The RCMP and China's Ministry of Public Security are being stymied in joint investigations to stem the smuggling of powerful synthetic opioids into Canada because the trade is largely conducted through the so-called Dark Web.
RCMP Chief Superintendent Scott Doran says most of the opioids such as fentanyl and its chemical precursors arrive in small packages through the mail from China, predominantly in the Vancouver area.
He told The Globe and Mail that bilateral efforts to track down the Chinese dealers behind the illegal opioid trade have proved almost impossible because of clandestine Internet trading sites, where buyers can visit anonymously and buy the drugs with bitcoin, a digital currency often regarded as untraceable.
The Dark Web is part of the Internet that is intentionally hidden and requires special software and modified browsers to access. The encryption used on these sites has proved difficult for the police to crack.
"The Dark Web makes things virtually undetectable and untraceable. So it is really hard to get back to the origin," Chief Supt. Doran said.
"We can find recipients who are receiving packages from the Dark Web … but the reality is that the people buying it, unless they have an intimate relationship with the seller, they don't know who the seller is either," Chief Supt. Doran said.
Canada is in the midst of an opioid crisis that has led to an explosion of fatal overdoses. New data suggest almost 2,500 Canadians died from opioid-related overdoses last year. In 2015, an estimated 2,000 Canadians died from overdosing on opioids – both illicit and prescription. The problem is so pervasive that police, doctors, health officials and politicians at all levels are scrambling to contain the epidemic.
The collaboration between the RCMP and China only began last year after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed an agreement with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a visit to Ottawa in September, 2016. It led to a formal intelligence-sharing agreement between the RCMP and Ministry of Public Security.
In exchange for Chinese co-operation to stop the flow of illicit synthetic opioids, Beijing expects the RCMP to provide intelligence and help track down Chinese nationals living in Canada who are accused of economic crimes such as money laundering, bribery and theft.
Chief Supt. Doran said Chinese authorities are just as frustrated as the Mounties in trying to arrest the opioid dealers who are embracing the Dark Web and sending the deadly drugs to Canada.
"They also recognize that the Dark Web is what it is and it is difficult for them to do as well. They may have more ability to turn websites off but, again, getting behind the websites and who the administrators are and so on is very difficult," he said.
In 2016, the Mounties and Canada Border Security agents seized about 18 kilograms, mainly at mail-sorting facilities in Canada. While that may not seem to be a large quantity, just a few flakes of opioids can be fatal.
"Now, 18 kilograms, if we are talking about cocaine and marijuana, would be relatively insignificant but given the potency of fentanyl and the small amount it takes to derive a result for drug users, 18 kilograms is significant," Chief Supt. Doran said.
China is the global source of fentanyl. The country's vast chemical and pharmaceutical industries are poorly regulated, with many facilities operating illegally.
However, Chief Supt. Doran, director-general of the RCMP's criminal operations, said Chinese authorities have been quite helpful in efforts to combat the trade in fentanyl, pointing out that Beijing banned the manufacture and sale of four variations of fentanyl on March 1, a move that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Agency (DEA) called a "game changer" in the battle against manufactured opioids.
"They have been quite aggressive in lifting chemicals on their schedules. So as we discover a new molecular structure to a fentanyl that isn't on their schedule, they have been very aggressive in adding illicit chemical compounds to their schedule, which is a help because when it is not on there, it is not unlawful for someone to have or ship or do anything with," he said.
Chief Supt. Doran insisted Canada is careful about the intelligence it shares and does not send Chinese dissidents back home. Any Chinese citizen that Beijing wants extradited for economic crimes can fight deportation in Canadian courts, he said.
"We have a mutually beneficial relationship. Of course they have issues with criminality, criminals here in Canada," he said. "They want what they want but we have a robust justice system that sort of has checks and balances as to people being sent back to any country. We don't circumvent the judicial process when we are dealing with them."
The RCMP will even share intelligence with their Chinese counterparts about Canadian citizens if they are involved in crimes in China.
"Where it is appropriate and where we can justify sharing because we are obviously mindful with any country of sharing information with anyone who is Canadian born, but if the information is reliable and safe to do so, we will share," he said.
Parliament recently passed a law that prohibits the unregistered importation of pill presses and allows border officials to screen packages weighing 30 grams or less if there are reasonable grounds.
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in a recent report to Congress that most of the fentanyl making its way to the United States has been manufactured – often legally – in Chinese factories before being shipped to criminal networks in Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Canada, before being smuggled over the border. In other cases, the drugs are purchased on clandestine Internet trading sites.
The exported products are sent to small-scale distributors and criminal organizations across the United States who package and sell the product, often mixing it with other drugs, such as heroin.