Tuesday's announcement was a result of Operation Denial, a task force investigation into worldwide trafficking of fentanyl and other drugs, started nearly three years ago in North Dakota after an 18-year-old's overdose death in Grand Forks.
The investigations of Yan and Zhang revealed a new and disturbing facet of the opioid crisis in America: fentanyl and fentanyl analogues are coming into the United States in numerous ways, including highly pure shipments of fentanyl from factories in China directly to USA customers who purchase it on the Internet, according to the DOJ.
"Unwary or inexperienced users often have no idea that they are ingesting fentanyl until it is too late". At least 21 other people were also indicted on charges they trafficked the drugs across the US and Canada, often through the USA mail. The drug, which is legally prescribed for pain relief, can be highly addictive.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Tuesday announced the indictments of two Chinese nationals who allegedly conspired to traffic fentanyl, a drug that's more powerful and deadly than heroin, across the United States.
"We are pleased to announce two indictments that mark a major milestone in our battle to stop deadly fentanyl from entering the United States". "At a time when overdose deaths are at catastrophic levels, one of DEA's top priorities is the pursuit of criminal organizations distributing their poison to American neighborhoods".
A sign of White House interest in the issue, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway quietly attended Tuesday's news conference at the Justice Department.
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Agents from the Department of Homeland Security, Drug Enforcement Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol, IRS, U.S. Postal Service and the Chinese Ministry of Public Security were all involved in building the case.
The Chinese men indicted were Xiaobang Yan, 40, and Jian Zhang, 38, who worked separately but similarly, authorities said.
US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Tuesday that 20,000 of those deaths resulted from fentanyl that is cheap to manufacture and is up to 50 times more potent than heroin. A 2013 traffic stop in MS unearthed a domestic drug ring linked to Yan. Zhang was also charged with the deaths of four people in North Carolina, New Jersey, North Dakota and OR, and serious bodily injuries related to five others.
United States officials alleged Zhang had four fentanyl-producing laboratories and sold the drug over the Internet, paid for by crypto-currencies and shipped by worldwide parcel services.
Rosenstein said the investigation of Zhang began when authorities in Grand Forks, North Dakota responded to the overdose death of an 18-year-old, Bailey Henke. He said he was hopeful Chinese authorities would hold the men accountable.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that over 20,000 Americans were killed by fentanyl and fentanyl analogues in 2016, with the number growing at an exponential rate. Rosenstein said investigators mapping out the distribution network traced the drugs through Oregon, Canada and eventually to Zhang in China.