Cybercrime Narco OpSec

Sinaloan Chemists Teach Dutch Narcos Eco-Friendly Ice Recipe, Challenge Vietnamese OCGs in Eastern Europe for Global Market Share

A more EncroChat-focused version of this story first appeared on OODALoop.com

Sinaloa cartel-linked freelance chemists have brought their eco-friendly meth recipe to the Netherlands, Dutch investigators say, as Low Countries producers challenge Vietnamese narcos in the Czech Republic for global market share.

A record number of meth labs – 18 so far – have been seized in the Netherlands this year, according to a recent report published by OODA Loop.

Additionally, at least four labs have been dismantled by police this year in Belgium, another national record, according to local news outlet LaProvince. The most recent cook site was discovered by Belgian police last week in Lanaken-Maasmechelen.

Low Country labs are typically larger-scale production sites compared to those found in other European countries, which have traditionally been concentrated in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

Enhanced production capacity in Dutch labs is partially owed to the fact that the Mexican recipe helps producers in the Netherlands and Belgium optimize meth yields and minimize waste.

Just one lab in Wateringen that was dismantled by Dutch police in February 2019, and which netted the arrest of three Mexican nationals from Sinaloa, resulted in the seizure of hundreds of kilos of crystal, with an estimated street value of €80 million.

Ice seized in the Wateringen raid, source: Police The Hague

The Wateringen raid aligns with a growing trend cited by authorities, regarding the involvement of Mexican chemists in Low Countries drug labs, including MDMA and meth, over the last several years, according to Dutch media outlet Het Parool.   

In the last two years, at least seven Mexican nationals have been arrested in the Netherlands for producing synthetic drugs, according to Dutch media reports.

Meanwhile, three Mexican nationals were arrested at one abandoned pig farm that had been converted into a meth lab in Wuustwezel, Belgium last year.

Inside the Wuustwezel lab, source: FGP Antwerp

Moreover, “two leaders of the feared Mexican Sinaloa cartel appear to have visited the Netherlands last year” on tourist visas, claims the AD.NL report.

Max Daniel, head of operations for the Dutch National Police, said information mined by law enforcement from the EncroChat encrypted crime network hack earlier this year revealed the nature of the cartel operatives’ visit.

The surge in meth-lab raids in 2020 crystallizes a troubling trend that has emerged over the last six years. While Dutch police found no labs in 2014, they found three in 2016, eight in 2018, and nine last year.

But the negligible number of cook sites found in years past doesn’t mean that labs were not operating in the Netherlands. Daniels told Dutch media that there could have been as many 10 active meth labs in his country back in 2014.

Now, Dutch authorities are crediting the EncroChat bust for helping them ascertain the industrial scale of Sinaloan cultural exchange in the Barbant region that straddles the Dutch-Belgian border.

Sinaloan Chefs

While previous Shadow Banker reports highlighted the use of EncroChat by Sinaloa cartel members in the Americas, it is only now coming to light that chemists linked to the group may have been using the criminal telecommunications network in the Netherlands.

Earlier this summer, the BlueLeaks data dump exposed a Federal Bureau of Investigation intelligence report prepared by field offices in San Diego, Tampa, and New Orleans that said a Sinaloa-linked transnational criminal organization in Mexico had been “acquiring Encrochat phones from contacts in Europe” since November 2018.

In Europe, however, Europol spokesperson Jan Op Gen Oorth notes that EncroChat was still “not very frequently used by Mexican groups.” Still, Dutch cops are saying that freelance chemists operating with the Sinaloa cartel’s blessing are also cooking ice in the Netherlands and teaching local narcos their ESG-friendly recipe.

But Suzanne van de Graaf, a senior spokesperson for the Dutch National Police, said “a strong presence of the Sinaloa Cartel in our country is slightly exaggerated.” She emphasized that the two confirmed cartel members cited in media reports only visited once.

“We’ve arrested some Mexican drug traffickers this past year and they might have a relation to the Sinaloa cartel. It doesn’t mean they are members of the cartel, but we assume the cartel knows about their presence in the Netherlands,” said de Graff.

Gen Oorth concurred with de Graff. “It often remains unclear whether these suspects are linked to Mexican groups or operate as independent contractors on behalf of EU-based organised crime groups,” he said.

Regardless, the Mexicans have taught their Dutch narco-counterparts how to maximize yield efficiency when cooking ice using an increasingly popular amphetamine precursor known as benzyl methyl ketone, or BMK.       

Eco-Friendly Ice

The EMCDDA’s 2020 European Drug Report notes: “An important development, detected in the Netherlands in 2019, was the production of methamphetamine from BMK, with the involvement of Mexican nationals.”

BMK is the main precursor for the production of amphetamine, according to Europol. The AD.NL report notes that the Mexican cartels ditched the traditional ephedrine recipe around 2007 in favor of less expensive BMK from China.

In 2015, Europol seized a record haul of BMK approximating seven tons in Poland, which borders the Czech Republic to the South. This precursor shipment was sourced from China, according to the Europol press release.

When cooking crystal meth, however, BMK has traditionally presented a problem for producers because half of the final chemical reaction yields waste. But Mexican chemists innovated a technique to refine all previously unusable byproducts into methamphetamine salt.

By continuously repeating the process, Sinaloan chemists are thus able to maximize the output of useable meth-salt yields.

According to Steve “Uncle Fester” Preisler, the self-proclaimed founder of “clandestine chemistry” and the author of the 1985 book, Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture, ‘waste’ in this context “must refer to the L isomer of meth, so they must be resolving the isomers and racemizing the L isomer.”

Additionally, Dutch cook operations benefit from enhanced industrial equipment in the form of larger boilers, according to Dutch police. While boiler tanks could only hold 100 to 200 liters of a chemical solution a decade ago, their average storage capacity has increased to a range of 1,000 to 3,000 liters.

These boilers are further modified to conduct “advanced chemical processes,” according to a Dutch narcotics investigator who declined to give his full name to NRC Handelsblad reporters.

The narc told NRC: “Nowhere in the world are such good boilers to be found as in Dutch drug labs. These are high-pressure boilers with advanced electronics for the control of chemical processes. Where roughly five years ago three different boilers were needed for different steps in the production process of a synthetic drug, this is now all done in one.”

It follows that this production method also makes the cook more eco-friendly than traditional techniques. The EMCDDA’s 2019 drug report noted: “The dumping of waste products from synthetic drug production results in environmental damage, health risks and high clean-up costs.” By mitigating waste, Mexican chemists are thus minimizing environmental damage stemming from their industry – to the extent that they can.  

However, saline meth is still not as valuable as the drug in crystalline form. This is where the second component of the Mexican’s chemical expertise enters into the equation.

“The larger and purer the crystals, the more expensive the drug. The Mexicans master this final process to perfection,” writes AD.NL. Uncle Fester is “pretty certain” that the Mexicans are crystallizing meth by adding hydrochloric acid to the alcohol solution, while simultaneously stirring the mixture. Cooks then evaporate the alcohol away with “gentle heating,” giving way to dopamine-bursting Tina, said Uncle Fester.   

Hielo seized from a lab in Montfoort: Source: Dutch National Police

Paradigm Shift

While the EMCDDA said in their 2019 report that meth “consumption has historically been restricted to Czechia and Slovakia,” de Graaf said Dutch trafficking patterns indicate a paradigm shift.

“Meth produced in the Netherlands is being exported all over the world. We hardly have any crystal meth users here. But Dutch drugs traffickers have found a very lucrative market in producing crystal meth instead of the regular amphetamine.”

“Some of this methamphetamine from Mexico may be available on the EU drug market, but overall the amount of produced is much higher that the demand on this drug in Europe,” noted Gen Oorth. This meth “transits through Europe, usually with a final destination in the lucrative markets of Asia or Oceania,” he added.

This has also put meth traffickers in the Netherlands in direct competition with those in the Czech Republic, which has traditionally been the regional leader in European production.

Czechmate?

“The Czech Republic clearly accounts for most of the methamphetamine production laboratories in Europe,” noted Gen Oorth.

The difference between Dutch and Czech production methods, however, is that meth is “produced mainly from pseudoephedrine, which is extracted from medicinal products” in Eastern Europe, according to the EMCDDA.

Additionally, the EMCDDA notes that production sites in the Czech Republic entail the production of “of relatively small quantities in small to mid-scale illicit laboratories.”

Another key difference between the Dutch and Czech meth industries is the ethnicity of the dominant narco mafias. Gen Oorth said that while “much of the small-scale production is not thought to be linked to organised crime groups, there is intelligence suggesting that Vietnamese organised crime groups are up-scaling methamphetamine production sites in Czechia.”

Despite the 6.5 tonnes of meth consumed annually in the Czech Republic alone, according to EMCDDA data, ice produced in the Czech Republic is “primarily for export,” said Gen Oorth.

A stall at Vietnamese market Asia Dragon Bazar in Cheb, in the Czech Republic. Photo credit
: Jens Kastner

A 2018 report in the South China Morning Post details how German meth-tourists flock to the border region that separates them from the Czech Republic to buy crystal from dealers who operate out of roughly 12 open-air and Vietnamese-run flea markets found in along the 506-mile stretch that separates the two countries.  

The locations of Vietnamese markets in the Czech Republic. Photo credit: Jens Kastner

Additionally, “Vietnamese OCGs are also involved in the trafficking and distribution of methamphetamine in several Member States, particularly in the Nordic countries,” said Gen Oorth.

Neither the Drug Enforcement Administration nor the Central Intelligence Agency responded to Shadow Banker’s requests for comment.

Bohemian Trapsody

As fate would have it, the revelation of industrial-scale ‘cooks’ in the Czech Republic also happens to be one of the cases where life imitates art. Back in 2011, Shadow Banker pitched a screenplay titled “Bohemian Trapsody” to Paramount about meth-trafficking in Eastern Europe.

Instead of Vietnamese mafias, however, Shadow Banker fabricated a Prague underworld dominated by Serbian meth kingpins, who were formerly members of Arkan’s tigers, a paramilitary organization that terrorized the former Yugoslavian region during the bloody Balkan conflict. The chief antagonist in the script was basically Arkan.

Even though the script didn’t sell and the development exec at Paramount (who he had previously interned for) didn’t even lift a manicured finger to advance his career or help Shadow Banker get money in any way, hyping up the pitch meeting to his eventual bureau chief at the Wall Street Journal helped him land his first “big break” as a writer.

Still, not even Shadow Banker could have imagined that the meth trade in the Czech Republic, where Russian thief-in-law networks have traditionally reigned supreme, could be linked to Vietnamese OCGs, much less connected to the broader hydra of transnational Asian organized crime.

The Vietnamese stranglehold over the Czech ice market, thus, begs the question: Are the Chinese triads involved? And more specifically can the Eastern European meth industry be linked to the Sam Gor syndicate?  

Sam Gor Links?

With most ice produced in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands being pumped outside European borders, it should be noted that the real dough is in the Asia-Pacific region. There, the retail market ranges between $30.3 and $61.4 billion annually, according to estimates from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.

Europe-based producers are trafficking ice into APAC countries, a region largely dominated by the Sam Gor organization, which is an ethnically Chinese-led coalition of five triad families that controls 40 percent to 70 percent of the wholesale regional market, according to the UNODC.

The Sam Gor cooks most of their product in the militia-controlled territories of Myanmar’s Shan State, which forms the heart of Asia’s notorious Golden Triangle, a lawless region that borders Myanmar, Thailand, China and Laos and that gained global infamy for opium cultivation.

The organization also cooks the “very best meth literally anywhere,” according to the UNODC’s regional representative for Southeast Asia, Jeremy Douglas.

1.8 tons of ice seized in Myanmar’s Shan State on October 14, 2020. In the upper right, notice the green tea packaging, which is the Sam Gor’s trademark. Source: Myanmar Radio and Television

Coincidentally, Sam Gor “dragonhead” Tse Chi Lop, a billionaire who Douglas, has placed in the same league as “El Chapo” and Pablo Escobar, was named in a Polish criminal investigation last January related to the smuggling of Colombian cocaine and Dutch ecstasy to Australia.

But with regards to meth, supply shortages stemming from the pandemic have made the Australian market that much more lucrative. As of June, the per-kilo price of ice in the land down under has roughly doubled from the $90,000-to-130,000 range all the way up to $200,000, according to the DEA.

Given Polish authorities’ request for mutual legal assistance from Canada for cooperation in the investigation of Tse, Shadow Banker asked Douglas, if Czech-based Vietnamese meth traffickers were connected to the Sam Gor.

While Douglas noted that the Chinese-led Sam Gor syndicate does counts some Vietnamese nationals as members, he declined comment, citing investigative complications.

In the wake of the EncroChat sweep, which Dutch authorities hailed as an “earthquake for organized crime” in their July press release, Low Countries narcos’ chances of overtaking their Vietnamese counterparts in the Czech Republic seem unlikely.

On the contrary, Gen Oorth noted that some “methamphetamine production has also been detected in the Netherlands with the possible involvement of Vietnamese OCGs formerly operating in Czechia.” But unlike cook operations guided by Mexican specialists, authorities in the Low Countries have yet to report one meth lab linked to Vietnamese organized crime.

It follows that what has been called an earthquake for European and Mexican narcotics networks, may now precipitate an ice storm of good fortune for Asian synthetic drug trafficking organizations in Europe and beyond.

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