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World & Nation

China sentences 9 in fentanyl trafficking case after U.S. tip

China U.S. Drug Trial
Police stand guard outside court in Xingtai, China, on Thursday.
(Associated Press)

A Chinese court sentenced nine fentanyl traffickers Thursday in a case that was a culmination of a rare collaboration between Chinese and U.S. law enforcement to crack down on global networks that manufacture and distribute lethal synthetic opioids.

Liu Yong was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, while Jiang Juhua and Wang Fengxi were sentenced to life in prison. Six other members of the operation got lesser sentences, ranging from six months to 10 years.

Working off a 2017 tip from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about an online drug vendor who went by the name Diana, Chinese police busted a drug ring based in the northern Chinese city of Xingtai that shipped synthetic drugs to the U.S. and other countries from a gritty clandestine laboratory. They arrested more than 20 suspects and seized 26.23 pounds of fentanyl as well as 42.11 pounds of other drugs.

In form, the enterprise resembled a small business, with a perky sales force that spoke passable English, online marketing, contract manufacturing and a sophisticated export operation, according to U.S. and Chinese law enforcement.

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But the business had grave implications. Police photographs of the seizure show a dingy, chaotic scene, with open containers of unidentified chemicals and Chinese police in rubber gloves and breathing masks.

Liu and Jiang were accused of manufacturing and trafficking illicit drugs. The others were accused of trafficking. Death sentences are almost always commuted to life in prison after the reprieve.

Chinese officials said the Xingtai case was one of three fentanyl trafficking networks they are pursuing based on U.S. intelligence, but declined to discuss the details of the other cases, which are ongoing.

Austin Moore, an attaché to China for the U.S. Homeland Security Department, said the Xingtai case was “an important step” showing that Chinese and U.S. investigators have the capacity to collaborate across international borders.

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Scrambling to contain surging overdose deaths, Washington has blamed Beijing for failing to curb the supply of synthetic drugs that U.S. officials say come mainly from China. In August, President Trump lashed out at Chinese President Xi Jinping for failing to do more to combat illicit opioid distribution in China’s vast, freewheeling chemicals industry. U.S. officials have reportedly moved to link Beijing’s efforts on fentanyl to U.S. trade talks.

Yu Haibin, deputy director of the Office of China National Narcotics Control Commission, on Thursday called allegations that Chinese supply is at the root of America’s opioid problem “irresponsible and inconsistent with the actual facts.”

“Drug crime is the public enemy of all humankind,” he added. “It’s about the life of human beings. It should not be related with the trade war or other political reasons.”

Chinese officials have strived to emphasize their efforts to expand drug controls and crack down on illicit suppliers, even though synthetic opioid abuse is not perceived to be a significant problem in China.

But prosecuting cases against a new, rising class of Chinese synthetic drug kingpins has remained a challenge. Profit-seeking chemists have adroitly exploited regulatory loopholes by making small changes to the chemical structure of banned substances to create so-called analogs that are technically legal.

U.S. officials have been hopeful that China’s move earlier this year to outlaw unsanctioned distribution of all fentanyl-like drugs as a class will help constrain the supply and make it easier to prosecute Chinese dealers.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 500,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the decade ending in 2017 — increasingly, from synthetic opioids like the ones sold by the Xingtai network.


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