Race on to find laced cocaine that killed 20 in Argentina
Investigators in Argentina raced Thursday to track down laced cocaine and remove it from circulation after 20 people died and dozens were sent to hospital poisoned.
Officials fear the toll may rise with the discovery of people who did not make it to hospital in time.
Health authorities issued an "epidemiological alert" Wednesday after a sudden flurry of deaths in three poor, western suburbs of Buenos Aires among people who had taken cocaine officials believe may have been adulterated with opioids.
More than 80 were admitted to 10 hospitals, some in critical condition.
Officials, who have seized hundreds of packets of the doctored substance, urged anyone in the Buenos Aires area who had recently purchased cocaine to discard it.
"A substance of high toxicity, sold as cocaine, is in circulation," said the prosecutor's office of San Martin, one of the affected suburbs.
Beatriz Mercado, who lives in the suburb of Hurlingham, told AFP she found her 31-year-old son lying on the kitchen floor in the dark.
"He was almost not breathing, his eyes were rolling back," she said. She took him to the hospital, where he was put on life support.
"I hope in God... a miracle," said Mercado.
- 'We are desperate' -
Some of the victims, several of them men in their 30s and 40s, suffered violent convulsions and heart attacks, according to medical reports cited by media outlets.
The alarm was first raised when four people arrived at a hospital together, saying they had taken cocaine at the same event. All four died.
"We are desperate, we want to know why one person is dying after another here," Maria Morales told AFP outside the hospital where her brother-in-law was on life support.
A friend who was taking cocaine at the same gathering is dead.
In the precarious suburb of Tres de Febrero, where many youngsters are engaged in drug pushing, police on Wednesday detained about 10 people in a house where cocaine was allegedly being laced and distributed.
Packets of the substance similar to those described by the victims' families were seized amid brief clashes with residents.
The drugs are being analyzed to determine their composition.
- 'Absolutely exceptional' -
Buenos Aires provincial security chief Sergio Berni told the Telefe channel the as-yet unknown additive was something "that is attacking the central nervous system."
"Every dealer that buys cocaine cuts it. Some do it with non-toxic substances such as starch. Others put hallucinogens in it, and if there is no form of control, this kind of thing happens," said Berni.
He declined to speculate whether the adulteration may have happened as part of a "war between drug traffickers."
The San Martin public prosecutor, Marcelo Lapargo, said what happened was "absolutely exceptional."
"People say that this happens in Central America and other places but (here), the truth is, never. It could be a settling of scores but that is conjecture because there is no precedent," he told Radio Mitre.
Lapargo said the priority for now was "to communicate so that those who are in possession of this poison know that they should not consume it."
- Drug use rising -
Berni said that in the province of Buenos Aires, home to some 40 percent of the Argentine population of 45 million and with high poverty rates, about 250,000 doses of cocaine are sold every day.
Illegal drug use has been on the rise in Argentina. In the mid-1980s, half a ton of cocaine was seized every year -- a decade later it was four times that, according to official data.
In 2017, a record 12.1 tons of cocaine were seized in the country, but in 2020, the number fell to about 2.7 tons as consumption dropped during the pandemic.
Rosario, a city some 300 kilometers (186 miles) north of Buenos Aires, last year recorded 231 homicides linked to drug trafficking, according to the Telam national news agency.