The head of a Chinese fentanyl production and trafficking network targeting customers in the United States received a suspended death sentence at a court in Hebei province on Thursday, in the first criminal case involving opioids jointly investigated by the two countries.
The joint operation has proved effective and the two countries will continue to work together to stem the flow of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, Chinese and US narcotics control officials said.
The bust of the drug trafficking network in China was led by information obtained by the US Homeland Security Investigations Office in New Orleans when a cooperating defendant provided the name and contact information of an individual in China from whom he had bought narcotics in August 2017, said Austin Moore, the US Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement attache to China, at a news conference after the court hearing in Xingtai, Hebei province.
In September 2017, the US authority shared the information with the Ministry of Public Security's Narcotics Control Bureau, and both sides agreed to coordinate in a joint narcotics investigation, Moore said.
Chinese police then connected the contact information with an employee of a biochemical company registered in Xingtai. The company turned out to be a distributor of fentanyl targeting foreign markets via the internet, including the US. The company used express mail or regular postal services to smuggle fentanyl abroad, said Yu Haibin, a senior narcotics control official with the Ministry of Public Security.
Police then tracked down the company's supplier, Liu Yong, who began running a fentanyl lab in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, in May 2017, Yu said.
On Nov 6, 2017, the US side wired a payment to the biochemical company, prompting Chinese authorities to commence a series of raids that yielded an extraordinary number of arrests and seizures of contraband and criminal proceeds, Moore said.
On Thursday, Liu was sentenced in the Xingtai Intermediate People's Court to death with a two-year reprieve for producing and trafficking 11.9 kilograms of fentanyl and other narcotics.
Jiang Juhua, co-founder of the laboratory, and Wang Fengxi, head of the biochemical company, received life sentences. Six other key members of the drug network also received fixed-term sentences ranging from six months to 10 years.
"During the investigation, we have provided information on more than 50 suspicious postal packages to the US authorities, which has led to three arrests so far. The case has set a good example of China and the US jointly fighting fentanyl-related crimes," Yu said.
"As the success of this joint investigation demonstrates, Chinese and American investigators have the capacity to collaborate across international borders — bringing those who would harm our respective communities to justice. Today's event is another important step," said Moore.
Fentanyl is a highly potent pain reliever often used by cancer patients. It is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
After the meeting between President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump at the G20 Summit in December, China agreed to list all fentanyl derivatives as controlled substances.
In May, China included 25 fentanyl analogues on the list of controlled substances, four more than the US. The move means that those who produce or distribute fentanyl can receive the maximum punishment for drug trafficking — death.
China has stepped up efforts to control fentanyl-related substances in recent years including enhancing international cooperation and cracking down on underground laboratories.
Deaths caused by fentanyl overdoses in the US surged to 31,600 in 2018 from 19,400 in 2016.
China should not be blamed for the problem of fentanyl abuse in the US, Yu said, adding that reducing demand is the only way to fundamentally tackle the issue.