Authorities in Argentina have urged residents to dispose of any cocaine after a batch laced with an unknown substance killed at least 23 people in the greater Buenos Aires area.
Officials have called the deaths an unprecedented tragedy and warned that the toll may still rise.
“It is an exceptional event, we have no precedent,” said Marcelo Lapargo, attorney general for the San Martin municipality in the Buenos Aires province, Clarín reported. “It makes us think that the substance was included deliberately. It is not an error in the process.”
The drugs were sold out of Puerta 8, a shantytown in the Tres de Febrero municipality in the greater Buenos Aires region, police said. The substance apparently used to lace the cocaine has not yet been determined, but authorities believe that it could have been a synthetic opioid used to boost the drug’s effects.
“Indirectly, we know it is an opioid, because the antidote is administered [to patients] and they react,” Sergio Berni, security minister for the Buenos Aires province, told reporters Thursday.
Allan Santillán, 19, told the Associated Press from the hospital that he had smoked the drugs Tuesday night.
“I woke up with my liver shot to hell, vomiting and with stomach pains,” Santillán said. His mother, a nurse, rushed him to the hospital.
Argentina has one of the highest rates of cocaine consumption in the Americas, according to a 2019 report by the Organization of American States.
Law enforcement raced to remove the drugs from the market. The federal crimes unit in Buenos Aires province said Thursday that more than 15,000 doses of the laced drugs had already been confiscated.
Berni on Wednesday called on those who purchased drugs over the past 24 hours to throw them away. Provincial Health Minister Nicolás Kreplak reiterated the plea in a news conference Thursday.
“We had three cases of people hospitalized with intoxication last night, who returned today because they consumed the drugs again,” he said, according to the Ámbito Financiero newspaper.
In the early hours of Thursday, police arrested Joaquín Aquino, known as “El Paisa,” who authorities suspect is the leader of the drug ring behind the distribution of the laced cocaine.
Aquino, who was born in Paraguay, is believed to be the successor of imprisoned drug leader Miguel Ángel “Mameluco” Villalba, Berni said. Aquino refused to make a statement to the police Friday.