WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department on Friday announced charges against more than two dozen members of Mexico's powerful Sinaloa cartel, including sons of notorious drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, in a sprawling fentanyl-trafficking investigation.
The three Guzman sons charged — Ovidio Guzmán López, Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Sálazar — are known as the Chapitos, or little Chapos, and have earned a reputation as the more violent and aggressive faction of the cartel.
Of the three, only Guzmán López is in custody, in Mexico.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, standing alongside Drug Enforcement Administration chief Anne Milgram and other top federal prosecutors, unveiled the indictments in three districts aimed at hitting the cartel's global network.
The defendants span a broad swath of a complex manufacturing and supply network. They include Chinese and Guatemalan citizens accused of supplying precursor chemicals required to make fentanyl, as well as those suspected of running drug labs in Mexico and others accused of providing security, weapons and illicit financing for the drug trafficking operation.
The wide-ranging case comes as the U.S. remains in the grip of a devastating overdose crisis largely by fentanyl poisonings. Nearly 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2021, a record-setting number.
Fentanyl seizures by U.S. Customs and Border Protection have increased by more than 400% since 2019, officials said, and this fiscal year's seizures have already surpassed the total for all of 2022.
Most of the fentanyl trafficked in the United States comes from the Sinaloa cartel, the Drug Enforcement Administration says.
"Families and communities across our country are being devastated by the fentanyl epidemic," Garland said. "We will never forget those who bear responsibility for this tragedy. And we will never stop working to hold them accountable for their crimes in the United States."
The Sinaloa cartel's notorious drug lord, known as El Chapo, was convicted in 2019 of running an industrial-scale smuggling operation. At Guzman's trial, prosecutors said evidence gathered since the late 1980s showed he and his murderous cartel made billions of dollars by smuggling tons of cocaine, heroin, meth and marijuana into the U.S. A defiant Guzman accused the federal judge in his case of making a mockery of the U.S. justice system and claimed he was denied a fair trial.
In outlining the charges Friday, Garland described the violence of the Sinaloa cartel and how its members have tortured perceived enemies, including Mexican law enforcement officials. That has included people fed to tigers owned by Guzman's sons, sometimes while the victims were still alive, Garland said.
Eight of those charged have been arrested and remain in the custody of law enforcement officials in Colombia, Greece, Guatemala and the U.S., Milgram said. The U.S. government is offering rewards for several others charged in the case, including up to $10 million for Guzman's other two sons.
Friday's indictments were filed in New York, Illinois, and Washington, D.C.
Along with the five defendants from China and Guatemala accused of supplying the cartel with precursor chemicals, two Chinese firms were also sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control Friday.
U.S. government officials are pressing Chinese officials to do more to stem the shipment of those chemicals. With Washington-Beijing relations strained, the Biden administration says it has looked to allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere to make clear to China that the issue is a global problem, according to senior Biden administration officials who briefed reporters following the announcement of the indictment.
Ovidio Guzmán López, one of Guzmán's sons, was arrested in January in the Sinaloa capital of Culiacan. Ovidio Guzmán, nicknamed the Mouse, had not been one of El Chapo's better-known sons until an aborted operation to capture him three years earlier. This time Mexico successfully got Guzmán out of Culiacan. In 2019, authorities had him, but they released him after his gunmen began shooting up the city.
Some 30 people among authorities and suspected gunmen died in the operation, which unleashed hours of shootouts shutting down the city's airport. The U.S. government is currently awaiting the younger Guzmán's extradition.
Ovidio Guzmán López and another brother, Joaquín Guzmán López, allegedly helped move the Sinaloa cartel hard into methamphetamines, producing prodigious quantities in large labs. They were previously indicted in 2018 in Washington on drug trafficking charges.
The other two sons, Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar and Iván Archivaldo Guzmán Sálazar, are believed to have been running cartel operations together with Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada. They were previously also charged in the U.S. in Chicago and San Diego.
Zambada had been rumored to be be in poor health and isolated in the mountains leading the sons to try to assert a stronger role to keep the cartel together.
The DEA said it investigated the case in 10 countries: Australia, Austria, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Greece, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and the United States.
"Death and destruction are central to their whole operation," Milgram said of the cartel. "Today's indictments strike a blow against the Chapitos and the global network they operate, a network that fuels violence and death on both sides of the border."
Sherman reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writers Fatima Hussein and Aamer Madhani in Washington contributed to this story.