Heroin’s Hidden Ingredient Is a Chemical Made by U.S. Companies

A $324 jug of acetic anhydride, made in Mexico by a publicly traded American company, is enough to produce 90,000 hits of high-grade “China white.” The cartels are getting as much as they want, and also using it to cook meth.

Making their way down a narrow country road in the Mexican state of Sinaloa one morning in May 2019,

Members of a counter-narcotics squad were struck by a strong chemical smell.

They pulled over, and a small reconnaissance team climbed out of their vehicles, then stalked down a trail.

Behind a thicket of trees, tucked in a clearing, they found an open-air drug factory—not a huge surprise in Sinaloa,

The capital of the global narcotics empire built by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Five cauldrons for cooking heroin stood exposed to the sky, flaked with rust.

In the camp’s makeshift living quarters, bags of tortilla chips and a cooler of unopened Pepsis suggested the cooks had left in haste.

The soldiers discovered the source of the smell: acetic anhydride, a clear liquid that reeks like vinegar.

Except for the sap drained from opium flowers, it’s the only thing truly required to make heroin,

And it doesn’t take much of the stuff to do the job. Soldiers found some inside four 18-liter jugs that,

When full, could have produced 80 pounds of high-quality “China white,” with a street value in the U.S. of at least $3.6 million.

Acetic anhydride has legal uses in laboratories and factories—the most common use is in the production of cigarette filters.

But under international drug laws it’s one of the most strictly controlled “precursor and essential chemicals” for the production of illegal narcotics.

For 30 years the U.S. government has aggressively pushed almost every nation in the world to sign on to global treaties,

And pass domestic laws to keep potential drugmaking chemicals away from narcotics syndicates.

Acetic anhydride was placed in the highest category of control in 2001.

Yet the acetic anhydride seized that morning in Sinaloa was bottled, branded,

And sold in Mexico by a $12.3 billion publicly traded U.S. company, Avantor Inc.


Police photos from a May 2019 bust of an open-air drug lab in Sinaloa state.

During the decade-long U.S. heroin epidemic, Avantor has cultivated a remarkable line of business:

Selling acetic anhydride across Mexico in containers that are big enough to make lucrative quantities of illegal narcotics,

But small enough to load into the trunk of a car.

Sales come via a network of distributors, online sellers, and stores spread across the country.

Without the right chemicals, it’s impossible for cartels to make two drugs that are plaguing America:

Heroin and methamphetamine.

Avantor is one of a handful of U.S. companies that supply the legal market for those chemicals in Mexico,

A market the cartels have had little trouble tapping to make narcotics on a massive scale, A Bloomberg Businessweek investigation has found.

Mexico is the source of the vast majority of the heroin and meth sold in the U.S.,

where more than 142,000 people died from overdoses involving the two drugs from 2010 through 2018.

Easy access to drugmaking chemicals for narcos in Mexico appears to be facilitated, in part, by……


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