The Justice Department said Tuesday that it has indicted two Chinese nationals suspected of manufacturing and then distributing in the U.S. a synthetic opioid that officials say kills thousands of Americans every year.
The two suspects, Xiaobing Yan and Jian Zhang, face a raft of charges, including conspiracy to distribute large quantities of fentanyl and drugs with a similar chemical makeup in the U.S. through the mail or international delivery services.
Fentanyl is roughly 50 times more powerful than heroin, and it has become a significant factor in the opioid crisis ravaging the United States. In 2016 alone, some 20,000 Americans died because of fentanyl overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The drug is also a legal prescription painkiller.
"For the first time, we have indicted major Chinese fentanyl traffickers who have been using the Internet to sell fentanyl and fentanyl analogues to drug traffickers and individual customers in the United States," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said at a news conference at the Justice Department.
The cases, he said, highlight a "new and disturbing trend" in the opioid epidemic in the U.S. He said fentanyl and its analogues are entering the country in several ways, including shipments from labs in China directly to American customers who buy the drugs on the Internet.
But it was not immediately clear what impact the indictments will have on the efforts to stem the flow into the U.S. of illegal synthetics produced in China.
Both suspects are believed to be in China, and Beijing is unlikely to hand over two of its citizens for prosecution in the U.S., which does not have an extradition treaty with China.
Rosenstein said the Justice Department is working closely with its counterparts in China, but he would not say whether authorities there had taken the men into custody or shut down their labs.
Still, he expressed hope that China would ramp up its efforts to help the U.S. crack down on fentanyl production.
The announcement comes amid heightened public attention on the administration's efforts to combat the opioid crisis.
President Trump's pick for the nation's drug czar, Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., withdrew Tuesday from consideration following a Washington Post/60 Minutes report that Marino had helped usher legislation through Congress that curtailed the Drug Enforcement Administration's ability to crack down on drug distributors.
The DEA had opposed the bill, which ultimately passed with the help of an intense lobbying effort from the drug industry.
Marino's decision leaves the administration with a handful of top domestic posts to fill — drug czar, DEA chief and secretary of health and human services.
Still, the president has vowed to address the crisis and said Monday that he plans to declare it a national emergency next week.
The case against Yan, 40, began in 2013 in Mississippi, where authorities uncovered a domestic drug ring selling synthetics, Rosenstein said. Investigators working the case ultimately traced the drugs back to Yan, who allegedly operated two chemical plants in China and websites selling fentanyl to Americans, he said.
The case against Zhang, 38, began in North Dakota in 2015 after the overdose of a local 18-year-old. Rosenstein said investigators mapping out the distribution network traced the drugs through Oregon, Canada and eventually to Zhang in China.
Zhang's organization would send fentanyl as well as pill presses, stamps and dyes to U.S. customers through the mail, according to prosecutors.
Yan faces up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine, if convicted. Zhang faces up to life in prison and a $12.5 million fine, if convicted.
The Justice Department says 21 people have been indicted on federal drug charges in North Dakota and Oregon as part of the investigation.
The cases are being investigated by a task force that includes the Drug Enforcement Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations, the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.