Chinese Synthetic Narcotics Networks in Post-NATO Afghanistan

Transferring Mexican structures, operational mechanics, and quietly accelerating risks
December 14, 2021 Updated: December 27, 2021

News Analysis

In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has directly supported, facilitated, and exerted strategic control over the development of the Chinese pharmaceutical industry, a substantial portion of which is centered in Wuhan city.

The CCP has had the overt intention for China to become “the pharmacy of the world” with leading positions across the full spectrum, from pill manufacturing to personal protective equipment exports. One byproduct of this broader central planning exercise has been the development of synthetic narcotics that are produced in pharmaceutical-grade factories with the associated economies of scale, thereby enabling stable supply and low prices.

One key Chinese product is fentanyl-laced heroin, a combination of a (mostly) legal opiate, fentanyl, with the proscribed substance of heroin. The current most data-rich example of this is the triangular dynamics between China, Mexico, and the United States.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, one Mexican drug cartel, the Nueva Generación (or New Generation), has achieved ascendancy over a myriad of other well-armed and violent drug trafficking cartels operating in Mexico. Subject matter experts have largely attributed the exponential rise of the Nueva Generación cartel to its control over Mexico’s Pacific ports, thereby enabling it to monopolize the supply of key precursor chemicals from China, and Wuhan in particular.

Can ‘Mexico Template’ Be Transferred to a Post-NATO Afghanistan?

In addition to supplying precursor chemicals and other related inputs for the manufacture of fentanyl-laced heroin, territory controlled by the Nueva Generación cartel (as well as other cartels) now host multiple Chinese-operated, pharmaceutical-grade factories that produce synthetic narcotics for illicit export to the United States, but also increasingly for consumption in Mexico and Latin America.

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Boxes carrying a total of more than 3,100 pounds of illicit drugs seized at the southwest border in San Diego, on Oct. 9, 2020. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

This production process can be classified as semi-skilled as the labor force requires some basic skills to mix compounds, operate a pill press, and ensure basic quality control and facility safety standards. Even modest-quality road networks and smaller regional airports provide sufficient transportation infrastructure to enable this business to occur, as cargo shipments are relatively lightweight and don’t require much space. However, these factories are fairly energy-intensive and require a consistent power supply, often in remote areas that aren’t connected to the Mexican national grid.

As such, the Chinese management of these factories has developed and validated sophisticated remote power solutions to ensure uninterrupted continuity of operations.

In Mexico, Chinese drug trafficking syndicates—which can’t operate independently without the CCP—have clearly demonstrated the ability to navigate through high levels of multi-directional and often unpredictable violence and corruption, critical national infrastructure shortfalls, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a myriad of other challenges. This has enabled them to establish control over the majority of the synthetic narcotics industry in Mexico, from production of precursor chemicals to shipping, to onshore manufacturing.

At present, distribution of these synthetic narcotics within the United States is outsourced to Mexican cartels as well as U.S. criminal organizations, with the Mexico-based Chinese syndicates often receiving a share of the U.S.-generated profits.

While different in some respects in terms of human terrain, the various operational risks and challenges posed by Mexico share a remarkable number of similarities with a country such as Afghanistan. However, it’s clear the Chinese synthetic narcotics trafficking syndicates have solved these various problems by using a “Mexico template” that can be readily transferred to Afghanistan with some modifications.

It should be noted that rates of incidence of violent crime, acts of terrorism, kidnapping, group-on-group violence, and other related security events in Mexico are either equal to or even exceed Afghanistan on a per capita basis. The years 2020 and 2021 have been widely assessed to be the most dangerous period in Mexico’s entire independent history dating back to 1810.

Afghanistan’s Potential as the Next Major Production Site

Given the ability of Chinese synthetic narcotics syndicates to effectively graft themselves onto and direct relevant activities of the Nueva Generación cartel and others, it can be reasonably assessed that they could replicate their model with the various Taliban and other warlord factions in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is characterized by rough terrain and perennial instability, thereby making opium the ideal agricultural crop for many Afghan farmers.

The illicit revenues of opium, which enabled the Taliban to survive the U.S.-led NATO occupation of the country, is now funding the Taliban’s rise and has permeated all aspects of the licit Afghan economy. The opium poppy is an ideal wartime crop in that it requires very little water, fertilizer, or other expensive inputs. Despite marketing themselves as devout religious warriors, the Taliban control the full spectrum of these activities, from production to modest manufacturing (into heroin) and domestic distribution.

This relatively controlled structure, in many ways, mimics what Chinese synthetic narcotic syndicates have integrated into, and layered on top of, in Mexico. In addition, much of Afghanistan’s higher value opium/heroin market activities occur in several southern provinces such as Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Helmand that are under the direct control of the Afghan Taliban’s core leadership group and strongest factions. Similar to the Nueva Generación example, Chinese syndicates have the option to partner with these Afghan syndicates to bring new, more profitable products to the country for export, namely synthetic narcotics such as fentanyl-laced heroin, among others.

Quietly Accelerating Regional and International Risks

In the Afghan case, Chinese syndicates don’t run material risks of friction by simply trying to take another slice out of the pie, but rather they would be bringing capabilities that would dramatically increase the size of the overall pie for everyone. This method has worked well in Mexico and all available evidence suggests that it is likely replicable in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has the labor force, basic road and air infrastructure, and enough structural coherence under the Taliban for Chinese syndicates to operate synthetic narcotics factories in Afghanistan for regional export. This would represent a development that would have major implications for all of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries and beyond.

It’s also possible that Chinese syndicates would directly link Afghanistan into its already-established Mexican supply chain. Subject matter experts note that the natural strains of Afghan opium produce more potent heroin than the natural Mexican strains, and that production costs in Afghanistan would be lower as well. If that occurs, a new supply chain would emerge that involves the production of lower cost and higher potency Afghan opium that produces synthetic narcotics in domestic factories, while also simultaneously exporting raw materials (for example, opium/unrefined heroin) for value-add inputs, such as fentanyl, in Chinese-run factories in Mexico.

These economies of scale would drive further substantial efficiency gains and push prices down, thus making these narcotics even more widely accessible. Critically, it would also render this network less vulnerable to decapitation as there would be diversified market access and contingency-based redundant production facilities and distribution networks in two very different geographies.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Ryan Clarke
Ryan Clarke is a senior fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. His career has spanned leadership positions in defense and intelligence technology companies, investment banking, biodefense, strategic assessments, emergency response, and law enforcement. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.