Authorities in Argentina have dismantled an intricate organization illegally selling opioids and counterfeit medicines online to US customers, revealing a number of legal loopholes exploited by these criminal groups.
The organization, which mainly operated from Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, illegally sold opioids without prescriptions -- as well as counterfeit medicines from Romania and India -- through its website named Goldpharma. The drugs were bought by US customers, and, more recently, by local clients.
A two year investigation into the pill ring by Argentine security agencies and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ended after a March 13 operation. Five people were arrested and charged with a number of drug crimes related to importing and distributing controlled substances, including oxycodone, according to the US Justice Department.
Authorities also seized some $400,000, 2 million Argentine pesos (around $49,000) and an undisclosed amount of cash in various currencies. More than half a dozen luxury cars and 100 credit cards were also taken by authorities. In addition, the men had bank accounts in Panama and Belize, where they were said to have deposited and laundered the profits from the illegal pill sales.
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The pharmacy took in between $8 million and $16 million per year, according to one of the chief police officers in charge of the investigation.
It is illegal to import prescription medicines and controlled substances from outside the United States. Selling medicines online is prohibited in Argentina.
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The dismantling of the organization running Goldpharma shows a criminal group developing a sophisticated network to take advantage of the demand for opioids in the United States after officials there severely reduced access to prescription forms of the drugs. It also underscores how Argentina largely turns a blind eye to money laundering.
“This is not a small time organization. If they would have used their intellect for good, they would have a lot of power,” Marcelo D’Alessandro, Secretary of Justice and Security for the City of Buenos Aires, said during a press conference in Buenos Aires when the arrests were announced.
Opioids -- which include prescription drugs like oxycodone, the synthetic drug fentanyl, and heroin -- were largely responsible for the record 70,237 overdose deaths recorded in the US in 2017.
The US Food and Drug Administration's commissioner warned of a crack down on illegal online pharmacies last year, saying that the Internet is "virtually awash in illegal narcotics."
In Argentina, it is estimated that about 11 percent of medicines consumed are illegally bought online, according to the National Union of Pharmacists (Sindicato Argentino de Farmacéuticos y Bioquímicos - SAFYB).
But the criminal group behind Goldpharma made a fatal error which likely ultimately led to its demise. They underestimated growing ties between authorities in the United States and Argentina, particularly in fighting criminal organizations and drug trafficking.