Demand for Illegal Alcohol Claiming Hundreds of Lives Across Region

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A sizeable seizure of adulterated rum shipped to Honduras from Europe is only the latest example of how Latin America’s demand for black market liquor has exploded due to limits on sales during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the pandemic broke out, governments have introduced temporary dry laws and restrictions on the legal sale of alcohol to discourage social gatherings and parties.

However, such limits gave bootleggers a chance to expand their operations and cater to a growing number of consumers. Meanwhile, in other nations, moonshine merchants who have long smuggled alcoholic beverages across borders have adapted to the challenges coronavirus has presented.

Below, InSight Crime looks at six countries that have seen trade in illicit alcohol thrive during the pandemic.

Honduras

In recent weeks, Honduras has seen a spate of deaths directly linked to the consumption of adulterated guaro and a highly atypical seizure of falsified rum, suggesting the nation’s trade in clandestine alcohol has grown rapidly during the pandemic.

Last month, at least 15 people died after drinking adulterated liquor in the department of Cortés, according to the Ministry of Health. On October 31, El Heraldo reported deaths from alcohol poisoning in the country had risen to 23.

Authorities are currently searching for moonshine sellers in the area, and the government has launched its own investigation. Past cases suggest such operations are likely to be functioning at a highly localized level and on a relatively small scale.

Meanwhile, Juan José Vides, director of customs, recently told media outlets that authorities had seized 6,000 bottles of illicit rum that arrived in the country from Europe.

While localized bootlegging operations have long been present in Honduras, shipments of falsified alcohol reaching Latin America from Europe are rare.

Costa Rica

Earlier this year, parts of Costa Rica were operating under stringently enforced dry laws to limit the spread of coronavirus at social gatherings. The nation’s black market for alcohol rapidly responded to the crackdown.

Much of the illicit liquor consumed in the country is smuggled in overland from Panama, where taxes on alcoholic beverages are significantly lower.

Often, small-scale groups that deal in contraband source foreign alternatives to Costa Rica’s highly taxed alcoholic beverages, seeking to recruit or bribe officials in the smuggling process. Such operations have continued in the midst of the pandemic.

SEE ALSO: Six Ways Coronavirus is Impacting Organized Crime in the Americas

In September, the Attorney General’s Office announced it had disbanded a wide-reaching network that focused on smuggling contraband alcohol into the nation from Panama in a series of 12 raids, where a total of 31 arrests were made. It was revealed the group had recruited 20 police officers to help them circumvent checkpoints.

A report from the Transnational Alliance to Combat Illicit Commerce (Alianza Transnacional para Combatir el Comercio Ilícito – TRACIT) published earlier this year suggested Costa Rican authorities should enhance controls in “blind spots” and more stringently question unusually large purchases of alcohol in such zones.

However, increased travel difficulties in the midst of coronavirus seem to have pushed some groups to focus on localized bootlegging operations, where lethal methanol has been used to dilute liquor.

In October, Costa Rica saw approximately 30 deaths associated with the consumption of presumably adulterated beverages, according to the nation’s Ministry of Health. This followed the announcement of 19 deaths linked to alcohol poisoning back in July.

Mexico

Mexico has seen its black market for alcohol expand significantly in the midst of the pandemic after limits were placed on legal sales. It has been one of the worst affected countries in terms of deaths linked to moonshine consumption in months past.

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, at the height of the pandemic’s initial wave.

InSight Crime reported on how restrictive legislation on the retail of alcohol had been stoking the nation’s already large black market for such goods.

In 2018, Euromonitor International revealed that approximately 42.5 percent of total alcohol sales in Mexico came from illegal sources, making it the largest illicit alcohol market in Latin America by volume.

Earlier this year, the states of JaliscoPuebla, Michoacán and Yucatán each reported numerous fatalities linked to the consumption of presumably adulterated beverages in the midst of restrictions on legal trade.

In response, authorities have attempted to impede illicit operations, most notably seizing 7,000 bottles of clandestine whiskey and arresting four at a warehouse in Morelos last June.

Esteban Giudici, a policy advisor at TRACIT told EFE that it had been decades since intoxications of this magnitude were last recorded in Mexico.

Dominican Republic

Prior to the pandemic, the Dominican Republic already had a well-established black market for alcohol, which has been linked to deaths of tourists in previous years.

Findings from a 2018 report by Euromonitor International found that nearly a third of all alcohol consumed in the Dominican Republic came from clandestine sources.

On June 24, the Ministry of Public Health confirmed that over 200 people had died in the country since the start of April, all after having consumed presumably adulterated beverages. In April, just a month after the nation’s first coronavirus cases were confirmed, EFE reported that more than 30 people had died from alcohol poisoning in the space of a week.

SEE ALSO: Alcohol Smuggling: A Hangover for Latin America?

The nation’s health ministry directly linked such deaths to an already thriving black market for moonshine.

Adulterated liquor has been traditionally consumed by impoverished citizens residing in the nation’s capital and those living close to its border with Haiti due to comparatively lower retail prices of such beverages. However, some of those who were intoxicated by contaminated clerén back in April and May had reportedly believed it would stave off coronavirus.

Panama

While Panama does not appear to have seen dramatic growth in its black market for liquor during the pandemic, localized operations have continued to facilitate the smuggling of contraband alcohol into Costa Rica.

Officials in Panama seized just under 20 bottles full of illicit liquor in a string of interceptions across Colón back in July.

Panama saw one of the region’s strictest dry laws enacted to combat the spread of coronavirus, with complete prohibition on alcohol sales from the end of March to May and further restrictions still in place until June.

This disrupted the smuggling activities of contraband merchants that take advantage of the nation’s relatively low taxes on liquor. Giudici told EFE that illicit alcohol dealers in the nation often use legal channels to carry out their activities. The expert added that when legal retail became impossible, the local production took off.

Following the repeal of restrictions, the nation’s black market for alcohol has continued to thrive. In July, customs officials continued to see contraband liquor, seizing just under 20 boxes worth of illicit alcohol in separate operations across the province of Colón.

Peru

Peru continues to operate under a “state of emergency” designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Localized restrictions on the sale of alcohol remain in place and the nation’s black market for liquor continues to take advantage of such limits.

Last month, RPP Noticias reported that authorities had seized 150 boxes filled with bottles of rum and vodka from a van in the municipality of Tumbes, in accordance with a mayoral decree prohibiting the sale of such beverages during the nation’s state of emergency, which is scheduled to last until at least November 30.

Reports suggest the boxes were being illicitly distributed by the Cartavio Rum Company — a legally-registered liquor producer operating in Peru.

While legal enterprises ranging from liquor producers to supermarkets have sought to skirt  localized restrictions on alcohol sales, bootleggers have also found opportunity for black market sales. 

Black market operations have thrived under Peru’s state of emergency, with authorities seizing industrial drums containing over 1,500 liters of presumably adulterated alcohol in this June raid.In June, Peru’s National Police announced the seizure of industrial drums containing over 1,500 liters of alcohol along with nearly 500 bottles of presumably adulterated beverages in the district of Huachipa, Lima. This was just example of widespread localized bootlegging operations that have thrived under the nation’s state of emergency.

Similar to the Dominican Republic, illicit merchants have profited from the idea that certain alcoholic beverages “prevent” coronavirus.

In April, authorities announced at least 16 people had died in the town of Lircay, after having consumed adulterated beverages purchased from a “questionable” establishment. EFE later reported that related deaths had risen to 21, adding that such intoxications occurred under the guise that the consumption of liquor could defend against coronavirus.

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