Fentanyl Breeds New Era Of Drug Kingpin

By Kelly Burch 05/25/18

“Fentanyl is a smuggler’s dream. It’s compact. It’s valuable. It’s fantastic for the smugglers and it’s terrible for law enforcement.”

DEA agent sorting through confiscated fentanyl
Photo via YouTube

Yan Xiaobing is an unlikely target for Mississippi law enforcement. The Chinese national lives tens of thousands of miles away in an apartment in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Yan says that he is a chemicals distributor, but U.S. authorities say he is much more: the leader of one of the most widespread fentanyl distribution rings in the world. 

“This is horrifying,” Yan told Bloomberg News. “Their investigation must have gone wrong.”

However, federal prosecutors had enough evidence to charge Yan, 41, with a variety of drug charges in September 2017. They allege that Yan’s company, 9W Technology Co., is linked with at least 100 fentanyl distributors in the United States and distributors in more than 20 other countries. 

“This guy has hooks all over the place,” said Gulfport, Mississippi police Sergeant Adam Gibbons, who worked on the investigation into Yan along with a Drug Enforcement Administration task force. Gibbons’ investigation into Yan took him to New Orleans, Maryland, New Hampshire and many other cities.

He also worked with officials in Russia, Kuwait, Sweden, Brazil and 16 other countries to track Yan’s drug sales. Eventually, Gibbons posed as a buyer and Yan shipped drugs directly to him. 

However, Yan was careful: he shipped fentanyl analogues, chemical compounds that are just as deadly but have a slightly different chemical composition than fentanyl. None of the analogues were illegal in China at the time that Yan sent them to the U.S. 

“He stayed abreast of the law to stay ahead of it,” Gibbons said.  

In China, fentanyl is illegal, but its analogue compounds haven’t been banned. Until this year, the two main ingredients needed to make fentanyl were totally unregulated.

U.S. officials say that it’s common for legitimate laboratories to make illicit fentanyl on the side, and since anyone in China can purchase pill presses it’s easy for dealers to make their fentanyl look like less dangerous prescription opioids. All of these factors contribute to China being the biggest importer of fentanyl to the U.S., authorities say. 

“Fentanyl is a smuggler’s dream,” said Scott Stewart, a former U.S. State Department special agent who’s a vice president at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm. “It’s compact. It’s valuable. It’s fantastic for the smugglers and it’s terrible for law enforcement.”

Smugglers like Yan can therefore insist—despite sending huge amount of the drugs—that they did not know what people were doing with the drugs after they shipped. 

“I don’t know what they do with them after they get them,” he said. “They might abuse it. That’s one possibility.”

It’s unlikely that China will extradite Yan and other accused fentanyl traffickers, or that Yan will ever do time in a U.S. jail. 

“We haven’t reached a point to indict or arrest them yet,” Yu Haibin, director of precursor chemical control at the National Narcotics Control Commission, the Chinese equivalent of the DEA, told Vice last year. 

Markos Kounalakis, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said that this is because China doesn’t have the same motivation that the U.S. does to stem the flow of fentanyl. 

“The two countries play by different rules,” he said. “What’s bad for America is not necessarily bad for China.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.