Chicago DEA boss says agents are in China to fight fentanyl here

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Dennis A. Wichern, special agent in charge of the Chicago Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, speaks to the media at the Dirksen federal building in 2015 about the Sinaloa drug cartel. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

U.S. drug agents are working in China with the help of the government there to crack down on the manufacture of fentanyl — a powerful additive to heroin that’s responsible for a spike in deaths in Cook County, a top Drug Enforcement Administration official said Monday.

Mexico remains the Chicago area’s biggest heroin supplier, but China is the No. 1 supplier of the fentanyl that drug dealers add to heroin to boost its strength, said Dennis Wichern, the special agent in charge of the DEA in Chicago and a five-state region.

“In the last three years we’ve seen an explosion of fentanyl,” Wichern said. “In Chicago, heroin- and fentanyl-related investigations have been priority No. 1.”

Fentanyl has been a major problem in Chicago since 2006, when cops here started seeing heroin being laced with that additive and marketed on the streets by brand names such as “Lights Out.” Users were drawn to the combination of drugs because of its extreme potency. But police started seeing those same addicts dropping dead from it.

The fentanyl problem here is only getting worse. In all of 2015, 102 deaths were attributed to fentanyl in Cook County, compared with 273 so far in 2016. And that number could be low because toxicology tests can take up to 90 days to complete, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office.

U.S. relations with China aren’t exactly cozy, with China accused of state-sponsored computer hacking of U.S. industries and government agencies alike.

Even so, the Chinese government is cooperating with DEA agents based in China to crack down on the manufacture of fentanyl analogues and other synthetic drugs in Hong Kong and China’s adjacent Guangdong province, Wichern said.

“They recognize they have a problem with the synthetic drug explosion, as I call it,” he said.

“The Chinese are all aboard. They’ve outlawed it. We’re working with them,” Wichern said. “We have agents on the ground every day in Beijing and Hong Kong working with the Chinese to stop this.”

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