LIMA, Peru — Since the first COVID-19 wave decimated Iquitos in Peru’s remote northeast, Juan Torres Baldeón estimates that he has donated free oxygen to 8,000 of the jungle city’s desperate families.
In doing so, he has likely saved hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives in the Amazonian backwater, whose hospitals are once again so overwhelmed that many seriously sick patients have to be tended to by relatives at home.
Now, with a second wave of COVID-19 cresting across Peru and the country facing a daily oxygen shortfall of 100 tons, Baldeón is having to deal with a new threat — the oxygen mafias that just razed his home to the ground.
It began with crooks infiltrating the long lines outside Baldeón’s warehouse. The problem became so severe that the police and the military had to be called in to maintain order.
“We only give oxygen to those with prescriptions,” said Baldeón. “Normally, just half a tank, unless the patient is really sick, because we have to ration what we have. But we kept finding people in the queue who didn’t have a prescription, and when you asked them the name of the patient, they didn’t know what to say.”
Then came the phone calls and voice messages. “You decide,” one of them said, warning the 41-year-old lawyer and businessman to either hand over his entire production of the lifesaving element or leave Iquitos for good.
“I told them to take a hike,” says Baldeón. “They are unscrupulous people, who don’t care about life. They’re just trying to take advantage of others in their hour of greatest need.”
That was when the criminals, who Baldeón believes are a local cocaine cartel, made their move.
On January 28, at 5.20pm, he left the office where he is also temporarily living to go to the gym. But within minutes, he was called back, to see his office and the four homes on either side of it burning to the ground.
“They probably thought I was inside,” he says. “There’s nothing left now, just ashes. I feel for my neighbors. They didn’t even have anything to do with the oxygen.”
The criminals’ motivation was clear.
Normally, refilling a 10m³ tank of oxygen would cost around 100 Sols ($27). Yet with demand grossly outstripping supply, some tanks have been changing hands for more than $1,000 in Iquitos, whose only links to the rest of Peru, by river and air, have at times been cut off during the pandemic.
Baldeón is not the only person to have been targeted by criminal gangs eager to profit from the desperation of others.
In Lima, the mayor of the upmarket district La Molina, Alvaro Paz de la Barra, was this month forced to send his wife and son abroad following death threats he received for setting up a municipal oxygen plant and distributing the essential gas to needy families, including to those from outside his district.
Yet even outside of Peru, his family remain unsafe, and they have had to change hotels after their whereabouts were discovered by the criminals, who also threw a grenade at his house.
In his case, some of the threats may have come from Peru’s booming illegal mining sector. Paz de la Barra has been campaigning for the government to seize the sector’s oxygen facilities and repurpose them to produce medical-grade oxygen.
In another case, in the blue-collar Lima district of San Juan de Lurigancho, one of the handful of private oxygen vendors who refused to jack up prices during the pandemic, Mario Romero, himself died from COVID-19 last year.
His son, Mykol Romero, believes his father became infected after policing the queues at his depot to weed out speculators who were looking to flip the oxygen he sold them.
Peru has been one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic. For several months last year, it topped the per capita death charts. Officially, 1.2 million have been infected here while 43,880 have died.
Yet both figures are thought to be significant underestimates. One ongoing government epidemiological study has, so far, found that 40 percent of Peru’s 32 million population — 12 million people — have been infected.
In Iquitos, epidemiologists think that may rise to 70 percent, lulling many locals into a false sense of security that the city might have herd immunity. Its second wave is now, in part, fueled by the Brazilian strain of the novel coronavirus that has rampaged through the city of Manaus, just over the border, and which reportedly can reinfect those who already have had COVID-19.
Behind those statistics are innumerable stories of personal tragedy, including that of Baldeón and his family.
His ordeal began last April, when several members of his family got sick with coronavirus. The hospitals were full and there was no oxygen to be had on the private market anywhere in the city. In an economically privileged position, thanks to his work as a criminal defense attorney and his family’s chicken distribution business, he was able to splash out 530,000 Sols ($145,000) and buy an oxygen plant.
After his adoptive father, Miguel Rosales, 71, succumbed to COVID–19 in May, Baldeón decided to keep the plant running and give away the oxygen for free.
Since then, he has been racking up the costs, mainly for the plant’s huge energy bill of more than $3000 per month. He has also employed a nurse to check recipients’ prescriptions and even call their doctors.
When the pandemic subsides, Baldeón plans to repurpose his oxygen production for welding and other industrial uses. He also plans on rebuilding his home.
Baldeón said that police, who did not answer calls from VICE World News, have yet to identify the arsonists.