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Illustration by iStock; Security Management

U.S. DOJ Charges Sinaloa Cartel Leaders, Others for Fentanyl Trafficking

The effect of fentanyl—a synthetic opioid—on the American population is striking. Illicit supplies of the drug are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year, particularly those of young people. Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, 100 times stronger than morphine, and has swiftly penetrated the illicit opioid and drug trade.

In 2021, a record number of people—nearly 107,000—died of drug overdoses in the United States, and two-thirds of them were primarily from fentanyl. Fentanyl is the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, and reporterd fatal overdoses increased by 94 percent between 2019 and 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said.

In 2022, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) seized more than 50 million fentanyl-laced pills—more than double what was seized in 2021.

Significant amounts of fentanyl and fentanyl-tainted drugs are trafficked north across the Mexico-U.S. border, driven by cartels and fueled by precursor chemicals exported by Chinese companies, according to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

On 14 April 2023, Garland announced that the DOJ charged 28 people—including defendants based in Mexico, China, and Guatemala—with running a huge operation that supplies fentanyl to the United States. Four of the people charged are the sons of drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the former Sinaloa cartel leader who is serving a life sentence in the United States. Ovidio Guzmán López, 33; Joaqin Guzmán López, 36; Alfredo Guzmán Salazar, 37; and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Sálazar, 40; known as the “Chapitos” or little Chapos, were all charged and are believed to run a more violent faction of the cartel, which is a prolific fentanyl trafficking operation, Garland said.

“The indictments being unsealed today demonstrate that the Sinaloa Cartel has been engaged in drug trafficking activities into the United States, and violence, spanning over a decade and a half,” according to a DOJ press release. “The Chapitos are alleged to have repeatedly and consistently transported lethal amounts of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl.

“The Chapitos allegedly used cargo aircraft, private aircraft, submarines and other submersible and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, supply vessels, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor trailers, automobiles, and private and commercial interstate and foreign carriers to transport their drugs and precursor chemicals,” the release continued. “They allegedly maintained a network of couriers, tunnels, and stash houses throughout Mexico and the United States to further their drug-trafficking activities. The Chapitos allegedly used these networks to import the drugs into the United States.”

Referencing the Chapitos, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said: “They know that they’re poisoning and killing Americans. They just don’t care because they make billions of dollars doing it. Their greed is shocking and without bounds.”

The charges were unsealed in the Southern District of New York, Northern District of Illinois, and District of Columbia. The various defendants face charges related to narcotics, firearms, witness retaliation, money laundering, and fentanyl trafficking. Of the 28 charged, eight are in custody across the globe, and Garland noted that the U.S. government was seeking extradition so the defendants could face charges on U.S. soil, CBS News reported.