Follow the crypto: In its fight against fentanyl, DHS is tracing cryptocurrency used by Mexican drug cartels

Secretary Mayorkas told NBC News on Thursday that DHS “is seeking to hold individuals accountable, seizing their property and also interrupting their financial flow.”

The Department of Homeland Security has ramped up its effort to stop fentanyl and the chemicals used to make it from entering the U.S. by tracing cryptocurrency used by Mexican cartels, according to two U.S. officials involved in the strategy.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NBC News in an interview at the International Mail Facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Thursday that DHS “is seeking to hold individuals accountable, seizing their property and also interdicting and interrupting their financial flow.”

The U.S. government faces a significant hurdle in stopping fentanyl production because the chemicals needed to make it are largely produced in China and shipped to Mexico, where cartels manufacture the drug and then bring it across the U.S. border to sell.

Although the chemicals are controlled substances in China, it remains the largest supplier of precursor chemicals. Fentanyl is now the No. 1 killer of Americans aged 18 to 45, according to Families Against Fentanyl, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it claims the lives of more than 70,000 Americans each year.

Mayorkas told NBC News the Biden administration is negotiating with China to get its cooperation to stop the production of the chemicals that make fentanyl.

“We’re hoping that the negotiations that we are commencing with China’s representatives will actually create some space for us to address with our Chinese counterparts the scourge of fentanyl precursors,” Mayorkas said.

Under increasing pressure to take action by families who have lost loved ones and Republicans who blame the Biden administration’s border policy, DHS announced in April that it has put more pressure on Mexico to stop the manufacture and distribution of fentanyl.

In just the first two months of the stepped-up DHS campaign to stop fentanyl at the border, more than 10,000 pounds of the drug were seized by Customs and Border Protection and Homeland Security Investigations and 284 people were arrested, according to a June statement.

The next phase of the strategy will seek to go after high-ranking members of cartels that traffic fentanyl by increasing manpower and using forensic accounting to trace cryptocurrency used to buy precursor chemicals.

Customs and Border Protection is also increasing its ability to track what are known as pill presses from entering the U.S., the officials said. While such presses are often used in Mexico, CBP has confiscated them at the mail facility at JFK airport to stop people from using them inside the U.S. to turn fentanyl powder into pills mimicking less-lethal drugs, misleading consumers about the drug they are taking.

But families who have lost loved ones to fentanyl say it’s too little too late.

Lisa Leap lost her daughter Katie Wagner in 2021 to a fentanyl overdose, just four months after Katie turned a corner coming out of a rehab facility.

“She was a fun person. She loved life. She lived life to the fullest. And she lived life by her own terms. If she had a choice, she would still be here,” said Leap.

Leap called on the Biden administration to do more and asked Americans not to dismiss those addicted to the potent drug.

“A lot of people like to disregard drug addicts, but they don’t realize that these people are somebody’s loved ones,” Leap said.

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Tags: Drug Trafficking Opioid Crisis

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