US announces charges, sanctions in fight to stem fentanyl trafficking
Members of Congress have pressed officials during oversight hearings to do more to combat the drug
U.S. officials announced actions Friday to combat fentanyl as the nation struggles to battle overdose deaths, including charges against members of a Mexican drug cartel that authorities say is behind the drug’s largest trafficking operation on the globe.
The federal indictments were unsealed Friday in three different federal courts and target the Sinaloa cartel, which authorities say is responsible for importing the drug into the United States. A federal prosecutor from New York called it “the most ambitious fentanyl prosecution in American history.”
The Treasury Department announced sanctions Friday against two Chinese companies and five individuals, which would freeze their U.S.-based assets and potentially levy consequences for their business partners.
These companies are involved in the development and sale of chemical precursors to Mexico, and the sanctioned individuals included the owner and sales representatives of a sanctioned company, among others, a senior administration official told reporters Friday. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Biden administration.
And the State Department also announced 27 reward offers, ranging from up to $1 million to up to $10 million, for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of certain targets. These include increased rewards for two high-level leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, according to another senior administration official.
The moves from the Biden administration dovetail with an intense focus on fentanyl in Congress, where lawmakers have pressed officials during oversight hearings to do more to combat the drug.
Trafficking of fentanyl across the U.S.-Mexico border has emerged as a frequent talking point among congressional Republicans, who have torn into Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the Biden administration’s border policies.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the ranking member of the committee’s immigration panel, asked Mayorkas if he wanted to apologize to families who have lost children to fentanyl poisoning because of the administration’s border policies.
The House Homeland Security Committee also held a hearing in February titled “Secretary Mayorkas’ Border Crisis” that featured remarks from a parent whose two sons died of fentanyl poisoning.
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Friday said the Justice Department charged money launderers, cartel lab operators, leaders of the cartel’s security forces and suppliers in China who sell fentanyl precursors to the cartel.
The indictments show the cartel “operates without respect for human rights, for human life or the rule of law,” Garland said, adding that the operation is fueled by Chinese precursor chemical and pharmaceutical companies.
“The Justice Department is attacking every aspect of the cartel’s operations,” Garland said at a news conference.
Garland also called attention to “fake” pills, which resemble legitimate pharmaceutical pills but instead can contain fentanyl.
The Drug Enforcement Administration reported seizing more than 50 million fentanyl-laced, fake prescription pills last year, and those pills can carry a lethal dose of the drug.
Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco said the fentanyl crisis has in large part been fueled by the Sinaloa cartel.
“Each of the nearly 30 defendants in these cases represent part of the machine that is pumping poisonous fentanyl into cities and towns around this country,” Monaco said.
“We won’t grind the cartel machine to a halt unless we attack it from every angle,” she said. “And to do that, we need to use every tool that we can and to join forces with partners around our government and around the globe.”
Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the indictment is the most significant of his tenure. He also issued a direct message to Americans touched by the fentanyl crisis.
“We’re going to do everything we can to seek justice, and to hopefully save the next family from feeling tomorrow the pain that you feel today,” Williams said.