Washington — Federal prosecutors charged four China-based companies and eight Chinese nationals with allegedly supplying the precursor chemicals of fentanyl for the purpose of creating the deadly drug for distribution in the United States, the Justice Department announced Friday. 

Across three indictments unsealed in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York, investigators say the Drug Enforcement Administration seized more than 200 kilograms of the precursor chemicals, enough to kill 25 million Americans. 

According to the Justice Department, the indictments were the first ever levied by federal prosecutors against companies in the People’s Republic of China related to the creation and delivery of the ingredients that make up fentanyl. 

“We are targeting every step of the movement, manufacturing, and sale of fentanyl from start to finish,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in announcing the indictments. 

DEA agents conducted an undercover operation against Amarvel Biotech, a chemical manufacturing company based in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. According to the indictment from the Southern District of New York, company executives marketed their products to fentanyl manufacturers in Mexico, writing “Mexico hot sale” online and guaranteeing “100% stealth” international shipments. In this case, investigators said the DEA sources, communicating in recorded conversations, asked the company to ship the chemicals directly to the U.S.

“The Defendants shipped these precursors to the United States expressly intending that the chemicals would be used to produce fentanyl,” prosecutors alleged in charging documents, “even though they were under the impression that Americans had died after consuming fentanyl produced from their precursor chemicals.” 

Amarvel employees ultimately shipped 200 kilograms of fentanyl precursors to the U.S. over an eight-month period, investigators said.

Two Amarvel Biotech employees, Qingzhou Wang, 35, and Yiyi Chen, 31, were arrested and charged with fentanyl trafficking, precursor chemical importation and money laundering offenses. They were expelled from Fiji on June 8, and arrested by the DEA. Another defendant remains at large. 

The news comes two months after four Chinese nationals and one Guatemalan national were charged with supplying fentanyl ingredients to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. They were charged in April along with three sons of former drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, accused of orchestrating a transnational fentanyl trafficking operation into the United States. The individuals targeted in April were apparently business competitors of the newly charged defendants, court filings said. 

According to the Justice Department, between August 2021 and August 2022, 107,735 people died of drug overdoses in the United States, two-thirds from fentanyl. Nearly 200 people die every day from fentanyl poisoning, which is now the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 18 and 49. 

Investigators described a highway of fentanyl production, beginning mainly in China, where the ingredients are manufactured. They are shipped to Mexico and sometimes to the U.S., for the production of fentanyl typically distributed north of the border.  

“PRC companies are selling vast quantities of precursor chemicals to the drug cartels,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said Friday. “The United States has urged the PRC to address the serious problem of illicit synthetic drug production and trafficking. We renew that call today.”

Monaco also said the Justice Department is working with social media companies to combat the illegal marketing of fentanyl on their sites. 

Prosecutors allege in charging documents that Amarvel Biotech executives and employees acknowledged the illegality of their products, made deceptive shipping labels and ads and utilized a network of contacts and warehouses across Mexico and the U.S. 

In one exchange between a defendant and a DEA source about the sale of fentanyl, Amarvel Biotech was allegedly told the drug was “not safe,” to which the defendant replied “I know,” court documents revealed. 

“I know it’s normal to be cautious before embarking on a new partnership. But I’m sure you’ll be happy with our product. Not only will you be able to synthesize fentanyl, you’ll save a lot of money compared to the raw materials you’ve purchased before,” the individual also allegedly promised undercover agents. 

The shipment of fentanyl-related chemicals ultimately made its way to Los Angeles in May, where it was seized by DEA agents.

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said Friday that certain companies in China provide “blueprints” for fentanyl manufacturers across the globe, allegedly employing chemists to assist with questions and providing suggestions for new ingredients. 

Indictments unsealed out of the Eastern District of New York reveal other charged companies — including Anhui Rencheng Technology Co. and Hefei GSK Trade Co. Ltd — worked to hide the fentanyl ingredients they were shipping by applying “masking molecules” to the batches. Investigators allege such procedures allowed for the temporary alteration of the chemical makeup of the substances to avoid detection during the transport process. Upon receipt, the companies allegedly provide their customers with instructions for unmasking the chemicals to then process into fentanyl. 

“There is more bad news coming. With every investigation, with every indictment, we are coming after you,” Milgram said.