The fentanyl that laces illicit drugs in the U.S. is often made in China. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — As illicit fentanyl seizures reach record numbers, the Biden administration on Friday announced “government-wide efforts” to counter narcotics trafficking, including criminally charging members of the Sinaloa Cartel operating out of Mexico, and sanctioning Chinese producers of the chemicals used to make the synthetic drug.
The Department of Justice unsealed indictments alleging fentanyl trafficking, weapons offenses, and money laundering against 28 defendants, including those at the highest levels of the notorious and violent cartel.
The indictments allege that its members reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits “by flooding the United States with fentanyl.”
Seven of the defendants are in custody pending extradition proceedings. U.S. law enforcement will work with counterparts in Mexico to “expeditiously extradite” the other defendants, a senior administration official said said on background Friday.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control concurrently issued sanctions against two China-based entities — Wuhan Shuokang Biological Technology Co., Ltd, owned by Yao Huatao, and Suzhou Xiaoli Pharmatech Co., Ltd — for the sale of precursor chemicals to cartel members in Mexico for the production of illicit fentanyl “intended for U.S. markets,” according to the department.
Huatao was indicted by the Justice Department earlier this month on conspiracy charges, including money laundering and fentanyl trafficking.
Treasury’s OFAC also sanctioned five individuals from China and Central America, including a Guatemala-based precursor chemical broker working on behalf of cartel members in Mexico.
“These efforts demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to dismantling this deadly criminal enterprise, and every level, from those who willingly ship illicit precursor chemicals from overseas to those who traffic pills right into our homeland killing tens of thousands of Americans every year,” a White House senior administration official told reporters on background Friday.
In addition, the Department of State added several individuals, including those who were indicted and sanctioned Friday, to its Narcotics Rewards Program that offers up to $25 million in exchange for information leading to arrests and convictions of drug traffickers.
Politics of fentanyl
The issue of illicit fentanyl crossing the southwest border into the United States is a talking point for both Republicans and Democrats whose constituents have been affected by staggering overdose deaths.
Illicit fentanyl seizures by U.S. law enforcement are up 400% in 2023 over 2019 numbers, according to Customs and Border Patrol.
To date this year, more illegal fentanyl has been seized by agents than all of the synthetic drug seized last year, according to a senior administration official Friday — though those numbers are not yet reflected on the CPB’s drug seizure dashboard.
GOP lawmakers are pushing for the HALT Fentanyl Act, a measure reintroduced this Congress by Republican Reps. Morgan Griffith of Virginia, and Bob Latta of Ohio.
The bill aims to permanently classify fentanyl-related analogs as Class I substances under the Controlled Substances Act.
Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, including Democratic Reps. Joe Neguse of Colorado and Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, launched the Fentanyl Prevention Caucus.
In his 2023 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden called for the purchase of advanced detection machines to inspect cargo and packages, including those arriving through private couriers like FedEx.
While illicit fentanyl arrives to the U.S. over land borders, it also comes via the coasts and U.S. mail.
Biden has requested $46 billion for next year’s drug control programs, roughly $2 billion over the current amount, according to the White House.
Staggering overdose deaths
Drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed in the U.S., increasing fivefold in the last two decades, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in late 2022.
Of the record-setting 107,622 overdose deaths tracked by the CDC in 2021, 71,238 of them were attributed to manmade, illegal fentanyl substances.
The synthetic opioid is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.
Because of its potency and cost-effectiveness for illegal drug producers, the synthetic opioid — that can be both liquid and powder form — is often found in other types of drugs, including heroin, cocaine and fake prescription pills.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency — through its “One Pill Can Kill” campaign — warns that six out of every 10 fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills contain a lethal dose of the synthetic opioid.
Though they are both synthetic opioids, pharmaceutical fentanyl differs from illicit fentanyl in that it is prescribed by medical practitioners for pain management — for example, following surgery or for advanced-stage cancers.
Fentanyl that is made at facilities and distributed through illegal drug markets is considered illicit.
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