(Photo: mjneuby/CC BY 2.0)

In 2014, photos taken from the sky revealed that around six percent of the world’s aluminum—or around a million tons—was sitting in a desert in Mexico

As the Wall Street Journal reports, the stockpile ”quickly became an obsession for the U.S. aluminum industry.”

What was it doing there? Theories abounded, but, as the newspaper writes, only one theory checked out in the end: that of a Chinese billionaire, who had shipped the aluminum there in an apparent attempt to avoid tariffs. 

If he could ship aluminum to Mexico first, and then on to the U.S., he might reap the benefits of NAFTA. But only if U.S. officials didn’t know that the aluminum originated in China

The billionaire, Liu Zhongtian, who controls a massive Chinese aluminum company, denied involvement in any scheme to the WSJ, but, scheme or not, Liu’s plans for the aluminum, over the years, went badly awry. 

For one thing, American officials at some point became convinced that the aluminum was from China, denying the company any tariff benefits under NAFTA. In addition, a manager at the Mexico plant was accused of mishandling company funds, while plans for a plant in Barstow, California, also came and went.

Finally, in what seems like an admission of defeat, much of the aluminum has been shipped back to Asia over the last several months. 

Six percent of the world’s aluminum is no longer sitting in Mexico, waiting to get dispersed.