McDonald’s, franchising 20-something-age dealers while supplying them with methylone. Two of them, Andrew Pouya and Craig Wiseman, cooperated with agents against him.
McConnell also battled addiction to his own products and mental health woes. But he was was prosecuted like a cocaine kingpin. He pleaded guilty and faces up to 20 years in prison when sentenced Sept. 28.
Il Tae Jin, 27, was a few credits shy of graduating from FIU’s hospitality management program. He turned to the Molly trade to feed gambling and alcohol habits and cover tuition. His cooperation against fellow dealer Julio Cesar Velez helped him get a reduced sentence of one year in prison; he’ll be released in January.
Then there was Miami’s David Espinosa, 25, who defied the image of a dealer. As a child, he attained the rank of an Eagle Scout. Espinosa, at the time of his arrest in 2013 for importing methylone from China through the mail, was just a few credits shy of finishing a degree in criminal justice at FIU.
“I can’t think of too many Eagle Scouts I’ve sentenced,” U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas told Espinosa before meting out a 2 1/2-year prison sentence.
Despite an increase in seizures, arrests and convictions, many experts believe the number of tech-savvy traffickers in South Florida and elsewhere tapping the China pipeline is likely to only rise.
“It’s a perfect storm,” said criminal defense attorney Paul Petruzzi, who has represented McConnell and other major synthetic drug dealers. “It’s fundamentally changed the world of drug trafficking, and the federal government was not ready for it. You can’t interdict this stuff like big shipments of cocaine. You can’t fight this war the way that Reagan and Bush talked about in the 1980s.”
Stuart Leavenworth of McClatchy’s Beijing Bureau, reporting in China, contributed to this report.