The Department of Justice stated on Oct. 16 that it had indicted two Chinese nationals that are suspected of the manufacture and distribution of a synthetic opioid in the US that government officials claim kills thousands of people every year.
The names of the two suspects there were indicted by a federal grand jury are Xiaobing Yan and Jian Zhang, and they face several federal drug charges, including conspiracy to distribute large amounts of fentanyl and drugs that have a similar chemical make up through the US mail and international mail delivery.
Fentanyl is at least 50 times more powerful than heroin and is a major player in the opioid epidemic that has hit the US hard in the last decade. In 2016, at least 20,000 Americans have died from fentanyl overdoses, the CDC reports. Fentanyl is a legal prescription drug but it is very easy to abuse and is often sold on the street.
According to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, for the first time, the Department of Justice has indicted major Chinese fentanyl drug traffickers who have used the Internet to sell these dangerous drugs to other traffickers and customers in the US.
Rosenstein continued by saying that the case shows a new and disturbing trend in the opioid crisis in the United States. He noted that fentanyl and its related drugs are getting into the country in several ways. Sometimes they are shipped from labs in China directly to American customers who have purchased the drugs online.
It is not clear how much of an impact that the indictments will have on efforts to stop the flow into the United States of illegal synthetic opioids that are made in China.
Both of the indicted suspects are thought to live in China. But Beijing is not likely to hand over two citizens to federal authorities in the US for prosecution. The US does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
Rosenstein noted that DOJ is working with its counterparts in China, but he declined to say if the Chinese authorities had taken the two men into custody or had closed their labs. But he continued to express hope that China would enhance its efforts to assist the US in cracking down on fentanyl production.
The deputy AG also stressed that China needs to do more to crack down on labs that are making illegal drugs. He noted that the DOJ thinks that most of the fentanyl that is being distributed in the US and Canada originates in China.
Federal authorities have warned for years about how dangerous fentanyl is. It is one of the most powerful synthetic opioids that is often added to heroin and cocaine for a super high. The drug is so dangerous that it has actually made first responders sick by just handling the drug.
Strong Focus on Opioid Crisis in the United States
The DOJ announcement came as there is greatly increased public attention on the Trump administration’s effort to deal with the opioid crisis. The president recently declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency, and this has brought more state and federal resources to bear to fight the problem.
Overall, there is has been more opioid prescribed than medically necessary in some parts of the country. This has led to people becoming hooked on the pills, and sometimes selling them or giving them to friends and family. The dependence on prescription painkillers sometimes serves as a gateway to other deadly drugs, such as heroin.
Chinese National Case Started in 2013
The federal case against Yan begin in Mississippi in 2013. There federal agents uncovered a domestic drug ring that was selling synthetic opioids. Investigators on the case finally traced the illegal drugs back to Yan. It is alleged that Yan runs two chemical plants in China and also websites that sell fentanyl to Americans.
The case against Zhang started in North Dakota in 2015 after an 18 year old there overdosed on opioids. Rosenstein stated that federal investigators mapped out how the drugs were distributed. The feds traced the drugs through Oregon, Canada and finally to Zhang in China.
Zhang’s group would send the fentanyl as well as stamps, dyes and pill presses to customers in the US through international mail.
If convicted, Yan faces up to 20 years in federal prison, per federal sentencing guidelines, and a fine of $1 million. Zhang faces up to life in federal prison and a $12.5 million fine if convicted.
The Department of Justice states that at least 20 people have been indicted on federal drug charges in Oregon and North Dakota during the federal investigation. Two suspects allegedly worked with Zhang to arrange shipments of drugs from China to the US while they were actually in a medium security prison facility in Quebec. It is not unheard of for prisoners to be involved in criminal operations from inside prison, but it is unusual for them to be involved in a global drug trafficking operation.
The drug cases are being investigated by a task force that includes the DEA, ICE, the IRS, the US Postal Inspection Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.