Paraguayan authorities have dismantled a network of pharmacies that illegally sold morphine and fentanyl, showing how the black market for medicine now includes potent opioids for illicit use.
Raids of three drugstores in the capital, Asunción, according to a July 7 news release, led to the arrests of four people who were charged with dispensing controlled substances. The drugs, which also included powerful sedatives, were sold through falsified prescriptions. In total, 51 boxes of tramadol, 17 boxes of fentanyl, and 400 vials of morphine were seized.
According to the government news release, some vials of fentanyl were marked for the "Exclusive Use of IPS," the Spanish acronym for the country’s Social Security Institute (Instituto de Previsión Social), suggesting the possible involvement of people within the agency.
María Antonieta Gamarra, director of Paraguay’s National Health Surveillance Directorate (Dirección Nacional de Vigilancia Sanitaria), claimed that the drugs were sold cheaply, at between $1.50 and $3.00 per dose.
In November 2021, another operation targeting Paraguay pharmacies illegally selling opioids occurred when officers of the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas - Senad) raided a warehouse in Asunción and a pharmacy in San Lorenzo after authorities found inconsistencies in monthly reports of fentanyl sales.
Following the latest law enforcement action, anti-drug prosecutor Lorena Ledesma expressed concern about the growing use of fentanyl in Paraguay, despite the country's laws controlling the sale of opioids, Paraguayan newspaper Hoy reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
Paraguayan pharmacies have long been involved in the black market for medicine, but their trafficking of opioids is an alarming new development.
Medicine siphoning from Paraguay’s pharmacies has occurred for well over a decade. In 2007, then-President of the Paraguayan Chamber of Pharmacies (CAFAPAR), Dr. Beatriz Svetliza, told Paraguayan newspaper ABC that there was a robust black market for medicines sold in pharmacies and that regulators agencies had no control over the situation.
Yet most black market sales involved pharmaceuticals sold to people who had trouble accessing medical care. For example, in 2018, the Paraguayan Ministry of Health faced criticism from pharmacies for prohibiting the sale of antibiotics without a prescription. CAFAPAR officials claimed that the measure would only encourage illegal sales, as Paraguayans without easy access to doctors and hospitals would turn to the black market for their medicines.
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In the case of the most recent raids, the narcotics illegally sold by the pharmacies were in all likelihood not for medical purposes, given that vials of fentanyl and morphine are typically administered under strict doctor supervision.
The effects of fentanyl are similar to heroin, but it is 50 times more powerful. In the United States, fentanyl is the leading driver of overdose deaths, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Dealers may be mixing other drugs like cocaine and heroin with fentanyl, which is cheap and provides a strong high, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ricardo Galeano Chena, director of the Senad's Forensic Laboratory, expressed concern about the fentanyl being used to enhance or cut more common recreational drugs. "We do not want a collapse similar to what happened last year in Argentina, where a precursor to fentanyl mixed with cocaine caused the death of 24 people," he explained.
Indeed, the most recent operations involving fentanyl sales from pharmacies underscore that the synthetic has begun to penetrate Paraguay’s illicit drug market.