The World Is High, Not Flat

The Philadelphia Inquirer has the first in a series of articles about an illegal prescription drug network that was busted in 2005, as part of Operation Cyber Chase. The ringleaders of the network were the Bansals, a family based in India, though part of the business was run out of a warehouse in Queens.

Here's how the business worked:

Akhil [Bansal] oversaw the family's North American operations, shipping roughly 75,000 pills a day via UPS. In a little more than a year, the network had smuggled 11 million prescription tablets to more than 60,000 American addresses, an operation that grossed at least $8 million. These numbers did not include the steroids or the kilo shipments of the tranquilizer ketamine, a club drug called "Special K."

The family's Internet business represented a dark slice of the global economy so new, and so widespread, that national governments were still struggling to understand it, let alone police it.

Laws were vague, outdated, inconsistent. Technology - new medicines and ways to deliver them - was outpacing regulation. (link)

Unlike Operation Meth Merchant, where a number of the defendants pleaded guilty because they were going to be deported anyway, these guys clearly knew exactly what they were doing, and what they were doing was definitely illegal. In contrast to Operation Meth Merchant, where Indian store clerks were disporportionately targeted, I'm not at all bothered at the take-down of the Bansals -- they deserve to be in jail. Rather, it's an intriguing case study that shows yet again how India's entry into the globalized, internet-based economy goes well beyond the rosy picture suggested by talk of outsourcing and call centers.

At the same time, I don't think the Bansals are especially "evil" (as in, immoral) for smuggling imitation prescription drugs, though it's definitely dangerous for these drugs to be floating around. (According to NPR, at least one person died after purchasing drugs from an unregulated website based in Mexico.) If anything, the Bansals are evil because their business was based on spam, which wreaks havoc with email and is the bane of many a blogger's existence. (Indeed, I have been the victim of comment spam from just this sort of company, as I mentioned last week.)

At its peak, the drug network was a multimillion dollar business. Akhil Bansal, who was 26 at the time he was arrested, was doing an MBA at Temple. According to the Inquirer, he had about $400,000 in his checking account. The DEA had been investigating the case for five months, and cooperated extensively with Indian police in Delhi and Agra (where the Bansals have a second house) to bring down the family.

The Inquirer has created a special website for the series, You might want to check back to the site over the next few days to see what happens to Akhil Bansal and family after the DEA gets ahold of them. [Update: See part 2 of the story here.]

More links: USDOJ press release (PDF)

DEA Article summarizing the drug ring and the arrests made, all around the world.

Article in Temple News

NPR coverage