WASHINGTON (CN) – Federal prosecutors unveiled what they called first-of-their-kind fentanyl indictments Tuesday against a pair of Chinese nationals they say trafficked the synthetic opioid into the United States.
Xiabing Yan, 40, and Jian Zhang, 38, are charged in the Southern District of Mississippi and the District of North Dakota with separate conspiracies to distribute fentanyl and other opiates in the U.S. The charging papers are dated last month but were unsealed Monday and publicized this morning at a press conference in Washington.
Prosecutors herald the case as the first time fentanyl distributors or manufactures have been designated as consolidated priority organization targets, a label given to those who control the most prolific money-laundering and international drug-trafficking organizations.
Considered to be 50 times more powerful than heroin, fentanyl killed more than 20,000 Americans last year alone, according to research by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Drug Enforcement Agency calls China the source of most fentanyl in the United States, Mexico and Canada, but notes that the country has no fentanyl-consumption problem itself. Traffickers advertise online and ship the deadly drug directly to consumers using the mail.
Yan faces two counts of conspiracy and seven counts of manufacturing and distributing. The Justice Department accuses Yan of operating at least two chemical plants in China and using various identities and company names to distribute the drugs for six years.
Yan also allegedly modified the chemical structure of fentanyl to evade prosecution in the U.S., and operated websites where he sold the modified fentanyl directly to U.S. customers.
During the course of a multiagency law-enforcement investigation, the Justice Department said federal agents found more than 100 distributors selling synthetic opioids that were linked to Yan’s distribution and manufacturing networks.
Prosecutors say Zhang’s fentanyl enterprise included at least four labs in China, relying on internet advertising to reach customers in the U.S.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein highlighted the drug’s many forms and dangers during a Tuesday morning press conference, calling the indictments a “major milestone” in the battle to stop fentanyl from entering the U.S.
“It can be purchased as pure fentanyl, fentanyl mixed with heroin, cocaine, or even marijuana, and fentanyl pressed into pill form and falsely sold as prescription opioids,” Rosenstein said. “Users often have no idea that they are ingesting fentanyl until it is too late.”