The US government has brought its first-ever criminal charges against Chinese companies for allegedly trafficking precursor chemicals used to produce fentanyl into the United States, demonstrating a sharpened focus on this obscure but important part of the drug supply chain.
On June 23, the Department of Justice announced charges against four China-based companies and eight employees for the production, distribution, and sale of fentanyl and the precursor chemicals used to make it.
"Today’s announcement is a considerable step forward in our unrelenting fight against fentanyl, targeting the threat where it starts," DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in a statement.
Between 1999 and 2020, more than 500,000 people died from an opioid overdose in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with a majority of deaths since 2013 due to fentanyl. According to a 2022 CDC report, fentanyl killed nearly 70,000 people in the United States -- more than any other drug -- in 2021.
Despite US efforts to restrict the global fentanyl trade, regulating and detecting precursor chemicals remains a challenge because some of the substances have legal uses.
Prosecutors claim that the companies knowingly marketed and distributed their products for illicit use, citing evidence including advertisements explicitly targeting fentanyl producers in Mexico and the United States, efforts to disguise their products from customs checks, and instructions for altering these chemicals to produce fentanyl. Over 200 kilograms of precursor chemicals were seized and two employees arrested during the investigations.
China has responded by condemning the indictments and arrests.
InSight Crime Analysis
With these indictments, the United States has escalated its fight against fentanyl. But without China’s increased cooperation in enforcing these charges and strengthening controls, US actions will likely have limited effect.
China has the largest chemical industry in the world. The country’s lax regulations have made it one of the world’s main hubs for producers and distributors of synthetic drugs and precursor chemicals.
According to an investigation by InSight Crime, the majority of the fentanyl wreaking havoc in the United States originates as precursor chemicals produced in China. Those companies sell and transport the chemicals to Mexico, where brokers and chemists turn them into fentanyl. Then criminal groups like the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) get involved: purchasing, stockpiling, and transporting the drug across the US-Mexico border.
China has made some efforts to crack down on fentanyl production, like officially classifying all forms of fentanyl as a class of drugs in 2019. But security and foreign relations expert Vanda Felbab-Brown told InSight Crime, "We have seen really no meaningful cooperation from China with the US since 2021."
Previous US enforcement actions have had little impact. In December 2021, the United States sanctioned three Chinese chemical companies, but those companies continue to operate. Last week’s charges take US efforts to the next level, said US Army War College professor Evan Ellis, who studies foreign relations between Latin America and China.
"This is far beyond just calling out bad behavior through administration statements or ... sanctions," he told InSight Crime.
The US government has generally focused more on Mexican crime groups and distributors in its efforts to address fentanyl trafficking. In April, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel Obrador López wrote a letter asking China for help stopping shipments of precursor chemicals to his country and complaining of US pressure. China responded by denying any illegal fentanyl trafficking between their countries.
During US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Beijing, one of the main agenda items was discussing collaborative actions against suppliers of precursor chemicals and synthetic drugs. Felbab-Brown worries that the indictments could hinder future collaboration.
For Ellis, the fight against fentanyl could be "a win-win-win for the United States, China, and our Latin American counterparts." But in the meantime, he said, "This continues to be a work in progress."