20 deaths and over 74 hospitalizations have been reported in Buenos Aires due to contaminated cocaine. A health ministry alert went out this week to the capital’s drug consumers: If you purchased blow in the previous 24 hours, throw it out.
Officials have not confirmed the wave of overdoses, though they say evidence points towards coke spiked with an opiate, likely fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be 50 times more potent than heroin. It is often used by drug dealers in the United States to cut other substances, a shortcut to bigger kicks for consumers and higher profits for distributors. Due to its high potency, consumption of inexpertly-handled fentanyl can easily cause a user to overdose. Many of the fatalities of the United States’ opiate crisis are attributed to fentanyl use, and substances laced with fentanyl, such as heroin and meth.
According to El País, Buenos Aires security minister Sergio Berni confirmed at a press conference that authorities suspect that an undetermined opiate cut into coke was involved in the recent rash of deaths. The official stated that the condition of several people who had taken the cocaine suffered from respiratory failure. They responded positively when they were treated with an unidentified drug that reverses opiate overdoses.
Police have announced arrests of people allegedly related to the case in an area known as Puerta 8, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. 10 individuals were detained, including “the leader, the people responsible for distribution, their lieutenant, and the person working as cook,” said Berni.
Authorities in the case are pointing the finger at members of Max “Alicho” Alegre’s criminal organization, which is currently in a conflict over territory in the west Buenos Aires periphery with another cartel.
The city’s residents were warned of the contaminated cocaine by the federal health ministry, which told drug consumers to throw out any blow they had bought in the previous 24 hours.
Global cocaine use is likely on the rise, according to a 2021 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. That paper attributes elevated consumption around the world to “a combination of exceptionally high levels of cocaine production, intense growth in transportation and logistics chains globally, a diversification of criminal actors involved in the supply chain from South America to Europe and near-ubiquitous access to internet-based technologies.”
A 2019 report from the Organization of American States estimates that Argentina was the country with the third-highest cocaine consumption in the Americas, after the US and neighboring Uruguay.
Berni claimed in this week’s press conference that Buenos Aires buys 250,000 “doses” of cocaine every day.
Consumption of fentanyl is not seen as widespread in Latin America. However, in northern Mexico — a trafficking route for much of the fentanyl that makes it to US consumers— the number of overdoses attributed to the drug is on the rise. The border city of Mexicali is home to La Sala, Latin America’s first safe injection site, which is operated by the local non-profit Verter. which has reported that 17 percent of its 1,534 naloxone administrations over two years went to people who said they had used fentanyl.