A spate of deaths linked to adulterated alcohol in Mexico has raised concerns that restrictions on alcohol sales during the coronavirus pandemic have encouraged the expansion of an already perilous black market.
Over the last week, six people have died in San Salvador El Seco, in the southern state of Puebla, after consuming tainted alcohol. These were only the latest deaths in what has become a worrying trend.
Citing recent data from the National Council Against Addiction (Comisión Nacional contra las Adicciones – CONADIC), El País reported that over 200 people across 11 Mexican states had died of suspected alcohol poisoning from May to July.
The states of Jalisco, Puebla, Michoacán and Yucatán have each reported numerous fatalities linked to the consumption of presumably adulterated beverages in the midst of pandemic restrictions on legal retail.
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In response, authorities have attempted to impede the illicit trade, most notably seizing 7,000 bottles of clandestine whiskey and arresting four at a warehouse in Morelos last June.
Meanwhile, just under a thousand bottles of illegal liquor were confiscated in municipalities across Guerrero, where at least 18 people died from alcohol poisoning in the space of a week.
These types of adulterated alcohol usually have extremely high alcoholic content. In April, a batch of liquor made from sugar cane, with an astonishing 96 percent of alcohol, was linked to 21 deaths in the states of Jalisco and Michoacán.
Esteban Giudici, a policy advisor at the Transnational Alliance to Combat Illicit Commerce (Alianza Transnacional para Combatir el Comercio Ilícito – TRACIT) recently told EFE that it had been decades since intoxications of this magnitude were last recorded in Mexico.
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Laws limiting the sale of beer and liquor during the pandemic may be stoking what was already a growing black market for bootlegged alcohol.
Although authorities claim that it is still too early to make a direct link between the market’s growth and the pandemic, Mexico’s trade in illicit alcohol has expanded rapidly in recent years.
In 2018, Euromonitor reported that approximately 42.5 percent of total alcohol sales in the nation came from illegal sources, making it the largest illicit alcohol market in Latin America by volume.
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According to Iñaki Landaburu, president of the National Association of Wholesale Grocers (Asociación Nacional de Abarroteros Mayoristas – ANAM), restrictions on legal alcohol sales during the pandemic were driving up this black market.
"When consumers don’t find legal alcohol, they opt for a different satisfier with a lower price," Landaburu told El Financiero.
The production of adulterated alcohol is often made by localized bootlegging operations, made up of small groups or even individuals, that work to meet a consistent demand. In June, the government proposed stringent new laws for this crime, with penalties of up to 12 years in prison and fines of up to 130,000 pesos ($6,000) for those caught producing or selling adulterated alcohol.
Illicit markets for medicine, medical equipment and even oxygen have also expanded across Latin America in response to consumer behaviors influenced by COVID-19.