Breaking the Bad: Fake medicines trade is lucrative, but increasingly risky

Nick Slepko Freelance Writer
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AMMAN — In the middle of the night on May 7th this year, security agencies raided four sites connected with the largest narco-trafficker in the greater Amman-area, resulting in a historic seizure. The products confiscated? Thousands of medicines destined for legitimate drugstores and hospitals throughout the Middle East and Europe.

This month, the trial of those arrested on that raid, Jamal Jawdat Mahmoud Abu Afifah, Jamal Adel Ahmad Mohammad Hamed, and their associates, should conclude a fifteen-year career creating a syndicate stretching from China to the Middle East. Beginning with textile knock-offs and then progressing into narcotics smuggling and eventually pharmaceutical counterfeiting, the Jamals’ activities not only became more sophisticated, but increasingly deadly. While it is unlikely that the prosecution will try them for the thousands they maimed and killed, focusing on the economic consequences of their crimes is more direct and reliable, legally.

Abu Afifah’s earlier exploits were recounted in British economist Roger Bate’s recent book, Phake: The Deadly World of Falsified and Substandard Medicines. Read with interest by local authorities, the additional details describing the current state of pharmaceutical counterfeiting and smuggling in the Middle East encouraged Jordanian officials to finish rooting out the syndicate — and as part of their case submitted Phake as evidence to Jordan’s Attorney General. (Local security consultants have even begun translating select chapters into Arabic for wider distribution in the region.)

As Bate explains in Phake, by 2003 a Hong Kong-based importer/exporter, Sky Park, started by Jordanian national Wajeh Abu Odeh and one of his three wives (Wu Xia from Shenzhen), had become the linchpin of an international counterfeiting and smuggling syndicate. The organization suffered a major blow when interests as diverse as Syrian dictator Basheer Al-Assad (a physician by training) and China’s security agents worked with the Jordanian government to arrest the smuggling ring and imprison the couple.

However, this inter-government cooperation was short lived. As one Jordanian enforcement officer put it, “I have to get a complete network. The Chinese rarely give up one of their nationals – and it always feels one-way where we give them information, but don’t get anything in return.” He also lamented the lack of current cooperation from neighboring states such as Syria, “which has only gotten worse since the war. While [Syria] used to be a reliable source of cheap medicines, it appears that the chaos has led several groups desperate for funds to start using the equipment for counterfeiting and smuggling.”

After serving a couple months in jail and paying $100,000 fine in 2007, Jamal Abu Afifah entered into a partnership with Jamal Hamed, a pharmacist who made molds and punches for legitimate local pharmaceutical companies in Jordan. In Hamed’s spare time, he not only pirated the brands of global majors, but would counterfeit narcotics by pressing distinctive logos into popular drugs developed and distributed by Hezbollah agents — in particular Captagon (phenethylline) marketed as “Al-Sayeed” (Arabic for “leader”, a popular name for Hezbollah’s head Hassan Nasrallah).

Yet unlike his first conviction, 2013 will be different for Abu Afifah, as Jordan’s new anti-counterfeit laws (the first such in the Arab world) mean that the Jamals face five years hard labor and fines amounting to more than double the value of the seized product.

The good news for consumers is that, since 2009, the Jordanian Food and Drug Administration has become increasingly vigilant in stopping counterfeit medicines. Moreover, the agency is now proactively reaching out to businesses to help them meet requirements and standards. As a result, some former offenders have not only expanded their legitimate businesses, but have become cooperative sources of information for Jordanian authorities who, for instance, are unable to stake out restaurants popular with Arab traders in southern China.

Counterfeiters have not stood by idly – and won’t give up their trade until the cost of doing business exceeds the reward. With profits soaring to new highs, that won’t likely be soon. The World Economic Forum estimates that global counterfeit drug sales alone nearly topped $200 billion in 2011.

Roger Bate claims that the largest threat moving forward is semi-legal firms that segment markets by sending low-quality products to poor countries with limited regulatory oversight, and medicine counterfeiters who play as dirty as Latin American cartels. These thugs have taken to social networks like Google Plus and Facebook for marketing and a cleverly use certain respectable free trade zones, like Dubai and Singapore, to move their lethal wares. Authorities take note.

Nick Slepko is a freelance writer based in Istanbul, Turkey.

Nick Slepko