Romney: Fentanyl-Related Deaths are a Human Tragedy

Senator leads hearing to discuss ways to crack down on fentanyl trafficking into the U.S. from China and Mexico

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Ranking Member and Chair of the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs (HSGAC) Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight Subcommittee respectively, today led a bipartisan hearing to discuss how the U.S. government can stop the flow of fentanyl, and the precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, into the United States. The Subcommittee heard from experts on ways to strengthen international law enforcement cooperation and encourage China and Mexico to increase efforts to stop fentanyl trafficking stemming from their countries.

Senator Romney’s opening statement and exchange with one of the witness can be found below, and video can be found here.

Opening Statement:

Thank you, Chair Hassan, for holding this hearing. Appreciate those of you who are here today to educate us and inform us as to what steps might be taken to reduce the tragedy of fentanyl in our country and, frankly, globally. I don’t have to recount to you the statistics—even in my state of Utah—the numbers between 2019 and 2020 showed fentanyl-linked deaths increased by 128%.

It continues to be a human tragedy across our country and across the world. And the question is, what can we do? Is there any one place, any choke points we can we can focus on and say, if we can just get this group here or this country here to take the following steps, why then we’re going to be able to dramatically reduce the tragedy of fentanyl?

China has made commitments, as the Chair indicated, and I don’t believe they have fully lived up to those commitments. Had there been the same kind of concern about fentanyl in China as there is here in the U.S., my expectation is that there had been a much tougher approach taken there. That hasn’t happened. And I’m interested in your perspective on whether there’s prospect for that occurring in the future.

Likewise, with regards to Mexico, we have not had as much support in fighting organized crime and the cartels in Mexico as we might have hoped. A new administration suggests that we’ll have a better relationship and perhaps more ability to make a difference there. But I guess where we’re all recognizing what the problem is, we just don’t know how to solve it.

And you have experience in this regard that we would consider highly valuable. That’s why we decided to hold this hearing. We want to hear your perspectives and potentially see what you think as well about the legislation, which Senator Lankford and Senator Hassan have proposed. And see if there are other steps that you think we might take to make it more likely that we will be able to restrict the scourge of fentanyl. With that, Madam Chair.


Senator Romney: I’m going to step back because I’m not an expert on this topic at all. And I have not spoken with Chairman Xi about it, nor even Mexican authorities about it. So, I’m going to ask just very simply, and I ask each of you where you think our focus ought to be most directed or whether we can have a focus. So, it strikes me that there are various elements where we have pressure or capacity to constrain. There’s the demand side, which is trying to influence demand for narcotics and fentanyl in the U.S. That strikes me as a very difficult task to take on, finding a way to reduce demand in the U.S, but that’s one possibility.

The next is the border, which is to make a very aggressive effort to secure the border, electronically, with monitoring systems, to value what’s come across the border. And the reason I think it’s difficult is because it can come, of course, by people carrying product over. It’s not a very heavy product. It’s small. It can come in through the mail, it could come by aircraft, it could come by ship. So, the border strikes me as a very difficult one to substantially restrict the flow. Then there are the cartels, going after the cartels. Ending organized crime is something we’ve been trying to do since the 1930s or probably before that, and so I wonder whether we’re going to be able to stop organized crime in Mexico.

The next one is precursors, going after the precursors that are coming from China, and I don’t know how easy it is to make the precursor, how effective China might be in cutting off the development precursor. Then we go on to money laundering and the financial systems, to try and cut off financial systems. It would seem to me, as a novice in this area, that if someone is willing to pay you money and someone’s willing to get paid that money, they’re going to find a way to launder it. And we can try and stop all sorts of vehicles to make it easy but ultimately, buyers and sellers are going to be able to complete a transaction. So as I look at those, I wonder which are the ones we should focus on? What’s the one or two that is going to be most effective in being able to reduce the scourge of fentanyl in our country?

Ms. Realuyo: Sure, so you’ve actually taken a look at the entire business cycle as we were taught at Harvard Business School. You got to figure out how your efficiencies are. One of the greatest challenges is the actual effectiveness, in terms of addiction of the pill as well as the profit margin. So one of the estimates now is that it costs $0.30 in a Mexican lab to produce a fentanyl laced pill that is being sold in Navy Yard, right in front of the Nats stadium at $10 to $15, $15 to $20 here in the D.C. area. So that’s already a very hefty—that’s a reason to now switch to synthetic drugs if you’re a trafficker. And then also, it’s harder to detect and our DEA colleagues know this, as opposed to other plant based drugs that have scents, so like heroin, marijuana or cocaine. I still think we need to come back to, which is not really the topic of—it’s the demand, and we’re about to enter in prom season here in the United States, and there are tremendous campaigns like One Pill Can Kill, which is done by the DEA.

Every one of us as members of our community need to impress upon our youth, and then, more importantly, how deadly these things that you’re ordering online. So, I’ve been looking at the digitalization of illicit networks and more importantly, in the cyber physical domain. S, all these things that we talk about that are criminal networks, they now have a parallel market, off the Internet. And a lot of it has to do with these social media platforms where they literally, young people exchange with a trafficker—there’s no words. It’s just the use of emojis and amounts and numbers. So, it’s their own language, but more importantly, we as parents and as educators are not watching what our kids are doing online, and then the drug gets sent or it gets actually physically exchanged at the parking lot or the McDonald’s next to the high school. So, we still need to go to the demand piece, and I think raising awareness and looking at the prevention part and treatment part are very important. Obviously, our hearing today is looking at the supply piece.

I also think, having been a former banker at Goldman Sachs, plucked out by General Powell to come and fight the war on terror financially, we can use the exact same toolkit to actually constrain. And my colleagues have talked about the developments of the Chinese money laundering organizations. They really rely on this technology platform like WeChat, just as we all transfer money on Zelle or PayPal or Venmo, they have Venmo for all these types of illicit activity. And the other thing we didn’t talk about was the use of cryptocurrencies. So, we’re starting to see the Jalisco cartel, very sophisticated, out of the Guadalajara area, trying to use what are called virtual wallets. They’ll pay young people to set up a wallet to load dollars here in the US, in Bitcoin or Ethereum or some form of—and then they take the pesos out in ATMs in Mexico. And there’s an area where we can put and impart on our foreign counterparts methods and means of imposing more controls and what I call the cyber physical world of how these groups are circumventing what I call traditional law enforcement and regulatory kind of policies in order to go after the money, but also the demand.