A massive robbery of nearly 38,000 cancer drugs from a warehouse in Mexico City points to a growing sophistication in the country’s lucrative black market for medicine, with those involved reacting to specific shortages and carrying out highly targeted operations.
On October 17, authorities in Mexico City announced the arrest of two suspects after they were spotted discarding 27 plastic bags in the streets of Azcapotzalco, a municipality located in the capital. Officials later confirmed the bags were filled with some 8,000 boxes of five different pediatric oncology medications, about a fifth of the drugs taken in the robbery 10 days earlier on October 7, according to a news release.
The anti-cancer drugs, specifically licensed to treat children, were taken from a warehouse in Mexico City's district of Iztapalapa, according to Mexico’s Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risk (Comisión Federal para la Protección contra Riesgos Sanitarios — COFEPRIS).
Between 10 to 15 armed men arrived at the warehouse before dawn in five vehicles. Two hours later, they left with the drugs in hand, according to C4NoticiasMx.
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The gunmen threatened, beat, and restrained warehouse workers before locking them up, according to the media outlet, which had access to confidential documents from Mexico City’s Attorney General’s Office.
Although the warehouse belonged to private pharmaceutical company Novag Infancia, the armed group targeted drugs intended for exclusive use by public health agencies, COFEPRIS announced in its health alert.
The drugs "cannot be attained in private pharmacies, private hospitals or via the internet and social media networks," COFEPRIS announced in its health alert.
The regulator added that such medicines should not be used by the public, stating that their safety could no longer be guaranteed, as a result of their unknown transport and storage conditions since being taken from the warehouse.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador later said the stolen drugs had originally come from Argentina and were particularly difficult to acquire.
Mexico has been increasingly importing such medicines from abroad, in the midst of domestic production complications, which have included bacterial infections and poor production practices discovered by COFEPRIS at manufacturing plants.
The nation has also seen a recent spate of high-profile thefts of medical goods, including a highway robbery of over 10,000 doses of flu vaccine for the public health sector. Gunmen also intercepted a truck carrying 20 dialysis machines in Mexico City.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the robbery of the cancer drugs was particularly striking in terms of its scale and sophistication, widespread shortages in Mexico of expensive drugs used to treat chronic diseases could be leading desperate buyers to the country's already substantial black market for medicine.
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Andrés Castañeda Prado, coordinator of health and wellbeing at the anti-corruption group Nosotrxs, told InSight Crime that thefts intended to feed the black market usually take place on a significantly smaller scale, with many stolen products destined for use in legally registered private clinics.
“To reduce costs, the clinics use stolen supplies,” he commented, adding that such businesses typically collaborate with intermediaries who have access to the black market.
However, the volume of medication stolen in the cancer-drug robbery indicates the group responsible knew when and where to strike and specific products to target, strongly suggesting the gunmen had inside information and a guaranteed buyer lined up.
While recognizing that this robbery was highly unusual, Castañeda claimed current market conditions make such operations possible in Mexico.
Earlier this year, Nosotrxs published a report on how health institutions across Mexico had been struggling to access critical drugs, most notably those used to treat severe chronic illnesses and immunologic diseases. The study recognized that over a quarter of medication shortages recorded in the nation came from Mexico City alone.
The AMLO administration has faced increasing criticism for medical scarcities since it made changes to how medical products could be purchased last year.
Castañeda also confirmed reports that shortages of anti-cancer drugs had risen significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The armed group in question stole just under 3,000 doses worth of daunorubicin, a chemotherapy drug that is taken via intravenous injection, and over 4,000 packets of dacarbazine, another chemotherapy drug that must be administered by a trained medical professional to avoid malicious side effects.
If a patient were to arrive at a hospital with one of these products, even if sourced from the black market, his or her doctor might administer it without question, due to similarities between medication destined for the public health sector and that circulating on the private market, according to Castañeda.
“Nobody is going to question the patient. They can scratch off the label or erase it,” he said.
Patients in such severe cases would also likely already have a close, trusting relationship with their doctor, Castañeda added.
“There is a market for these medicines, because if somebody with economic resources has a sick child, they will do whatever it takes to find the medicine," he said.