Washington (AFP) - Three Chinese citizens have been charged with distributing fentanyl in the United States, where addiction spurred by the synthetic opioid drug has ravaged communities, US prosecutors announced Tuesday.
Deyao Chen, Guichun Chen and Liangtu Pan are accused of selling nearly 3,000 packages of controlled substances in the US and internationally between April 2016 and March 2017.
The drugs were sold on websites located in China and mailed to the United States, where they were distributed via the US Postal Service by a Pennsylvania former deputy sheriff named David Landis.
Drugs sold by the three defendants had been found in the systems of five people in the United States who overdosed and died, according to a Justice Department statement.
Deyao, Guichun and Liangtu, who share the alias "Alex," took online orders from China and then mailed the drugs to Landis for distribution.
The three Chinese nationals have not been arrested and are believed to be in China, a spokesman told AFP.
Landis has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing, the statement read.
Their indictments come amid a quarrel between Washington and Beijing about fentanyl trafficking -- a substance 50 times stronger than heroine, which, along with other synthetic opioids, caused 32,000 US deaths in 2018.
President Donald Trump announced new tariffs on China over the summer as a response to what he saw as their failure to stem the flow of fentanyl into the US. The two countries have since pledged to work together to fight the proliferation of the drug.
"China is supplying the United States with the most potent and deadly fentanyl and other synthetic opioids on the market today," US Attorney William M. McSwain said in the statement.
"International suppliers beware: you cannot hide behind a computer or evade our detection by drug trafficking from a far-away place," he warned.
Beijing has rejected responsibility for the US addiction crisis.