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El Chapo's sons among 28 Mexican cartel members charged by Justice Department in fentanyl crackdown

The action is part of the Drug Enforcement Administration's push to target major drug trafficking organizations, like the Sinaloa Cartel and its main rival, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).

The Justice Department announced charges against 28 Mexican drug cartel leaders and members on Friday, targeting the infamous Sinaloa cartel and the children of former drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the charges, focusing on the cartel's fentanyl trafficking, filed in the Southern District of New York, the Northern District of Illinois and Washington, D.C.

Defendants include at least three sons of the imprisoned El Chapo, known as the "Chapitos": Ivan Archivaldo Guzman Salazar, Jesus Alfredo Guzman Salazar and Ovidio Guzman Lopez.

A statement from the Justice Department also mentions a fourth Chapito, Joaquin Guzman Lopez, as a defendant in this case.

The Chapitos are accused of fentanyl trafficking and money laundering, among other charges.

Ovidio Guzman Lopez was arrested in January and "charged in a separate indictment alleging the same offenses." He is still detained in Mexico pending extradition proceedings, according to the Justice Department.

Other defendants in the case include suppliers in China selling fentanyl precursor chemicals to the Sinaloa Cartel, a Guatemalan-based broker who purchases the precursors on behalf of the cartel, and operators of labs in Mexico where the cartel manufactures fentanyl.

Also charged were a weapons supplier who provides the cartel with firearms smuggled to Mexico from the U.S., leaders of the cartel's security and money launderers who fund the cartel's operations, Garland said.

“The United States government is using every tool at its disposal to combat the fentanyl epidemic," Garland said.

Garland said that between 2019 to 2021, fatal overdoses in the country increased by over 94%, with an estimated 196 Americans dying every day from fentanyl poisoning.

“Families and communities across our country are being devastated by the fentanyl epidemic," he said. "From August 2021 to August 2022, 107,735 people died of drug overdoses in the United States. Two thirds of those deaths involve synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl.”

Garland also outlined how the cartel "operates without respect for human rights, for human life or for rule of law," describing incidents where defendants fed victims, dead and alive, to tigers belonging to the Chapitos.

The cartel also allegedly used human test subjects in fatal fentanyl experiments.

"In another instance, those defendants experimented on a woman they had been ordered to shoot. Instead they injected her repeatedly with fentanyl until she overdosed and died," Garland said.

"And after an addict died testing a batch of the cartel's fentanyl, one of the defendants sent the batch to the United States anyway."

A total of eight of the defendants are currently in custody, Garland added.

Although Friday's charges concerned the Sinaloa Cartel, the initiative is part of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s push to target major drug trafficking organizations like Sinaloa and its main rival, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG).

The Biden administration also announced Friday that it is increasing cooperation with Mexico to combat the trafficking of fentanyl coming north into the U.S., while also cracking down on the trafficking of guns going south into Mexico.

NBC News was first to report that the two countries were negotiating such an agreement.

Biden visited Mexico in January and senior Biden administration officials headed to Mexico City last month for pre-arranged talks about the fentanyl crisis as news unfolded that drug cartel gunmen had kidnapped four Americans in Mexico, two of whom were shot dead.

Ahead of the talks with senior Biden officials, Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador stood before television cameras to proclaim that fentanyl is America’s problem, falsely stating that none of the dangerous drug is produced in Mexico. The episode further increased tension between the U.S. and Mexico over border security and the drug trade.

U.S. officials and international experts say the vast majority of the fentanyl sold in the U.S. is produced in Mexico, using precursors imported from China.

“The Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco cartel and their affiliates control the vast majority of the fentanyl global supply chain, from manufacture to distribution,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram told Congress last month.

“The cartels are buying precursor chemicals in the People’s Republic of China, transporting the precursor chemicals from the PRC to Mexico, using the precursor chemicals to mass produce fentanyl, pressing the fentanyl into fake prescription pills, and using cars, trucks and other routes to transport the drugs from Mexico into the United States for distribution.”

The Sinaloa cartel remains a powerful drug trafficking organization in Mexico despite the conviction of El Chapo.

The cartel has maintained strong leadership under a more “horizontal structure,” in which “decision-making authority flows all along the chain," Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration said in 2019.

Adding to the cartel’s ongoing success was a “diversified portfolio” of criminal activity, Vigil said, including the lucrative drug trade of synthetic opioids like fentanyl.