100kg of MDMA precursor: Deadly deal found in 15 minutes
Chinese factories are more than willing to coach buyers of precursor chemicals used to make the drug MDMA on how to smuggle them into Australia.
It took less than 15 minutes for The Ripple Effect to find comments online from three factories that would ship 100kg of PMK Glycidate, a globally popular base ingredient for ecstasy, banned by the United Nations in March.
"We can send you within 1-2 working days," one agent from a factory in Hebei, northern China, said. "We have stock … the customs is no problem."
But PMK Glycidate is illegal in Australia, except for a narrow field of scientists with specific permits.
Another agent in Guangzhou offered to pack the chemicals and label them as lollies.
"If you change the name, the customs will not check it. If you feel this is a sensitive product we can also change it to candy packaging," they said.
"Then slow down the delivery, will not be customs seizure.
"Don't worry, we sent 1000(kg) PMK to your country in the last month. The customer has been got the goods. We can offer other product name to customs."
For these Chinese chemical giants it is a game of risk versus reward and at $260 per kilo, the rewards on PMK Glycidate are extreme.
As for the risk, that's on the buyer, who must navigate border authorities, intelligence agencies and face the prospect of jail time to take delivery of the shipment.
But the Australian market for imported MDMA precursors is fairly limited compared to the MDMA manufacturing superpowers of The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.
A vast majority of ecstasy taken at Australian clubs, pubs and music festivals arrives here premade from those European countries.
Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission Head of High Risk and Emerging Drugs Determination Shane Neilson said transnational crime groups fuelled the demand for MDMA precursors.
"As a business model, they need to obtain the chemicals in bulk, almost certainly from China," Mr Neilson said.
"That's the starting point. They go from there to Europe, either legally or illegally depending on the chemical.
"There then needs to be … a large manufacturing site with a specialised drug cook."
The demand has turned Rotterdam into an ecstasy smuggler's paradise.
The Dutch city hosts Europe's largest sea port and is where law enforcement experts reveal hundreds of mass shipments of the party drug begin their "rip on, rip off" voyage to Australia and into the hands of young people, oblivious to where the pills they are putting in their mouths have come from.
Rotterdam port processes more than 20,000 containers a day in and out of The Netherlands, now a narcostate with the dubious honour of being one of the world's leading producers of ecstasy. But just how do these shipments travel the 13,622 nautical miles (25,227km) undetected to land in Port Botany and line the pockets of Australian drug dealers?
Former NSW drug squad boss Nick Bingham said corrupt wharf workers in both Rotterdam and Australia were key to maintaining the bountiful supply of the illegal stimulants smuggled.
"The Port of Rotterdam is one of the biggest ports in the world," Mr Bingham said.
"So they use a rip on, rip off method which means a port worker, someone who has access to the ports, opens the container … they place a bag of MDMA pills into the container.
"Then the person at the other end, the Port Botany end is advised of the container number.
"They can track the container on the Customs shipping system."
If a container carrying drugs is picked at random by authorities such as at Botany's Container Examination Terminal for closer inspection, the syndicate's paid-up wharf contacts can warn the crooks not to turn up to collect the drugs.
"Those involved in the industry, those involved in law enforcement and other government agencies having access to the wharves … with the knowledge of where the container sits in the line and if it's possible they can go in and rip the drugs out," Mr Bingham added.
Other cartels divided their major importations into smaller loads, preferring a "scatter gun" approach, former Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg revealed.
"If (the container) is detected the entire 500kg or tonne is lost in a single strike," Mr Quaedvlieg said.
"The other way I can do it, is take 500kg concealment of MDMA, I'll break that down into 50 packets of 10kg parcels and I'll consign it through one of the fast parcel carriers onto a plane. Maybe 10 per cent of those parcels may be intercepted but the other 45 parcels get through. That crime gang here will take possession of the drugs, sort out the consolidation, the storage, the wholesale supply and sometimes even right down to the retail supply."
The amount of MDMA seized - measured by weight - during attempts to smuggle into Australia almost doubled between 2016 and 2018, criminal intelligence data for that period has revealed. It is the second highest weight detected in the past decade.
"The weight of MDMA detected this reporting period increased 59.6 per cent, from 890.2kg in 2016-17 to 1420.8kg in 2017-18," a report by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission said.
Mr Neilson said UN controls stopping the free flow of the precursors had created a rabid fight among underworld gangs to get their hands on the chemicals.
"It's more or less led to a chemical arms race where the criminal groups look for alternative ways of manufacturing MDMA," Mr Neilson said.
"It's not different to a steel maker needing access to iron ore."
In Australia, there is a correlation between the amount of MDMA-related deaths to worldwide shortages in available precursors.
A major international crackdown on safrole oil - another critical ecstasy component - in 2008 resulted in the reduction of drug related deaths until 2011, when there were very few. Drug-related deaths increased rapidly from 2011 to 2016 as MDMA manufacturing expanded again.
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction said drug cooks were so careful not to waste precious precursors that leftovers were rarely seized at raided drug labs.
"The fact that no excess precursors are seized during raids on illicit production sites suggests that the exact volumes of precursors required are provided 'on demand' for each production batch," it said in a 2016 report.