U.S. clamping down on Chinese narcotics traffickers
American officials are stepping up efforts to stop Chinese businesses from making and selling chemicals used to manufacture synthetic opioids that ultimately end up in the United States.
The U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network identified three Chinese nationals — Fujing Zheng; his father, Guanghua Zheng; and Xiaobing Yan — as “significant foreign narcotics traffickers” and designated them as narcotics “kingpins.” The U.S. Department of Treasury said the three “run an international drug trafficking operation that manufactures and sells lethal narcotics, directly contributing to the crisis of opioid addiction, overdoses and death in the United States.”
Fujing Zheng and Yan have shipped hundreds of packages of synthetic opioids to the U.S, “targeting customers through online advertising and sales, and using commercial mail carriers to smuggle drugs,” the department said.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said the three men are known to use the digital currency bitcoin. The office identified bitcoin addresses associated with the alleged traffickers to “maximize disruption of their financial dealings.”
In 2018, the U.S. Attorney’s Office unsealed a 43-count indictment charging Fujing Zheng and Guanghua Zheng with conspiring to make and ship illegal drugs to at least 37 U.S. states and 25 countries. Xiaobing Yan was indicted on similar charges in 2017. The New York Times newspaper reported that the accused men remain at large and that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has taken no action against them.
The PRC in April 2019 announced that it was banning all variants of fentanyl, but it did not ban the chemicals used to make it. That leaves Chinese manufacturers free to make and ship those chemicals to other countries, including Mexico, where the drug can be made. (Pictured: U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents seized packets of fentanyl and methamphetamine in January 2019 from a truck crossing into the United States from Mexico.)
Sometimes, the fentanyl still comes directly from China, and the penetration of the opioid into the U.S. is reaching epic proportions. Law enforcement officials in Virginia said in late August 2019 that they broke up a multi-state drug ring and seized enough cheap fentanyl from China to kill 14 million people, according to an Associated Press (AP) report. The 30 kilograms of fentanyl that were seized came through the U.S. mail from Shanghai.
“We have to get the Chinese to stop doing this,” said G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia, according to AP.
The PRC blamed the problem on the appetite for the drug in the United States. The U.S., according to Chinese officials, needs to examine why it has an opioid crisis instead of blaming China. “The root cause of the fentanyl issue in the U.S. does not lie with China,” said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry.
Fentanyl is a cheap opioid painkiller that is relatively easy to synthesize. It is 50 times more potent than heroin and has played a major role in the U.S. opioid crisis. It is sold in the U.S. in many forms, all of which can be lethal. It can be mixed with heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine and can be pressed into pills and falsely sold as a prescription drug.
Fentanyl has been the fuel for the deadliest drug epidemic in American history. The Washington Post newspaper reported that, from 2013 through 2017, more than 67,000 Americans died of synthetic opioid-related overdoses, the majority of them from fentanyl. In 2018, another 31,473 Americans died from overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reporter Ben Westhoff, writing for the August 18, 2019, issue of The Atlantic magazine, said the two most commonly used ingredients in making fentanyl are chemicals called NPP and 4-ANPP. When Westhoff began researching the fentanyl crisis in early 2017, “advertisements for the chemicals were all over the internet.” One Chinese businessman told him the chemicals are sold more in Mexico than in the U.S.
“This isn’t surprising, since most illicit fentanyl used in America, where 32,000 people died from fentanyl last year, comes through Mexico,” wrote Westhoff. “Mexican cartels lack trained chemists to make fentanyl from scratch, so they buy precursors in bulk from China. After that, making finished fentanyl is simple.”