Feds focus on Florida in crackdown on fentanyl chemicals shipped by Chinese firms to U.S. and Mexico

Jake Crandall/Advertiser / USA TODAY NETWORK

Justice Department officials Tuesday announced a crackdown on China-based companies and employees in eight Florida indictments, accusing them of shipping chemical ingredients to Mexico and the United States where they are used to produce fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that is the leading cause of drug deaths in America with more than 100,000 over a one-year period.

The latest charges follow a U.S. government initiative launched this summer to target Chinese companies that are supplying fentanyl chemical “precursors” to foreign countries for the manufacturing of the deadly drug, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin and also can kill an adult with a dose of as little as two milligrams.

“We know that the global fentanyl supply chain, which ends with the deaths of Americans, often starts with chemical companies in China,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said Tuesday at a news conference in Washington, D.C., flanked by top law enforcement officials. “The United States government is focused on breaking apart every link in that chain, getting fentanyl out of our communities, and bringing those who put it there to justice.”

The federal focus on chemical suppliers marks a significant shift in U.S. policy that previously targeted the actual manufacturing of fentanyl-related substances and analogue opioid drugs in China, which were ordered over the internet and shipped through the mail to this country. Under pressure from the U.S. government, Beijing officials began outlawing and incarcerating fentanyl manufacturers operating on the black market in recent years — but they’re now accused of taking a lax approach to the exporting of the chemical ingredients to super labs run by drug cartels in Mexico and traffickers in the United States.

The latest round of fentanyl investigations, run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations and other federal agencies, resulted in three indictments in South Florida and five indictments in Central Florida, authorities said.

“This is only the beginning of our fight,” U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe, based in Miami, said in a statement, sounding the alarm about these “powerful and potentially deadly cocktails of controlled substances.” Fentanyl ranks as the highest cause of overdose drug deaths in Florida, with about 3,000 fatalities on average over each of the previous two years, according to county medical examiners and state records, far ahead of cocaine, heroin and other deadly narcotics.

The South Florida indictments charge three Chinese companies and four officers and employees with fentanyl trafficking, synthetic opioid trafficking, precursor chemical importation, defrauding the U.S. Postal Service, and making and using counterfeit postage.

Among those charged: Hanhong Medicine Technology Company, a pharmaceutical firm located in Wuhan, Hubei Province, and Chinese nationals Changgen Du, 30, and Xuebi Gan, 28, are accused of exporting large quantities of fentanyl chemicals and additives to drug traffickers in the United States and Mexico.

Also charged: Jiangsu Bangdeya New Material Techonology Company, a pharmaceutical firm located in Jiangsu China, and its owner, Jiantong Wang, 40, are accused of advertising openly online as an export company for fentanyl chemicals to create a dangerous mix of synthetic opioids in foreign countries. Authorities say Bangdeya has illegally imported large quantities into the United States, including to a drug trafficker in South Florida.

Another set of charges: Hubei Guanlang Biotechnology Company, a chemical company located in Shijaizhuang, Hebei Province, China, along with Chinese national Wei Zhang, 28. He is accused of operating the company and a cryptocurrency wallet that accepts payment for its sales of fentanyl precursors and opioid additives.

Although the Peoples Republic of China has cooperated with the U.S. government on fentanyl-related crimes in the past, relations have become strained between the two countries.

In June, the Justice Department unsealed three indictments in New York charging China-based companies and their employees with fentanyl-related crimes. Two Chinese citizens were arrested. Beijing officials responded by alleging that the DEA had conducted a sting operation, “blatantly abducted” them in Fiji, and then took them to the United States for trial, thus “seriously undercutting the foundation of [U.S.-China] counter-narcotics cooperation.”