FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The U.S. State Department announced Tuesday that it is offering up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of a Chinese national suspected of leading an international fentanyl trafficking operation that authorities uncovered after an overdose death in North Dakota.
Jian Zhang is one of a handful of Chinese and Canadian nationals among more than 30 people accused of dealing large amounts of the powerful opioid. The reward also applies to information leading to Zhang’s location.
Zhang, also known as “Hong Kong Zaron,” and his biotechnical company were sanctioned by the Treasury Department in 2018, a move that was meant to prevent them from doing business with anyone in the U.S. It was the first time the department had sanctioned an alleged fentanyl trafficker.
The Justice Department said its narcotics reward programs have led to the capture of more than 75 people since 1986. More than $135 million has been paid out since that time.
The investigation known as “Operation Denial” began when 18-year-old Bailey Henke was found dead inside a Grand Forks, North Dakota, apartment building in January 2015. Deaths from fentanyl supplied by Zhang have also been reported in North Carolina, New Jersey and Oregon. Several others suffered serious injuries, authorities said.
Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and can be lethal even in small amounts. It’s used legally during surgeries and to treat people with chronic, severe pain, such as cancer patients. Illicit fentanyl is often laced with other dangerous drugs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that synthetic opioid-involved death rates increased by over 15% from 2018 to 2019 and accounted for nearly 73% of all opioid-involved deaths in 2019, most of which were driven by fentanyl overdoses. Music superstar Prince died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl in 2016.
The majority of illicit fentanyl is manufactured in China, according to federal officials.
Another man accused of playing a major role in the ring, Colombian national Daniel Vivas Ceron, sold the drugs while serving time in a medium security prison in Quebec for drug-smuggling charges. He arranged co-conspirators to conduct transactions in Canada and China through money wires, bank wires, bank deposits and the use of virtual currency systems, court documents show.
Vivas Ceron pleaded guilty in 2019 to three counts and faces a sentence of life in prison.