Toxic Storm: Chinese fentanyl floods Chicago, US

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- The fentanyl crisis that is killing thousands of Americans is not "Made in the U.S.A."

From the Midwest to South Beach and sea to shining sea, the U.S. is drowning in fentanyl made in China, according to federal law enforcement officials.

On Tuesday they announced that 21 people have been indicted, including two Chinese nationals, in a major transnational fentanyl operation. The men and women are charged with making the synthetic opiate in China and selling it in the U.S. and Canada. Drugs hawked in North America have been linked to several overdose deaths, authorities said.

READ: Federal indictment #1, Federal Indictment #2

"These cases reflect a new and disturbing facet of the opioid crisis in America," said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. "More and more of our citizens are being killed by fentanyl," drugs that are 100 times as powerful as morphine and 50 times as strong as heroin.

The alleged conspirators used numerous aliases to carry out their drug business, from "Jackie Chan" and "Angry Bird" to "Phantom Pharma." One code name was "Toxic Storm," fitting for a powerful street drug that continues to poison and kill dozens of users a day.

The I-Team reported last month that hundreds of fentanyl overdose deaths have occurred so far in 2017 in metro Chicago and the fatalities continue, unabated.

Nearly all of the fentanyl sold here is made in China as a finished product or formulated elsewhere from base chemicals made in China, drug investigators say.

"They (the Chinese) keep inventing them and we keep making them illegal and we're going to continue to keep locking up everybody we can who traffics in this," said Dennis Wichern, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Chicago. "We have agents on the ground in China, we opened up a second office earlier this year, just to work with the Chinese just to stop the flow of these drugs into America and to Mexico," Wichern told the ABC7 I-Team.

The two Chinese nationals facing federal charges announced Tuesday are identified as Xiaobing Yan, 40, and Jian Zhang, 38. The men are accused of operating illicit labs and chemical plants in China that produce fentanyl. They then sold their illegal products to users and more than 100 distributors in the U.S. and Canada over the internet, typically paid in hard-to-trace Bitcoins, according to the indictments.

Yan and Zhang are both in China, a nation that does not recognize extradition to the United States.

They came onto the federal radar in early 2015 when 18 year old Bailey Henke died of an overdose in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The fentanyl in his system was found to have been supplied by Chinese traffickers. The trail took U.S. drug agents to Oregon, then to Canada, and finally to Zhang in China.

Two residents of Florida, one from New Jersey, and five Canadians were also indicted in the drug conspiracy involving Zhang, authorities said.

It is not known whether Chinese authorities have taken any enforcement actions against their citizens who are now facing U.S. charges or whether the chemical plants and Internet sites in China have been sanctioned or closed.

"We're seeking additional support from the Chinese government in cracking down on those labs," said deputy AG Rosenstein in Washington on Tuesday. "If it were the other way around, and tens of thousands of Chinese nationals were dying as a result of poisons shipped from the United States, we'd be very proactive. So we're hoping to get the same kind of response from there.
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