2024 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Kaitlin Sahni, Kate Naseef, Nhan Nguyen and the Chemical Prosecutions Team


Investigated and prosecuted the first case against individuals supplying precursor chemicals to a Mexican drug cartel, disrupting methamphetamine and fentanyl production in Mexico and establishing a framework to build similar cases in the future.

The U.S. is experiencing a synthetic drug epidemic, with recent data showing that more than 70,000 Americans die annually from synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, while over 30,000 die from psychostimulants, primarily methamphetamine. 

Recently, three federal prosecutors addressed this crisis in an unprecedented way: They built the first case against individuals who were supplying precursor chemicals—substances used to manufacture illegal drugs—to a Mexican cartel. The result was a serious blow to a leading producer of fentanyl and methamphetamine and a new blueprint for future investigations into chemical suppliers who profit from drug addiction in the U.S. 

The multiagency effort, spearheaded by Kaitlin Sahni, Kate Naseef and Nhan Nguyen, used new investigative techniques that led to the indictment of Javier Algredo Vazquez. Vazquez was a key link in a secret supply chain stretching from China to Mexico that provided over 5 million kilograms of chemicals in less than four years to the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación and other Mexican drug trafficking organizations. In February 2024, he was sentenced to nearly 19 years in prison; his two co-conspirators are under arrest and awaiting extradition to the U.S. 

“This team stopped an individual who procured chemicals capable of producing more than 700 million doses of methamphetamine and 2 billion doses of fentanyl. This will wreak havoc on the cartel’s business model and produce immediate results for our vulnerable communities,” said Marlon Cobar, chief of the Justice Department’s Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section.  

Prosecuting a new type of case 

The team’s idea to investigate the cartel’s chemical supply chain dates to 2019, when a larger investigation into the organization, headed by the Drug Enforcement Agency, yielded a cooperator who ran the cartel’s drug labs and had intimate knowledge of how they received precursor chemicals.  

Working with the DEA and the Department of Homeland Security, the team had to crack the ever-evolving combination of chemicals the cartel uses to manufacture fentanyl and methamphetamine, trace the shipments of those chemicals across the globe and prove that sham businesses were moving them to produce illicit drugs.  

That required recruiting witnesses and cooperators, and corroborating their statements, by obtaining documentary evidence from foreign countries. 

“This case was extremely difficult and complicated to put together. The team worked almost 24/7 to achieve the first conviction of its kind,” said Jennifer Hodge, deputy assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice’s criminal division. 

Teaming up to tackle the challenges 

The team consulted with DEA chemists to learn about the chemical components of methamphetamine and fentanyl, interviewed former cartel members, identified millions of dollars of financial transactions, and coordinated multi-ton chemical seizures in several U.S. cities and Mexico. 

It also worked with DOJ’s judicial attachés to get Mexico to permit Mexican law enforcement to testify in U.S. court for the first time in decades. 

Naseef and Sahni prepared the indictment package and presented the case to the grand jury. Naseef also led the push to bring the Mexican witnesses to court. At trial, Sahni presented the testimony of the government’s key cooperating witness, and Nguyen organized the presentation of the team’s financial evidence. 

Kyle Mori, a supervisory special agent for the DEA, credits the team for disrupting the cartel’s ability to obtain the chemicals it needs to produce meth and fentanyl and for establishing a “new blueprint for prosecutors to investigate and try these cases.” The team now offers training to help prosecutors across the U.S. conduct similar investigations and said the results are inspiring similar efforts in Mexico.  

For Sahni, it was “rewarding to get the conviction we did.” Nguyen, who witnessed drug use in his neighborhood as a child, said he was proud to have “made a difference in the lives of the American people and the people I grew up with.” 

Naseef believes that the case represents public service at its best.  

“It’s at the heart of what being a civil servant is about—you’re not going into work every day to be a hero. You’re going in to build on the work of the people who came before you, and the people you are working with, to make an impact,” she said.