Authorities in Argentina have announced that the 24 deaths linked to adulterated cocaine this month were caused by the dangerous synthetic opioid carfentanil.
Days after the opioid news emerged, Argentine newspaper La Nacion claimed that police may have been working for the gang who allegedly spiked the cocaine. Allegations that law enforcement may have been aiding and abetting the crime gang behind the drug poisoning adds to the controversy.
Evidence of the adulterated cocaine began to emerge on Feb. 1 when people started showing up at hospitals on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, after apparently taking cocaine. Within a day, 20 were dead and 84 others were hospitalized. The death toll later rose to 24.
Investigators initially suspected that the cocaine was spiked with some form of opiate after people began responding to the anti-overdose medication naloxone. Naloxone blocks the effects of opiates, but cases of fentanyl consumption, let alone the stronger carfentanil, are practically nonexistent in Argentina.
Carfentanil is a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than fentanyl and more than 10,000 times that of morphine, according to the National Library of Medicine. It is often used as a veterinary anaesthetic on large animals like elephants and rhinoceros.
Argentine toxicologists officially identified the toxic ingredient as carfentanil on Feb. 10, more than a week after the overdoses, according to the Buenos Aires Attorney General’s office. Their short statement on the toxicology results said that more details would soon be made public, but days later, no official statements have been made.
The authorities are still trying to understand how the cocaine became contaminated with such a powerful opioid that is not widely sold or consumed in Argentina.
And on Saturday, La Nacion published a report citing the case files of previous drug investigations that linked local police to the gang accused of having spiked the cocaine.
The contaminated batch reportedly came from a well-known drug den known as “the bunker” in a rough suburb of Buenos Aires called Puerta 8. Authorities arrested an alleged Paraguayan gangster based in Argentina, Joaquín Aquino, aka “El Paisa”, shortly after the poisonings under suspicion of having sold the drugs.
El Paisa was linked to another alleged gangster in the area known as Max Alí Alegre, alias Alicho, according to the leaked case files and anonymous police officials working on the investigation revealed by La Nacion. Although Alicho is currently behind bars, he allegedly runs a local gang that El Paisa works for. La Nacion alleged in its report that at least five local police officers were on the payroll of Alicho’s gangs and are currently being investigated. The officers have not been charged.
The newspaper also backed up the allegations that police accepted bribes from the group by citing the transcripts of Alicho’s sentencing. The tribunal said that “the intervention of police officials in the criminal activity of the investigated gang… was a fundamental collaboration for the development of drug trafficking acts to the extent that, through it, the impunity of its members was guaranteed.”
It’s unclear whether this will be an isolated incident or is the beginning of a dangerous new trend in Argentina’s drug market. In the meantime, those buying illegal substances would be wise to tread with caution.