The US Treasury Department has assigned a little-known heroin trafficking group based in Mexico to its "Kingpin" list, raising questions as to why US authorities are taking this step now and what it says about broader shifts to US anti-narcotics strategy.
In a May 24 press release, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control designated José Luis Ruelas Torres and ten other alleged members the Ruelas Torres Drug Trafficking Organization (DTO) to the department's list of major foreign drug trafficking targets. According to Treasury, the Ruelas Torres DTO has produced and smuggled heroin into many US cities, including Los Angeles and New York for over two decades.
"Treasury is targeting José Luis Ruelas Torres as a Significant Foreign Narcotics Trafficker under the Kingpin Act because he and his drug trafficking organization are major contributors to our nation?s heroin epidemic," Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin was quoted as saying.
A chart (see below) released by Treasury places Ruelas Torres and his son, Joel Efrén Ruelas Avila, at the top of the organization's hierarchy. The US Attorney's Office for the District of Colorado indicted the father-son pair, among others, in May 2015 for running a criminal organization involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. The indictment alleges that members of the DTO wired more than $2 million in drug proceeds between March 2014 and February 2015 from Colorado to Sinaloa, Mexico, where the group is based.
The Treasury press release states the Ruleas Torres organization is allied with Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, alias "Chapito Isidro," a Mexican drug trafficker who was named to the Kingpin list in 2013.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Kingpin designation appears due to a shift in US anti-narcotics strategy -- and US drug markets -- as much as anything else. US authorities are undoubtedly looking to crack down on the groups profiting off a heroin epidemic that continues to grip many parts of the country and has become a key political issue for the Trump administration. In testimony given on May 25 before the US Senate Homeland Security Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Michael Botticelli of the Boston Medical Center said "the opioid epidemic is the most pressing public health issue of our time."
Whereas cocaine was once the dominant illicit drug occupying the attention of US counter-narcotics officials, they are now beginning to place a greater emphasis on heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Earlier this month, law enforcement officials from the US and Mexico attended the first-ever National Fentanyl Conference for Forensic Chemists in Mexico City.
This shift in focus may be what finally put the spotlight on the Ruelas Torres organization after more than two decades of drug trafficking. Indeed, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin directly linked the Ruelas Torres organization to the current heroin crisis.
Still, Treasury's decision to include the Ruelas Torres DTO to its Kingpin list raises many other questions, few of which have satisfactory answers. Just how big of a player is the Ruelas Torres organization in Mexico's heroin trade? That's hard to say, mostly because there is very little public information about this group apart from the 2015 indictment and what was recently released by Treasury.
To get a sense of how little is known about the Ruelas Torres DTO, Animal Político -- a highly-regarded Mexican news outlet that closely follows the drug trade -- said the US had identified a "new" trafficking group, even though Treasury says they have been operating for over 20 years. Two security analysts interviewed by InSight Crime had no further knowledge about the group.
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There are other questions. What might the US gain by targeting the Ruelas Torres organization now? Kingpin designations have sometimes been a sign that the US is preparing a bigger case against the drug trafficking group in question, as was the case with the Cachiros in Honduras. But the Ruelas Torres organization has already been indicted in a US court, so it's unclear what strategic advantage this designation could offer.