Death toll from laced cocaine in Argentina climbs to 24
The death toll among dozens of people who consumed cocaine likely laced with opioids in Buenos Aires rose to 24 on Friday, with 23 still in hospital, health officials said.
Eight of the hospitalized are in serious condition and on mechanical ventilation.
Officials said 24 people, aged between 21 and 58, have died since Tuesday night from adulterated cocaine bought from dealers in the poor neighborhood of Loma Hermosa, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Buenos Aires city center.
Most died far from the point of sale, 12 of them at home and two on the road, unable to make it to a hospital on time because of the sudden effects of the tainted drug. Many suffered heart attacks.
Twenty-three remained hospitalized Friday, according to a provincial government update.
Three of them had been discharged but had to be re-hospitalized after taking more of the cocaine, provincial health minister Nicolas Kreplak said.
More than 200 other people sought medical intervention after consuming the substance, presenting symptoms of varying degrees of gravity.
- Arrests and seizures -
Thirteen people rounded up in a police operation to establish the origins of the tainted drug were due to appear before magistrates as part of the ongoing investigation, according to the Telam news agency.
They include the well-known leader of a drug trafficking network in greater Buenos Aires, a 33-year-old nicknamed "El Paisa."
The substance with which the cocaine was laced has not yet been confirmed, but authorities say it is likely an opioid.
Police have seized more than 20,000 doses of cocaine in a crackdown, but have not revealed how many of these were from the laced batch.
The incident has brought to light the dangers of illegal drug use, especially of cheap, low-quality cocaine sold and consumed in Buenos Aires's poorest communities.
According to security chief Sergio Berni, at least 250,000 doses of cocaine are sold daily in Buenos Aires province, home to some 40 percent of the Argentine population of 45 million and with high poverty rates.
Officials said Thursday that things were under control, but urged recent buyers of cocaine in and around the capital city to throw it away.
"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," Berni said.
- 'Absolutely exceptional' -
San Martin public prosecutor Marcelo Lapargo has said what happened was "absolutely exceptional" and there was "no precedent" in Argentina.
Illegal drug use has been on the rise in the South American country.
In the mid-1980s, half a ton of cocaine was seized every year -- a decade later, it was four times that, official data shows.
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.