The Treasury Department on Monday announced a new strike force to help combat illicit fentanyl trafficking as the U.S. and China step up efforts to stop the movement of the powerful opioid and drug-making materials into the U.S.
The Counter-Fentanyl Strike Force will bring together personnel and intelligence from throughout the Treasury Department—from its sanctions and intelligence arms to IRS Criminal Investigations—to more effectively collaborate on stopping the flow of drugs into the country.
The creation of the group is the beginning of the Biden administration's plan to redouble its efforts to stem the tide of illegal fentanyl after President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in California in November. At the meeting, they announced that China is telling its chemical companies to curtail shipments of the materials used to produce fentanyl to Latin America.
China has also resumed sharing information about suspected trafficking with an international database.
Mexico and China are the primary source countries for fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances trafficked directly into the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Nearly all the precursor chemicals that are needed to make fentanyl are coming from China.
Among other things, the Treasury task force will analyze the financial flows of trafficking organizations, especially those that rely on cryptocurrency to move funds; work with local law enforcement in areas hardest hit by the fentanyl epidemic; and use financial institution records to detect transactions related to drug and human smuggling.
“Combating the flow of deadly fentanyl into communities across the United States is a top priority for President Biden as well as the Treasury Department,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement. She said the new group will "allow us to bring the department’s unrivaled expertise in fighting financial crime to bear against this deadly epidemic.
"Treasury will use every tool at its disposal to disrupt the ability of drug traffickers to peddle this poison in our country.”
The Biden administration has taken a slew of actions against fentanyl traffickers—charging powerful traffickers with drug and money laundering offenses and announcing indictments and sanctions against Chinese companies and executives blamed for importing the chemicals used to make the dangerous drug.
Still, fentanyl is the deadliest drug in the U.S. today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 71,000 people died from overdosing on synthetic opioids such as fentanyl in 2021, up from almost 58,000 in 2020.
The death toll is more than 10 times as many drug deaths as in 1988, at the height of the crack epidemic.
U.S. lawmakers have proposed a variety of measures to combat fentanyl's explosive use in the U.S.
Many of the GOP presidential candidates have said they would use military force against Mexico in response to the trafficking of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
And the leaders of the Senate Banking and Armed Services Committees, along with others, want to compel the Biden administration to declare international fentanyl trafficking a national emergency and pass legislation that would hold Treasury to reporting requirements and enable the president to confiscate sanctioned property of fentanyl traffickers to use for law enforcement efforts.
Treasury officials, including Brian Nelson, the department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, have been traveling to the southern border this year to work with local authorities on quelling drug trafficking through sanctions efforts.
Nelson will co-chair the strike force with IRS Criminal Investigations Chief Jim Lee.
Nelson said the strike force "will act quickly and decisively with the top specialists from across the department to nimbly respond to the newest threats.”