WASHINGTON — Two men in China have been charged with making and selling illegal fentanyl to suppliers in the U.S. and Canada, drugs that officials say led directly to overdose deaths in the U.S., federal prosecutors revealed Tuesday.
"These cases reflect a new and disturbing facet of the opioid crisis in America," said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. "More and more of our citizens are being killed by fentanyls," drugs that are 100 times as powerful as morphine and 50 times as strong as heroin.
Of the estimated 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, 20,000 are blamed on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. And nearly all of it, Rosenstein said, is made in China as a finished product or formulated elsewhere from precursor chemicals made in China.
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The two Chinese nationals, 40-year-old Xiaobing Yan and 38-year-old Jian Zhang, are accused of operating illicit labs and chemical plants that produced fentanyl. They then sold their illegal products to users and distributors in the U.S. and Canada over the internet, typically paid in hard-to-trace Bitcoins, prosecutors said.
U.S. officials said the two are among the most prolific international drug traffickers and money launderers. The Justice Department said Yan sold to more than 100 distributors.
Rosenstein said the investigation of Zhang began when authorities in Grand Forks, North Dakota responded to the overdose death of an 18-year-old, Bailey Henke. They determined that another Grand Forks residents supplied the fentanyl. Tracing his source led to Oregon, then to Canada, and finally to Zhang in China, authorities said.
Two residents of Florida, one from New Jersey, and five Canadians were also indicted in the drug conspiracy involving Zhang, the government said.
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The Justice Department declined to say whether Chinese authorities have taken any enforcement actions against either Chinese man named in the charges announced Tuesday or against their chemical plants and Internet sites. The U.S. has no extradition treaty with China.
"We're seeking additional support from the Chinese government in cracking down on those labs," Rosenstein said. "If it were the other way around, and tens of thousands of Chinese nationals were dying as a result of poisons shipped from the United States, we'd be very proactive. So we're hoping to get the same kind of response from there."