Sitting on the sidewalk of Avenida 5 de San José, in the red zone of the capital of Costa Rica, Roberto Baca, says he remembers other homeless people nicknamed Pato and Rasta. They were lying on the floor after drinking any of the liquors they bought at ¢ 1,000 (US$ 1.7) a liter and that in these 2 weeks has recognized in photographs of the newspapers as causing the death of 20 people since June 2019. He does not know, he explains, if they got up on their own, died or are part of the 25 who were hospitalized, those who remain very serious or those who will suffer sequels for life.
“That is why I only drink 90-degree alcohol, so as not to expose myself to that kind of crap: I tried it twice and, each time, I was blind for several days. Now see what happened, something very serious”, warns Baca. He is not surprised, he comments, about the lethal effects of that guaro (the colloquial name for liquor, in Costa Rica), but he is glad that the whole country knows what is happening “in the low-urban worlds”. “So that they already know the danger to which these marks are exposing to us, street addicts”, he emphasizes.
Baca also talks about the liquors of 7 brands that keep the Ministry of Health of this Central American country on alert, known for having a normally effective regulatory system. They have detected that they were adulterated with methanol, a solvent suitable for treating paints or manufacturing plastics, but highly poisonous to the body of the person who consumes it, even if ingested in small doses.
Hence, there are already up to 45 intoxicated accounted for, although the authorities do not rule out that this provisional figure increases in the coming days. The complicated thing, says a policewoman, is that not everyone reports symptoms of intoxication because at least in this area many people go intoxicated day and night.
There are also reports of victims in other urban centers in the province of Cartago (center-east) and Limón (Caribbean coast). 5 of those killed are women and the Government has already issued an alert in the network of hospitals and clinics to identify symptoms of new alcohol poisonings.
A few meters away, in the opposite corner, a woman looked out the window of a closed shop where they sell some of those brands. “That mae [guy] sells Montano [one of the banned brands], but today in the afternoon some policemen came to take the bottles he had”, he reported before warning that she does not drink liquor. He explains that they buy very cheap the pacha (that is, the bottle) of 335 milliliters, and nobody here worries about checking the label, the security seal, or other details.
“Then, there you see them wallowing or all blind. Others seem dead and then get up, only God knows how. Others never get up”, said this woman, at the time of raising her shoulders.
Hours earlier, the Ministry of Health had issued in the official newspaper a total ban order to commercialize the liquors of the brands Guaro Montano, Timbuka, Molotov, Barón Rojo, Gran Apache, and Estrella Roja”. For now, it is impossible to distinguish between original and adulterated drinks, it is read in the edict. More than 38,000 containers have been seized and the order to close any store that has them for sale has been issued.
No incidents in conventional bars and supermarkets
The Minister of Health, Daniel Salas, ruled out that there are problems in supermarkets, liquor stores, or conventional bars. Also, there are no reports of incidents in areas frequented by tourists during this season of high visitation for a vacation in the northern hemisphere. However, the US Embassy in San José communicated the alert to its citizens and asked for caution, despite the market niche of these liquors is very different from that of visitors.
The Public Ministry (MP) opened a judicial investigation and last Wednesday it raided a distributor of these liquors in Coronado, 20 kilometers north of the capital. They found drinks with either sanitary registration, others without it, and others with expired permits.
In the last 8 years, the Fiscal Control Police have detected criminal groups dedicated to adulterating liquors or importing ethanol into the country to mix it by hand, as a newspaper reported last Monday. In Costa Rica, it is a crime to import ethanol because a state factory has the monopoly to produce that substance. So far, there is no information on suspects of introducing methanol in liquors.
The Costa Rican Government has also notified neighbors Nicaragua and Panama, without having reported cases of methanol victims in these countries. In addition, the Minister of Health has asked the population to call the emergency number -911- to give notice of places where the brands are still being sold under suspicion. “Precisely because the alert does not reach many of the consumers of these liquors, we are being vehement, to prevent more deaths from this cause”.