Cocaine that killed at least 23 in Argentina was mixed with powerful opiate

Among those arrested in the wake of the tragedy earlier this week is Joaquín ‘El Paisa’ Aquino, who is linked to a drug gang on the outskirts of Buenos Aires

The Buenos Aires security chief, Sergio Berni, arrives at the Carlos Bocalandro Hospital.
The Buenos Aires security chief, Sergio Berni, arrives at the Carlos Bocalandro Hospital.Rodrigo Abd (AP)

The cocaine that caused the deaths of 23 people in Argentina on Wednesday and hospitalized 84 more was adulterated with a powerful opiate. That’s according to the authorities in the province of Buenos Aires, who did not go so far as to confirm which drug it was. One of the most widespread hypotheses suggested it was fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that is 25 times stronger than heroin. The definitive toxicology results, however, are yet to confirm this theory.

Investigators are also seeking to clarify whether the distribution of these highly toxic drugs was due to a mistake made by those who cut the narcotics, or whether it was intentional as part of some kind of score-settling among drug gangs.

The authorities were last night hoping that the arrests they carried out as part of their investigations will provide some answers. “We were able to arrest the leader, the distributors, their lieutenant and the person who was the ‘cook’,” said Sergio Berni, the security minister in the province of Buenos Aires. The latter reference is the name given to the person responsible for preparing the drugs before they are prepared for their sale. Berni was speaking at a press conference at the Carlos Bocalandro Hospital, the closest to the neighborhood where the poisoned cocaine was sold.

If this was a war between drug gangs we would no doubt not be arresting those who were distributing the drugs
Sergio Berni, the security minister in the province of Buenos Aires

According to sources from the investigation that were cited in local media outlets, the alleged owner of the adulterated cocaine is Joaquín Aquino, 33, and known as “El Paisa.” In the home where he was arrested, the police seized 5,000 doses of the drugs wrapped in the same pink nylon as the samples handed over by families of the victims to the police. Aquino, who has Paraguayan nationality, had been on the run for 18 months and had an arrest warrant out against him for another matter.

The criminal gang to which Aquino belongs, according to the police, is headed up by Max “Alicho” Alegre. He is engaged in a battle for the control of a number of shantytowns on the western outskirts of Buenos Aires with another gang led by Iván Villalba, the son of the historic drug trafficker Miguel Ángel “Mameluco” Villalba. Even so, the security minister expressed doubts about whether the adulterated cocaine was an act of vengeance or a settling of scores linked to this territorial dispute, as had been speculated initially. “If this was a war between drug gangs we would no doubt not be arresting those who were distributing the drugs,” stated Berni.

Antidote

On Thursday morning, the provincial authorities were visiting some of the hospitals where the victims had been admitted. “We know that it is an opioid because an antidote is being administered to the patients and they are reacting positively,” Berni continued. “We were talking to patients who until yesterday were intubated and in respiratory arrest and from the application of the protocol onward [saw their condition] reversed.”

From the Health Ministry, a number of warnings were conveyed via social media to warn cocaine users that, if they had purchased the drug in the previous 24 hours and were experiencing “breathing difficulties, psychomotor agitation or an increase in tiredness,” they should immediately head to their healthcare center.

According to Berni, around 250,000 doses of cocaine are distributed every day in Buenos Aires and its metropolitan area. The security chief suggested that the number of deaths could still rise considerably. Shortly afterwards, Carlos Bianco, the Buenos Aires government’s chief of staff, contradicted Berni by stating that the crisis had stabilized. “We have got the situation under control, it could have been a much worse tragedy,” he said.

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