Theft of Critical Medical Equipment Surges in Latin America

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Thefts of tests, ventilators and personal protective equipment have shot up across Latin America amid the coronavirus pandemic, threatening lives and taxing governments that already face shortages of critical medical supples. 

The most striking case came on April 8 when 15,000 coronavirus diagnostic tests and more than two million personal protective items — including goggles, gloves, hand sanitizer and face masks — were stolen from a cargo terminal at São Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport in Brazil.

Three days later, the pilfered tests and equipment were recovered and 14 people were arrested in connection to the theft during a raid in the neighborhood of Ipiranga in the south of the city, according to a police statement.

In Mexico, thieves made off with a truck carrying 200 kilograms of antibacterial gel in 12 plastic tanks. The Attorney General’s Office announced on April 14 that the truck had been recovered through satellite tracking, which provided authorities with its location in the central State of Mexico.

The same day, Mexican authorities also reported the theft of ventilators from facilities belonging to the Mexican Institute of Social Security Institute (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social – IMSS) in the southern state of Oaxaca. Hospitals worldwide are in desperate need of the breathing machines, which are needed for patients with Covid-19, the respiratory ailment caused by the coronavirus that can be deadly in some patients.

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And hospitals are also facing a critical shortage of N95 masks, which are needed for medical workers because they block airborne particles including pathogens. In San Pedro Sula, Omar Janania, director of the Honduran Social Security Institute (Instituto Hondureños de Seguridad Social – IHSS) told the press on April 13 about the theft of over 300 N95 safety masks along with various P-100 protection filters.

That same week, Peru’s Health Minister Víctor Zamora denounced the “systematic theft” of personal protective equipment and rapid testing supplies from hospitals across Peru to be sold on the black market. 

Similar cases have also been reported in CubaVenezuela and Chile, among others.

InSight Crime Analysis

While such crimes of opportunity during the coronavirus pandemic are not exclusive to Latin America, fears of contagion have led to a spike in demand for medical supplies, no matter their provenance. 

The thieves in São Paulo were reportedly getting ready to sell the stolen protective equipment when they were arrested.

Poor sanitary conditions have only exacerbated the desperation. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, access to running water and basic sanitation in poorer neighborhoods is a real concern, preventing people from following the most basic coronavirus prevention methods, such as frequently washing their hands. 

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Online black markets have also popped up. In Mexico, the National Guard is reportedly monitoring around 200 websites claiming to sell masks, antibacterial gel and even coronavirus tests, all without any certification, El Heraldo reported.

Theft of medical supplies is nothing new in Latin America, especially in Mexico, where a shocking amount of medicine and equipment circulates on the black market. And social security agencies, which regulate the distribution of healthcare supplies, have been at the very center of complex corruption cases. Lax controls of supply chains also allow for medical supplies to be easily diverted by contractors and staff.

Janania, director of the Honduran Social Security Institute, said that when loads of protective equipment are delivered to hospitals, items are already missing once they are opened up.

With Latin America already suffering the consequences of the international bidding war for ventilators and masks, medical staff are left in the lurch, often buying equipment themselves or improvising their own.

“We are going to have a shortage of supplies, and if we do not manage them properly, we are going to be exposed,” Janania said.

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