The U.S. Justice Department on Friday announced charges against four Chinese nationals and six co-conspirators for trafficking large quantities of the synthetic opioid fentanyl into the United States, part of the Trump administration's crackdown on an abuse epidemic that has killed tens of thousands of Americans.
The charges, handed down by a federal grand jury in North Dakota in January and March, were unsealed and announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in North Dakota. In all, 32 people have been charged in the case, an operation Sessions described as "an elaborate and sophisticated conspiracy" to sell fentanyl in 11 U.S. states, resulting in overdose deaths in at least three states.
"Today's indictments are a step toward dismantling an alleged international fentanyl trafficking operation and eventually ending this nation's unprecedented drug crisis," Sessions said.
The charges followed the first indictments of Chinese nationals for fentanyl trafficking, announced in October. Sessions said one of two indictments unsealed last year began with the overdose death in January 2015 of a teenager in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a tragedy that allowed prosecutors to trace the source of the fentanyl to China.
"Most fentanyl doesn't come from here," Sessions said. "The vast majority is made in China and then shipped here, either through the mail or brought across the porous Southern border."
The Justice Department identified the operation's ringleader as Jian Zhang, who had been previously indicted in connection with the fentanyl trafficking case. U.S. prosecutors alleged that Zhang ran an organization that manufactured fentanyl in at least four labs in China and sold it to American customers over the internet.
All five Chinese nationals remain at large.Three co-conspirators have been arrested in three different states.
The Treasury Department designated Zhang, 39, as a "significant foreign narcotics trafficker" under the Kingpin Act and sanctioned a biotechnology firm he owns. The agency also sanctioned four other Chinese nationals.
The Kingpin Law allows prosecutors to seek the death penalty for traffickers of large quantities of illegal drugs. Sessions recently urged U.S. prosecutors to seek the death penalty in drug kingpin cases.
The U.S. substance abuse epidemic killed nearly 64,000 Americans in 2016, the most on record, making drug overdoses the No. 1 killer of Americans under age 50, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The deadly epidemic is fueled by opioids such as heroin and prescription painkillers. But the "top killer opioid" is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl killed about 20,000 Americans in 2016, Sessions said.
The Trump administration has made ending the drug crisis a priority. In October, Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency, a declaration he extended this week for an additional 90 days.
Sessions said the Justice Department was "taking aggressive steps to prosecute those who would profit off of addiction, with a particular focus on fentanyl," and had tripled the number of fentanyl prosecutions in 2017 compared with 2016.
Last week, the department announced charges against dozens of people in a takedown of a major fentanyl and heroin distribution network.