Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Drug dealing evolves from El Chapo to a computer nerd


As far as illicit drug delivery systems go, I prefer the U.S. Postal Service to the Sinaloa Cartel.

Eight more defendants pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Miami Monday to charges that they had imported hundreds of kilos of Molly, the illegal club drug, into South Florida. Drug smugglers, sure. But investigators said their illicit stuff was shipped here from China. By mail.

Chinese chemical labs provide local traffickers chemical variations of methylone and ethylone and the highly dangerous synthetic opiate fentanyl. Investigators said the gaggle who pleaded guilty Monday had ordered the drugs on the labs’ websites. The transactions were consummated through the postal service. Not exactly cocaine cowboys redux.

It’s the modus operandi of the digital age drug dealer, nicely explained by my colleagues Jay Weaver and David Ovalle in their China Pipeline series last fall. Of course, peddling these drugs is no more morally defensible than old-fashioned coke dealing. The molecular makeup of these imported synthetics is determined more by guesswork than quality control. The effects can be unpredictable, dangerous, sometimes deadly. An alarming number of deaths in South Florida over the last two years have been attributed to fentanyl, a synthetic opiate, and the euphoric club drug known as flakka.

But new age drug dealers have managed to bypass the kind of traditional drug smuggling operations that incorporate murder and intimidation in their business plan.

Author James Martin of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University in Australia has chronicled how encrypted websites on the so-called “dark net” provide a rapidly expanding marketplace for illicit drugs. “Perhaps most importantly, the anonymity and geographical separation of online drug trading eliminates the possibility of violence at the hands of rival dealers,” Martin wrote in an op-ed that appeared last August in Canada’s Hamilton Spectator. “This differs significantly from the conventional drug trade where organized crime groups use serious, often lethal force to eliminate competitors and establish control over drug-retailing territory and trafficking routes.”

Martin, author of Drugs on the Dark Net: How Cryptomarkets are Transforming the Global Trade in Illicit Drugs, called “the inability of dealers to use violence” as “one of the most striking and potentially socially beneficial implications associated with the rise of the online drug trade.”

Using parcel post is risky, of course. Ask any of the eight chumps slouching into federal court Monday. But federal prosecutors have had problems in similar cases lately convincing jurors that the recipients of packages of pills mailed from China were responsible for the order.

The new face of the international drug dealer is less like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the murderous Mexican head of the Sinaloa drug cartel now facing extradition to the U.S., than the nerdy teenager busted in Germany in November. According to the Guardian, the teen had used rented computer servers, encrypted email and Bitcoin transactions to sell 940 kilos of synthetic drugs, which, of course, were delivered to his customers via registered mail.

The kid’s mother said her little drug kingpin rarely left his bedroom.

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