While stark images of bodies in makeshift coffins left outside houses revealed how severely Ecuador's healthcare system had collapsed during the coronavirus pandemic, some found opportunity to turn a morbid profit.
After initiating an investigation, Ecuador's Comptroller General issued a report on May 20 showing evidence of price-gouging in the purchasing of body bags for two public hospitals in Guayaquil, the country's largest city.
According to the report, Los Ceibos hospital purchased some 4,000 body bags for $148 per unit, El Universo reported. Meanwhile, Guasmo Sur hospital bought 300 bags for $145 each. In total, the two hospitals paid nearly $615,000 for the body bags when they should have cost $46,910, according to the comptroller report.
The two hospitals appear to have signed contracts with specific suppliers without seeking alternative offers from state contractors. In the case of Guasmo Sur, the supplier had no history of providing medical supplies.
As of May 25, Ecuador had 36,756 confirmed cases of coronavirus and over 3,100 deaths.
InSight Crime Analysis
Profiting off the need for medical supplies has been a constant in Ecuador since a brutal outbreak of the virus. Besides the two hospitals mentioned in the Comptroller General's report, another was recently investigated for overpaying for body bags.
This makes a total of six hospitals reported to have signed irregular contracts, for purchases of everything from N95 masks to fumigation kits.
The Comptroller General's report did not clarify the positions of those behind these schemes but the scale of the purchases, as well as the involvement of multiple hospitals and shady contractors, suggests an organized attempt to defraud the public healthcare system.
Similar pricing schemes have occurred in Mexico, where ventilators were bought at inflated prices, and in Honduras, where millions of dollars to be used to buy protective masks was seemingly embezzled.
Corruption involving hospitals is nothing new in Ecuador. In 2017, a sweeping investigation of the country's public hospitals was launched after a scheme was discovered where doctors directed patients to buy medicine in specific private pharmacies.
The coronavirus has provided an opportunity for fraud and theft inside healthcare systems across Latin America. But in a country where the pandemic has been so overwhelming that families may never find the bodies of their loved ones, the case is a reminder that tragedy is no barrier to greed.