MEXICO CITY — The U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions Thursday on Mexico’s Familia Michoacana drug cartel, which it accused of manufacturing “rainbow” fentanyl pills purportedly aimed at children.
The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, blocked any U.S. properties of the Hurtado brothers, the leaders of the cartel, and prohibited U.S. citizens from having dealings with them.
The cartel is based in the southern state of Guerrero and is often known as “The New Michoacan Family,” to distinguish it from an older gang that was largely expelled from the western state of Michoacan in the mid 2010s.
“Not only does this cartel traffic fentanyl, which claimed the lives of more than 108,000 Americans last year, it now markets ‘rainbow fentanyl’ as part of a deliberate effort to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson said in a statement.
There has been debate about whether the multicolored fentanyl pills that have appeared in the U.S. market are designed to attract teens and young adults, or simply to distinguish the gang’s brand.
Mexican cartels usually ship blue fentanyl pills to the United States that are counterfeited to look like Xanax, Adderall or Oxycodone. Synthetic opioid overdoses kill tens of thousands of Americans each year, in part because many of those who take the pills do not know they are taking fentanyl.
Thursday’s sanctions were directed at José Alfredo Hurtado, who leads the Familia Michoacana along with his brother Johnny Hurtado. The Treasury Department says the cartel also traffics meth, heroin and cocaine.
Their gang has been active in Guerrero and the neighboring states of Morelos, Mexico and Michoacan, and is known for being notoriously violent.
In October, authorities said a massacre of 20 townspeople in the town of Totolapan, Guerrero, appears to have been the work of José Alfredo Hurtado, who tried to use social media to blame a rival gang.
The Oct. 5 attack in the town of Totolapan killed the town’s mayor, his father and 18 other men. Responsibility for the attack was originally claimed in a video attributed to a near-extinct gang known as the Tequileros. Men in the dark, shadowy video said they carried out the attack and were retaking Totolapan.
The Tequileros had long terrorized the town, but had been chased out years ago by a vigilante group believed to have been backed by the Familia Michoacana, which dominates the area.
José Alfredo Hurtado posted a video several days later saying he was the intended target of the shooting and had narrowly escaped. But officials said later the capo’s own group probably carried out the killings.
News outlets had reported that the Hurtado brothers may have been upset because the Totolapan mayor and the group of vigilantes he apparently headed had rejected the capos’ choice of another man to lead the town.