Federal authorities have indicted two Chinese drug kingpins accused of shipping massive amounts of fentanyl to dealers and users in the United States — but it’s unclear whether the men are in custody or whether their operations have been shut down.
Flanked by high-ranking members of the Department of Justice and a top Canadian law enforcement official, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced Tuesday that two Chinese nationals “and their North American based traffickers and distributors” now face charges in Mississippi and North Dakota “for separate conspiracies to distribute large quantities of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.”
But after touting the cooperation of Chinese authorities in the sprawling, multi-agency investigation, Rosenstein declined to say whether the two alleged fentanyl sellers, 40-year-old Xiaobing Yan and 38-year-old Jian Zhang, have been arrested in their home country. Rosenstein also acknowledged that even if the men were already behind bars, the lack of an extradition treaty with China means they likely wouldn’t stand trial in the U.S.
“This is about two distributors of fentanyl,” Rosenstein said. “There are many others out there. When we talk to the Chinese, we’re not just talking about support for particular investigations, but a broader approach that would have an impact in the ability to shut down all of these labs preemptively.”
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Fentanyl and its chemical cousins, such as the elephant tranquilizer carfentanil, caused more than 20,000 fatal overdoses last year, according to the CDC, the first time that deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers have been outpaced by synthetic opioids. Fentanyl is often cut into heroin or pressed into counterfeit pills.
The DEA has long claimed that illicit fentanyl comes almost entirely from Chinese labs, which often sell directly to customers through the internet and ship the drugs through the postal system. Mexican cartels also reportedly purchase chemical precursors from China, then manufacture fentanyl themselves and smuggle it across the border.
“We are seeking additional support from the Chinese government, cracking down on those labs, making sure they take this issue as serious as we do,” Rosenstein said. “And if it were the other way around, if tens of thousands of Chinese nationals were dying as a result of poison shipped from the United States, we would be proactive.”
READ: China’s ban on carfentanil may not keep the deadly elephant tranquilizer out of the U.S.
Rosenstein added that shutting down illicit Chinese fentanyl labs could “save hundreds, maybe thousands of lives.”
The DEA has struggled to keep up with the rise of fentanyl analogues, which are just as potent as fentanyl but with slightly different chemical formulas. Chinese chemists have been creating new compounds faster than the DEA can outlaw them. The Chinese government banned the synthetic opioid U-47700 and three other synthetic drugs over the summer in response to pressure from U.S. authorities, bringing the total number of banned synthetic drugs up to 138.
“That is one of the key factors we face — chemists are able to make subtle changes in the molecular makeup of fentanyl to stay a step ahead,” Rosenstein said. “They take advantage of the fact that the fentanyl molecule can be altered in various ways to create an analogue that is not listed as illegal under U.S. laws.”
READ: DEA busts suspected Chinese fentanyl dealer who set up shop in the U.S.
In addition to the indictments of the two Chinese nationals, U.S. and Canadian authorities said Tuesday the investigation has resulted in 21 arrests and the seizure of more than $1 million worth of fentanyl. Five Canadian citizens have also been indicted. The U.S. arrests include one person from New Jersey and two Florida residents who had $175,000, two guns, and a Maserati seized from their residence. Officials said they have also identified “over 100 distributors of synthetic opioids” from Yan’s network alone.
The Department of Justice said the two Chinese men are the first to receive a federal law enforcement designation as having “command and control” of the “most prolific international drug trafficking and money laundering organizations.” This isn’t the first time, however, than Chinese nationals have been accused of shipping fentanyl to the U.S. In July, the DEA arrested a 42-year-old Chinese man in Massachusetts who allegedly helped coordinate shipments of fentanyl and other drugs to Ohio and elsewhere.
Despite the ongoing efforts of U.S. law enforcement, it’s still incredibly easy to buy fentanyl online. A Google search for “buy fentanyl” produces more than 650,000 results, and doesn’t even require going to the so-called dark web to conduct the transaction. Even if the two Chinese kingpins whose indictments were revealed Tuesday are ultimately captured, that’s unlikely to change so long as demand for opioids remains high.