U.S. prosecutors said Friday they have charged 10 more people in an international fentanyl trafficking operation that led to overdose deaths in four states.
The new indictments bring the total number to 32 people accused of dealing large amounts of the powerful opioid in the U.S. and Canada. Five of them are fugitive Chinese nationals, including alleged ringleader Jian Zhang.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the announcement in North Dakota, where authorities began investigating the case after the overdose death of a teenager in 2015. Deaths have also been reported in North Carolina, New Jersey and Oregon.
The Treasury Department also has sanctioned the five Chinese nationals, including Zhang and his biotechnology company. Any assets in which they have an interest must be reported to the department, which is meant to prevent them from doing business with anyone in the U.S. It's the first time the department has sanctioned an alleged fentanyl trafficker, Sessions said.
"We are going to use all the tools available at our disposal and we appreciate the Treasury Department using its authority to make this designation," U.S. Attorney Chris Myers of North Dakota told The Associated Press.
The "vast majority" of fentanyl is manufactured in China, Sessions said. He said the Chinese government has provided some help to U.S. law enforcement, but not enough. "We need greater cooperation on that," he said.
The investigation known as "Operation Denial" began when 18-year-old Bailey Henke was found dead inside a Grand Forks apartment building in January 2015. Authorities say Henke overdosed on fentanyl supplied by Brandon Hubbard, a Portland, Oregon, man who told police he could be the largest fentanyl dealer in the country. Hubbard was sentenced in 2016 to life in prison.
Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and can be lethal even in small amounts. It is often laced with other dangerous drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the drug and its analogues killed more than 20,000 Americans in 2016. Music superstar Prince died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl in 2016. About 64,000 people in the U.S. died from overdoses that same year, Sessions said.
"That's more than the population of Grand Forks, dead in one year from drug overdoses," Sessions said.