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Dozens of arrests made throughout the Greater Toronto Area have dealt a significant blow to a gang allegedly involved in trafficking the deadly opioid fentanyl across the country, the city’s police chief said Thursday.

Mark Saunders said officers were spending the day arresting alleged members of the Chester Lee gang, a “criminal organization” he alleged had roots in the city’s east end but operated on a national scale.

Chief Saunders said Thursday’s raids and arrests marked the culmination of an eight-month-long investigation that had already netted 43 past arrests. He said 37 more people had been taken into custody by midday, bringing the total allegedly involved in the case to 80.

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“Our investigators are confident that this project has effectively disrupted and dealt a significant blow to the hierarchy and the operations of this gang,” Chief Saunders told reporters, adding that officers would be making more arrests throughout the day.

Chief Saunders declined to offer many details on the investigation, citing the continuing operation, but said more information would be provided at a follow-up news conference scheduled for Friday morning.

He said the criminal organization was allegedly involved in numerous shootings as well as fentanyl trafficking, but did not provide specific examples.

He also said details on the quantity of drugs seized by police would be disclosed Friday, and added that the gang’s alleged focus on the highly potent fentanyl was of particular concern to the force.

“The quality of life that it reduces in any community is tremendously egregious,” Chief Saunders said, citing the fact that fentanyl is deemed to be exponentially more lethal than heroin.

“The fact that we’ve got an entity that is distributing that drug is a concern, and I’m grateful for the work that the men and women from guns and gangs implemented.”

Chief Saunders added that Toronto police received support from other municipal, provincial and national police resources during their operation but did not immediately provide details.

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The past two years have seen a significant spike in the number of opioid-related deaths across the country.

Opioids claimed the lives of more than 11,500 people between January, 2016, and December, 2018, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported earlier this month, citing contamination of the drug supply as a major factor.

Last year, Ontario registered 1,022 overdose deaths related to opioids, down slightly from more than 1,200 recorded the year before.

The Ontario Drug Policy Research Network cites fentanyl as the primary agent involved in most fatal overdoses.

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