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Justice Department announces charges for leaders of Sinaloa cartel

The indictments are part of a wide-ranging investigation of fentanyl trafficking in the U.S.

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.


The indictments describe the cartel as operating with impunity in certain areas of Mexico. They implicate Ivan Guzman Salazar, Alfredo Guzman Salazar, Joaquin Guzman Lopez and Ovidio Guzman Lopez, called “chapitos,” directly in three murders in Mexico and one in Phoenix. It is alleged that the chapitos regularly torture rivals, bribe officials, kill people and sometimes feed their enemies, “dead or alive,” to their pet tigers.

The indictments cover crimes across the country and in Mexico over 15 years. The charges are for continuing a criminal enterprise, importing and distributing illegal substances, conspiracy to murder witnesses and possessing machine guns to protect drug trafficking. 

Specifically, the defendants are charged with distributing at least 32,291 kilograms of marijuana, 23,361 kilograms of cocaine, 371 kilograms of methamphetamines and 26 kilograms of heroin between 2008 and 2020.

The defendants include the chapitos, a network of enforcers, suppliers, drug and weapons traffickers, and money launderers.

The people charged are Nestor Isidro Perez Salas, Leobardo Garcia Corrales, Martin Garcia Corrales, Humberto Beltran Cuen, Anastacio Soto Vega, Ovidio Guzman Lopez, Ivan Archivaldo Guzman Salazar, Jesus Alfredo Guzman Salazar, Oscar Noe Medina Gonzalez, Jorge Humberto Figueroa Benitez, Liborio Nunez Aguirre, Noel Perez Lopez, Samuel Leon Alvarado, Luis Javier Benitez Espinoza, Alan Gabriel Nunez Herrera, Juan Pablo Lozano, Carlos Limon, Jesus Tirado Andrade, Carlos Omar Felix Guitierrez, Silvano Francisco Mariano, Julio Marin Gonzalez, Mario Alberto Jimenez Castro, Sergio Duarte Frias, Ana Gabriela Rubio Zea, Kun Jian, Wu Yonghao, Wu Yaqin and Yao Huatao.

“Each of the nearly 30 defendants in these cases represent part of the machine that is pumping poisonous fentanyl into cities and towns across our country,” Monaco said. “We won’t grind the cartel machine to a halt unless we attack it from every angle. And to do that, we need to use every tool we can and join forces with partners around our government and around the globe.”

Seven defendants are in custody in Mexico awaiting extradition. Among them are Ovidio Guzman Lopez, who was captured after a battle with Mexican military and law enforcement that left at least 29 people dead.

The State Department is offering rewards of $10 million each for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Ivan Guzman Salazar, Alfredo Guzman Salazar and Ovidio Guzman Lopez and up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Joaquin Guzman Lopez. The department is offering between $1 million and $10 million for information leading to the arrest of Yao, Wu, Yonghao and Zea.

“Today’s actions demonstrate the resolve of the United States to promote accountability for criminals who perpetuate illicit fentanyl activity,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press release regarding the rewards. “We are poised to continue the use of this important tool, not only to support our partners, but also to help provide justice and accountability to those impacted by the careless distribution of a deadly substance.”

The Treasury Department designated Chinese business Wushan Shuokang Biological Technology Co. Ltd.; its owner, Yao Huatao; and two sales representatives, Wu Yaqin and Wu Yonghao, for engaging in the illicit drug trade. It also sanctioned Wang Hongfei, who owns a cryptocurrency wallet alleged to have received bitcoin payments for drug transactions.

Ana Gabriela Rubio Zea, who is charged in New York, was sanctioned as a Guatemala-based broker of the chemicals used to make fentanyl.

The sanctions block all property, property interests and business entities owned by the individuals within the U.S. They also prohibits U.S. citizens from doing business involving those individuals.

“Illicit fentanyl is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year,” Brian Nelson, under secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said in a press release. “Treasury, as part of the whole-of-government effort to respond to this crisis, will continue to vigorously apply our tools to prevent the transfer of precursor chemicals and machinery necessary to produce this drug.”

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