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U.S. Moves to Crack Down on Money Behind Fentanyl Trade

The Biden administration said on Monday that it was creating a “counter-fentanyl strike force” within the Treasury Department to combat trafficking of the drug into the United States by more aggressively scrutinizing the finances of suspected narcotics dealers.

The Treasury’s office of terrorism and financial intelligence and the criminal investigation unit of the Internal Revenue Service will lead the new team. It will attempt to find and disrupt money laundering associated with fentanyl trafficking and to more effectively crack down on sanctions violations.

Officials from Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and Office of Intelligence and Analysis will also work with counterparts in Mexico and Canada to stop the flow of fentanyl across the northern and southern borders.

The Treasury Department has emerged as a key player in the Biden administration’s efforts to crack down on illegal drugs entering the United States because it can track the financial flows that benefit traffickers. In the last two years, Treasury has enacted sanctions on about 250 people and organizations related to drug-trafficking activities.

“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 Secretary Janet L. Yellen said in a statement. “Treasury will use every tool at its disposal to disrupt the ability of drug traffickers to peddle this poison in our country.”

Ms. Yellen will begin that work in person this week when she travels to Mexico on Tuesday for three days of talks with senior officials. The Treasury secretary will also meet with Mexican banking executives to encourage the private sector to curb illicit finance linked to fentanyl.

The Treasury Department’s focus on fentanyl comes weeks after President Biden and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, agreed to work together the counter the narcotics trade. At a meeting in San Francisco, China agreed to help curb the shipment of chemicals used to make fentanyl. U.S. officials contend that China’s chemical industry plays a key role in the American fentanyl crisis by supplying the bulk of materials used in illegal drug labs, including in Mexico, which is now the largest exporter of fentanyl to the United States.

In the days after the agreement, a Chinese narcotics agency issued a notice warning that companies that manufacture and sell chemicals that can be used to make fentanyl and other drugs would face prosecution. And the United States rolled back trade restrictions it had imposed against a Chinese government agency accused of engaging in human rights violations in Xinjiang, which the Chinese saw as an impediment to their cooperation.

The Treasury Department has also been intensifying its focus on Mexican cartels that traffic fentanyl. Last week, the United States coordinated with Mexico’s government to impose sanctions on 13 Mexican companies and three individuals linked to Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion.

The new team hopes that better coordination among experts within the U.S. government will make it easier to monitor groups such as C.J.N.G.

“The strike force will act quickly and decisively with the top specialists from across the department to nimbly respond to the newest threats,” said Brian Nelson, under secretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.

During her trip this week, Ms. Yellen will also be focused on strengthening economic ties with Mexico, which became the largest U.S. trade partner of goods this year. The Biden administration views Mexico as an important part of its “friend shoring” policy, according to senior Treasury officials previewing the trip, and Ms. Yellen will discuss ways to incorporate Mexico into the clean energy supply chain that the United States is trying to develop.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.