WASHINGTON (CN) — Twenty-eight purported members of the Sinaloa drug cartel were indicted Friday in three U.S. federal courts, charged with unleashing a campaign of violence and murder while distributing at least 56,000 kilograms of drugs and laundering tens of millions of dollars.
The Justice Department announced the indictments as the State Department offered $56 million in rewards for the cartel’s leaders and the Treasury Department revealed sanctions for a Chinese business, four Chinese citizens and a Guatemalan for their role in trafficking fentanyl into the United States.
“The charges unsealed today demonstrate the comprehensive approach the Justice Department is taking to disrupting the entire fentanyl trafficking ecosystem,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “The indictments describe in detail how the Sinaloa Cartel operates — without respect for human rights, for human life, or the rule of law.”
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has become the leading cause of death for Americans between ages 18 to 49. It has saturated the illegal drug market as traffickers have embraced it as a high-potency additive that boosts profits by cutting costs without reducing supply.
Prosecutors have pinpointed the powerful Sinaloa cartel as the primary source of fentanyl in the U.S. The cartel was founded in the late 1980s and reached its status as a multibillion-dollar international trafficking empire under the leadership of Joaquín Archivaldo “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera.
El Chapo was finally arrested and extradited to the United States in 2017, creating a power struggle among the cartel’s leaders. His four sons — Ivan Guzman Salazar, 40, Alfredo Guzman Salazar, 37, Joaquin Guzman Lopez, 36, and Ovidio Guzman Lopez, 33 — eventually emerged as leaders alongside Ismael Zambada Garcia.
Three of the indictments announced Friday were filed in the Southern District of New York, with additional charges brought in the Northern District of Illinois and U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“The Department of Justice is combating the cartels and the fentanyl epidemic the same way we’ve fought other threats: by targeting every aspect of their networks and by using all tools of national power to dismantle them,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said. “Just as we went on offense against terrorists and cyber criminals around the globe, the Department is now waging a relentless campaign to disrupt the production and trafficking of fentanyl—before it can reach its victims.”
The indictments were announced the day after U.S. and Mexican officials met to discuss cooperative efforts to combat drugs and arms trafficking. Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to President Joe Biden, called it “one of the most significant grouping of fentanyl-focused criminal charges ever brought.”
“These actions represent yet another step in our efforts to counter fentanyl trafficking worldwide and work with Mexico and other key partners to combat the devastating threat this activity poses,” Sullivan said in a press release. “We remain steadfast in our belief that the global illicit drug trade is a threat to our public health and safety, national security, and economy. We also remain steadfast in our commitment to hold accountable those supporting this deadly enterprise.”
The indictments portray a sophisticated multinational organization operating through violence and intimidation. According to the court documents, the cartel secures chemicals from China and South America that are transported to Mexico through a variety of means, including submarines, aircraft and container ships. The chemicals are used to manufacture fentanyl in labs hidden in the mountains of Sinaloa, Mexico.
Fentanyl is combined in drug manufacturing and then smuggled across the border in vehicles, rail cars and tunnels to warehouses in Southern California for distribution throughout the U.S., the indictments allege.
Proceeds are then laundered through a wide web, including in cryptocurrency. One example provided by prosecutors is a cellphone business in Mexico by Julio Marin Gonzalez, who is charged in New York. Prosecutors allege that Gonzalez purchases U.S. dollars from the cartel in exchange for pesos and then directs couriers in the U.S. to pick up the cartel’s earnings. Those earnings are then used to purchase cellphones in bulk that are smuggled to Gonzalez’s shops to be sold at an inflated price.