Two Massachusetts men accused of planning to sell fentanyl to veterans seeking treatment for substance abuse disorders at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility northwest of Boston were arrested Wednesday, the Department of Justice announced the following day.
Deiby Bladimil Casado Ruiz, known as "El Bebo," and Pedro Antonio Sanchez Bernabel conspired to distribute the oft-deadly synthetic opioid over a three-month period starting in late July, according to their indictments. Ruiz was charged with actual distribution, while Bernabel was charged with aiding and abetting.
"Veterans seeking treatment for substance abuse are often at their most vulnerable," Special Agent Christopher Algieri of the VA's Office of Inspector General said in a statement last week.
"What these two men are accused of doing is absolutely appalling," Joseph R. Bonavolonta, a special agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said in the same release. "We believe they targeted veterans who have valiantly defended our country's freedoms and are now seeking treatment for their substance abuse disorder, and plied them with fentanyl, a deadly narcotic 50-100 times stronger than morphine."
The indictments did not include any cases of specific harm done to veterans seeking treatment, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts did not answer whether any were affected when asked by Military.com, deferring the publication to the indictments.
The case represents a disturbing nexus for two populations ravaged by the deadly opioid epidemic; of the nearly 1 million people who died by a drug overdose between 1999 and 2020, 82% were caused by opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Stresses of deployments, zero-tolerance policies regarding drugs, and stigmas contribute to drug use for service members and veterans, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but for opioids, the institute pointed to injuries incurred during military service and subsequent treatments for pain management as a gateway to opioid abuse.
"Military physicians wrote nearly 3.8 million prescriptions for pain medication in 2009, more than quadruple the number of such prescriptions written in 2001," according to the institute. And while the VA reported a significant decrease in opioid prescriptions over the last decade, the effects of opioid addiction can be varying and long-lasting.
Opioid deaths increased by 44% between 2017 and 2020 nationally. Massachusetts is facing a particularly difficult battle with the drugs; the commonwealth is ranked 17th for state mortality rates attributed to opioids, according to the NIDA and CDC.
Ruiz and Bernabel face a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, and a maximum of 40, for conspiracy to distribute 40 grams or more of fentanyl. The act of distributing the drug carries a sentence of up to 20 years, a $1 million fine and three years of probation.
When asked about the Justice Department's allegation that the pair were targeting veterans at the Bedford Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Bernabel's attorney Joan M. Griffin said she did not know.
"It's just that early," she told Military.com in a phone call Monday, referring to recency of the arrests and adding over email that she has "no further information as to the government's allegations."
Oscar Cruz Jr., Ruiz's attorney, said he did not have any comment regarding the case when contacted by the publication.
Information on VA-provided substance abuse treatment can be found here, and veterans can also speak with a crisis counselor by dialing 988 and selecting 1.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.