First Time in History, Whopping Amount of Fentanyl Captured by DEA. 386 Million Doses Enough to Kill all Americans

In the largest fentanyl seizure in history, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) confiscated over 77 million fentanyl pills and nearly 12,000 pounds of fentanyl powder this past year. This massive haul amounts to more than 386 million potentially lethal doses – enough to end the lives of every single American if distributed across the population.

The seizure highlights the DEA’s revamped strategy to combat what they describe as “the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced” as the agency marked its 50th anniversary. Fentanyl has now become the leading cause of death for Americans between 18 to 45 years old. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over 107,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2021, mainly attributed to the synthetic opioid.

Despite intensified interdiction efforts, the DEA acknowledges the ongoing challenge of curtailing the flow of illicit fentanyl primarily smuggled into the U.S. across the southern border by Mexican cartels. The Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels obtain precursor chemicals from China to produce the fentanyl in mass quantities within clandestine Mexican labs before trafficking it into the U.S. for distribution. In 2023, the DEA brought the first charges ever against Chinese chemical companies for supplying precursor chemicals to the Mexican cartels.

The agency has established new Counter Threat Teams to specifically target each cartel and their financial infrastructure. But DEA Special Agent J. Todd Scott, head of the Louisville Field Division, highlighted that law enforcement alone cannot win this battle. “We’re essentially drinking water from a firehose,” said Scott. “This is not a problem that can be solved by law enforcement alone.”

Currently, over 200 Americans die every day from a fentanyl overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted 2023 will see record numbers of drug poisonings, estimating over 112,000 American lives lost in the 12 months ending June 2023. Approximately 70% of these drug deaths involve fentanyl.

The China Connection

Illicit fentanyl production begins in China, where Chinese chemical companies provide the necessary precursor chemicals to Mexican cartels. The Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels use these chemicals to produce massive quantities of fentanyl in clandestine Mexican labs. They then smuggle the finished product into the U.S. through ports of entry along the southern border as well as via mail and express consignment operations.

In 2023, the DEA brought the first ever charges against Chinese nationals and chemical companies for providing precursor chemicals used to manufacture illicit fentanyl. These include Zheng Fujing, the co-founder of Qinsheng Pharmaceutical Technology; Chinese national Li Jun, who controls several chemical companies; and a father-son pair who own the company Wuhan Yuancheng Gongchuang Technology.

China only regulates a limited number of precursor chemicals. As Mexico-based cartels shifted to using new unregulated chemicals for fentanyl production, Chinese suppliers adjusted the precursor chemicals they provide. Last March, China banned one such precursor chemical, ANPP, but smuggling continues.

New DEA Strategy

To combat the evolving threat, the DEA established Counter Threat Teams, units dedicated to disrupting specific Mexican cartels trafficking illicit fentanyl. There are currently teams focused on the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

These teams identify all components of the supply chain, from manufacturers and financial infrastructure to transportation coordinators and money launderers. They then work to prosecute key players at each level.

The DEA also utilizes data analytics to monitor global chemical sales and shipments to identify suspicious purchases or routing. They have surged additional investigators to key port cities to bolster screening of parcel packages.

Internationally, the DEA partners with governments to crack down on fentanyl production and the chemical supply trade. They provide detection devices and inspector training to foreign agencies. Domestically, the DEA works jointly with Homeland Security, FBI, and local law enforcement on interdiction and investigations.

Combatting Illicit Finance

A key focus for the DEA is disrupting the illicit financial infrastructure that enables fentanyl trafficking. The agency targets mechanisms the cartels use to launder drug proceeds and transfer funds internationally.

This money laundering web involves seemingly legitimate front companies as well as Chinese nationals operating clandestine money services businesses. The DEA dismantles these operations by identifying and prosecuting key financial facilitators.

These efforts also aim to seize assets and profits garnered from the fentanyl trade. Since 2021, the DEA has seized over $30 million in assets linked to fentanyl trafficking. But the drug trade generates estimated annual revenues of $150 – $200 billion for the Mexican cartels. Clearly, staunching these massive cash flows remains a monumental challenge.

Outlook

While the DEA touts the success of its largest fentanyl seizure to date, the agency acknowledges that law enforcement efforts alone cannot overcome this existential public health threat, as overdose deaths continue to climb. Even preventing all illicit fentanyl flows into the U.S. would not solve the entrenched demand.

Public health experts advocate a holistic approach, integrating enforcement, education, treatment, harm reduction, and demand reduction. But with fentanyl deaths rising and no end in sight, the DEA’s battle against the opioid scourge faces immense challenges ahead. Only through a comprehensive, coordinated strategy across multiple fronts can we hope to turn the tide of this unprecedented drug epidemic that continues destroying lives across America in record numbers.

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