U.S. law enforcement officials announced Tuesday the indictments of two Chinese nationals and several American and Canadian associates charged with manufacturing and shipping fentanyl and other deadly opioids directly from China to the United States.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the charges against Xiaobing Yan, 40, and Jian Zhang, 38, represented the first-ever indictments brought against designated Chinese manufactures of fentanyl and other opiate substances.
"Zhang and Yan are the first Chinese nationals designated as Consolidated Priority Organization Targets," Rosenstein said at a press conference. "CPOTS are among the most significant drug trafficking threats in the world."
The indictments come amid a national controversy over the drug industry's complicity in feeding a deadly opioid epidemic in the United States. Rosenstein said the charges highlight "a disturbing facet" of the crisis.
"Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues are coming into the country in numerous ways, including shipments from factories in China directly to U.S. customers who purchased it on the internet," Rosenstein said.
Fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that is 50 times more powerful than heroin, has been responsible for an increasing number of deadly drug overdoses in the United States.
Last year, more than 20,000 people overdosed on fentanyl, up from 2,500 three years ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In all, there were more than 64,000 lethal overdoses in the country last year.
Prosecutors said Yan and Zhang operated labs and chemical plants in China that "were capable of producing ton quantities of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues" which were then sold to U.S. customers over the internet.
"Yan monitored legislation and law enforcement activities in the United States and China, modifying the chemical structure of the fentanyl analogues he produced to evade prosecution in the United States," Rosenstein said.
Zhang allegedly ran an organization that manufactured fentanyl in at least four labs in China and advertised and sold the drug to U.S. customers over the internet.
"Zhang's organization would send orders of fentanyl and other illicit drugs, and pill presses, stamps, and dies used to shape fentanyl into pills, to customers in the United States through the mail or international parcel delivery services," Rosenstein said.
Yan was indicted in the Southern District of Mississippi on two counts of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute multiple controlled substances, including fentanyl, and seven counts of manufacturing and distributing the drugs in specific locations.
Zhang was indicted in the District of North Dakota for conspiracy to distribute fentanyl in the United States, conspiracy to import the drugs from Canada and China, money laundering, and operating a criminal enterprise.
Rosenstein would not say whether the Chinese have arrested the two suspects, but he said he hoped the authorities there "would take action to hold them accountable."
Acting DEA Administrator Robert Patterson said targeting criminal organizations distributing opioids in the United States is one of the agency's top priorities.
"DEA, along with our global network of law enforcement partners, will go after these types of criminals where they operate," Patterson said.