U.S. goes after Mexican cartel leaders’ drug profits in fight against fentanyl

Janet Yellen
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen unveiled sanctions against members and affiliates of a Mexican drug cartel during a visit to Atlanta on Thursday.
Jacquelyn Martin | AP

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced new sanctions this week against eight top leaders and associates of La Nueva Familia Michoacana, a fast-growing and often violent Mexican drug cartel smuggling street fentanyl into the U.S.

The measures are part of a widening Biden administration effort aimed at targeting the finances of Mexican drug gangs as well as Chinese individuals and companies that narcotics experts say form the black market global supply chain for fentanyl.

“The Treasury Department has a unique ability to degrade and disrupt their operations,” Yellen said Thursday during a trip to Atlanta. According to Yellen, sanctions have already been placed on more than 250 targets worldwide, with the goal of weakening “drug trafficking organizations, their enablers and their financial facilitators.”

Fentanyl, a powerful and highly addictive synthetic opioid, is killing more than 70,000 people in the U.S. every year.

Yellen described the fentanyl overdose crisis as an unprecedented public health threat fueled by criminal networks. “Hundreds of thousands more Americans could die from drug overdoses by the end of this decade,” Yellen said. “This is simply a staggering, almost unimaginable toll.”

This week’s event was held in Atlanta, federal officials say, because La Nueva Familia has attempted to use the city as one of its major distribution hubs for illicit drug shipments.

Opioid Deaths
Mexican drug gangs using chemicals shipped from China are producing vast quantities of fake prescription pain medications containing fentanyl. The drug is killing more than 70,000 people in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah via AP

“The agencies of the federal government will work closely together to seize the assets and cut of the financial resources of traffickers,” Ryan Buchanan, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said Thursday. “We will continue to attack the financial motivation of this cartel as they send their poison into our communities.”

Violent Mexican cartels, backed by Chinese operatives

La Nueva Familia first emerged as a major player in drug trafficking in 2007. Federal officials say they were able to weaken the organization for a time, but in 2021, the cartel re-emerged, establishing new fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine smuggling routes into the U.S.

“One of the most powerful things we can do is deny them the fruit of their labor, the very essence of what these cartels need, their money,” said Robert Murphy, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Atlanta division. “We don’t want them to use that money to make them stronger and have a bigger impact in the United States.”

The Treasury Department this week also issued a new advisory designed to help U.S. banks and financial institutions identify assets and cash transfers that might involve drug profits. According to a Treasury statement, the advisory includes “new trends and red flags” that might indicate transactions involving Chinese firms providing “precursor chemicals and manufacturing equipment” used to make black market fentanyl.

In announcing these latest sanctions, U.S. officials said they “coordinated closely” with Mexico’s government.

Diplomatic hurdles in the fentanyl fight

But U.S. officials have complained repeatedly in recent years that efforts to target drug traffickers and their assets have been hindered by a lack of cooperation from their counter-parts in China and Mexico. A U.S. Senate report issued last year pointed to widespread corruption within Mexico's government linked to drug cartels.

In February of this year, one of Mexico’s top former law enforcement officials Genaro Garcia Luna was convicted in the U.S. after taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa cartel.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, meanwhile, has repeatedly declined to move more aggressively to target cartels operating inside his country.

“We are not going to act as policemen for any foreign government,” López Obrador said during a news briefing in March 2024. “Mexico First. Our home comes first.”

In a statement to NPR this week, Mexican officials said they “categorically deny that the Mexican government provides any type of protection to Mexican cartels.”

Chinese gangs emerge as fentanyl financiers

China has faced similar criticism from U.S. officials. Drug policy experts say China has allowed companies and criminal gangs to continue profiting from the fentanyl trade.

In April, a U.S. House committee released a report suggesting that Chinese firms involved in producing and shipping fentanyl precursor chemicals, as well as equipment needed to produce fentanyl pills, are subsidized by the Chinese government. That report also said that Chinese operatives have emerged as major players in global money-laundering due to the booming trade in street fentanyl.

In a separate action this week the U.S. Justice Department announced a 10-count indictment aimed at taking down illegal “Chinese underground money exchanges” and illicit banking systems that often use cryptocurrency to transfer, disguise and launder fentanyl profits.

Chinese officials have repeatedly denied their country is a major player in international fentanyl smuggling, despite evidence to the contrary.