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Biden administration announces new financial strike force to curb deadly fentanyl trade

By Sam Fossum, CNN

Washington (CNN) — US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Monday announced a new Counter-Fentanyl Strike Force to crack down on the illicit financial networks supporting the cartels and drug traffickers that help funnel the drug into the United States.

The new strike force, part of the department’s efforts to tackle the deadly fentanyl trade, will streamline personnel and resources across the agency to better leverage its expertise in countering the financial crimes that back the networks supporting the fentanyl trade, according to the Treasury Department.

“The Treasury Department’s Counter-Fentanyl Strike Force 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,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement Monday.

The strike force will be led by the department’s top sanctions official, Brian Nelson, and the chief of the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal investigations unit, James Lee. It will “redouble Treasury’s existing work streams, including using financial intelligence to understand risks and map transnational criminal organization (TCO) financial networks,” according to a news release.

Several key units within the Treasury Department that specialize in financial crimes, sanctions, and tracking terrorist and illicit financing will be part of the new strike force. These include: the IRS criminal investigation unit, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and the Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes.

The new strike force’s key goals include combining analytic expertise across the Treasury Department to help identify opportunities to go after money laundering and fentanyl trafficking networks; strengthening coordination on investigating sanctions violations; and creating closer coordination when working with foreign partners on identifying international money laundering networks.

The new initiative comes after the US and China recently reached a deal on curbing fentanyl production, and as the US Treasury Department has taken an increasingly active role in addressing the threat posed by fentanyl.

“The Strike Force will act quickly and decisively with the top specialists from across the Department to nimbly respond to the newest threats,” Nelson, who has traveled to the US southern border at least twice this year, said in a statement.

Investigators from the Treasury Department can access and share powerful financial data with enforcement bodies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Homeland Security as they work to track and disrupt the fentanyl trade and drug suppliers. The new strike force will also help streamline the Treasury Department’s efforts to coordinate with local and federal law enforcement bodies on potential financial leads.

As part of his talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, President Joe Biden said that China agreed to go after the companies that produce the precursor chemicals to fentanyl.

And earlier this year, the Biden administration announced a broad effort to target the production and distribution of fentanyl, which included criminal charges from the Department of Justice and a host of new Treasury sanctions. The announcement built off an executive order signed in 2021 that expanded the Treasury Department’s authorities to target the distribution chains of fentanyl and other narcotics.

There has been a governmentwide push to curb synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which are the main driver of overdose deaths in the US. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a more than sevenfold increase in deaths from 2015 to 2021, and despite a recent slowing, overdose deaths still hover near record levels and remain the third-leading cause of death in adolescents ages 19 and younger.

The new strike force will not undermine the Treasury Department’s other sanctions regimes, including targeting Russia’s war machine amid its invasion of Ukraine, but rather will ensure the department is “most efficiently” deploying its “limited” resources, a senior Treasury official told CNN.

Yellen and Nelson will travel to Mexico this week for a series of meetings with their Mexican counterparts and private financial institutions to further discuss how the two countries can better target the illicit financial networks fueling the flow of synthetic opioids into the United States and deepen the bilateral economic relationship as the US looks to “friend-shore” supply chains, according to senior Treasury officials.

“Friend-shoring” is a Biden administration goal to strengthen US economic resilience by diversifying US supply chains with friendly countries.

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