Health & Science

More than 100 intoxicated by adulterated cocaine in Buenos Aires

At least 24 people died in Buenos Aires last week because of adulterated cocaine that contained carfentanil, an opioid used to anesthetize elephants.

Casa rosada, Buenos Aires, Argentina

At the beginning of February, Buenos Aires experienced a few days of great uncertainty. The province of Buenos Aires issued an epidemiological alert on February 2 for a surge of drug overdoses among its population.

In the span of a couple of days, at least 24 people suddenly died in Buenos Aires for having used adulterated cocaine and another 84 were hospitalized, including 20 in intensive care. They all bought cocaine in the same few different places.

Hospitals reacted promptly by administering naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioids, to several patients and probably avoided more casualties.

With the drug in circulation and potentially plenty more potential consumers, the police raided spots where drug dealers sold this particularly lethal version of cocaine. Police last week seized at least 15,000 doses of cocaine during these raids.

Thirteen people have been arrested in relation to the adulterated cocaine case so far.

Among them was the Paraguayan Joaquín ‘El Paisa’ Aquino who allegedly sold the deadly product.

On February 4, the National Directorate of Migration ordered the permanent expulsion of El Paisa from Argentina after the judicial procedure comes to an end. El Paisa was a fugitive as a residence permit had been denied and an 8-year entry ban had already been ordered against him.

Five thousand doses of cocaine were found at his place. He claims the police planted the evidence.

And a lot of questions are in suspense in this sudden mass intoxication.

On February 10, the results of two independent studies launched by authorities found the presence of carfentanil in the cocaine samples seized in Tres de Febrero, the district of Buenos Aires where people bought the adulterated cocaine.

Earlier results ruled out the presence of fentanyl, an opioid sometimes mixed with heroin or used as a substitute.

Carfentanil, an opioid used by veterinarians on large animals

Carfentanil is an opioid, a derivative of fentanyl 30 times as strong as fentanyl according to Argentine authorities. It is 10,000 more potent than morphine.

Carfentanil is an analgesic used in veterinary medicine to anesthetize large animals like bears, elephants or rhinoceros. The drug is part of the list of narcotics in Argentina since 2019.

In the United States, the manufacturer withdrew its application to the Food and Drug Administration for commercialization. Companies are discontinuing the marketing of opioid products meant for animals in the context of the opioid crisis in the country “with the goal of avoiding the possibility of products being obtained or used illegally”, the FDA noted. According to the FDA, carfentanil is 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

It is not known if the cocaine was cut to increase the quantity of drugs to sell. Another theory at the beginning of the crisis was that rivals purposely sold adulterated cocaine at competitors’ spots to damage their reputations.

A plaintiff lawyer had doses of adulterated cocaine tested by independent experts in case the police were accused of faking evidence. The tests from samples given by relatives of buyers resulted in traces of piperidine hydrochloride, another fentanyl derivative.

Carlos Damin, head of Toxicology at Hospital Fernández, told La Nacion that since this opioid was not in use in Argentina, it was probably imported or cooked directly in the country.

Read more about Argentina

FDA’s new resource guide to support responsible opioid prescribing for pain management in animals, 2018, Free access

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