The United States justice department has filed criminal charges against four Chinese companies accused of trafficking materials used to create the addictive painkiller fentanyl.
The three indictments, unsealed on Friday, mark the first time the government has sought to prosecute companies and individuals based in China for bringing the ingredients for fentanyl into the US and Mexico.
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“I promised that the justice department would never forget the victims of the fentanyl epidemic,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement on Friday. “I also promised that we would never stop working to hold accountable those who bear responsibility for it.”
He explained that his department’s strategy went beyond targeting the leaders of Mexican drug cartels by also pursuing their suppliers. Chinese chemical companies, he said, “are supplying the cartels with the building blocks they need to manufacture deadly fentanyl”.
In addition to the four Chinese companies, eight employees and executives were also charged in Friday’s filings.
The US is in the grips of an ongoing opioid crisis, with more than 564,000 people dead from overdoses between 1999 and 2020. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has increasingly fuelled that crisis in recent years.
Before, however, the crisis was driven in part by US drug producers aggressively promoting highly addictive products like oxycontin.
As steps were taken to clamp down on the availability of those drugs, illicit substances such as heroin and then fentanyl filled the vacuum. In 2021, the US recorded a stunning 107,000 overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of that number, more than 70,000 were attributed to fentanyl and other synthetic opiates.
In Friday’s indictment, federal prosecutors alleged that Chinese companies marketed fentanyl precursor chemicals on their websites and social media accounts. They then sold the materials to the Sinaloa drug cartel and other criminal groups in Mexico, who have smuggled fentanyl into the US for years.
The causes of overdose crises are complex, and some have accused the US government of looking to score easy victories by focusing on enforcement actions against criminal groups in countries like Mexico.
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy condemned Friday’s charges, stating that the US was looking to scapegoat China for its domestic drug crisis. It also accused the justice department of “long-arm jurisdiction”.
“The incident was a well-planned entrapment operation by the US side, which seriously infringed upon the legitimate rights of relevant enterprises and individuals,” embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said. “China strongly condemns it.”