Six liquor brands have flooded the Costa Rica market for alcoholic beverages for just over eight years and, with very low prices, became an attraction for chronic alcoholics

The pachas (pints) liquors that the Ministry of Health indicates as contaminated can be purchased at prices below ¢1,000 (less than YS$2) This batch of bottles in the photos was seized on Thursday by the Municipal Police of San José. Photo: Albert Marín / La Nacion

Initially, these spirits were manufactured and packaged legally, but over time, consumers began to doubt the quality, as it was discovered that at least 13 criminal groups falsify the brands and, without Health controls, sell products mixed with methanol, an industrial alcohol whose consumption can be deadly.

In fact, at least 19 people have died across the country after they consumed the tainted alcohol. The Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud) has issued a national alert.

The victims are fourteen men and five women, between the ages of 32 and 72 since the beginning of June, almost all victims having problems of high alcohol consumption and are poor.

A pint (365 ml) popularly called “Pacha” in Spanish can be obtained in the streets of Costa Rica for less than ¢1,000 (US$1.70).

Seven of deceased are from San José, four from Cartago, three from Limón, two from Guanacaste, one from Heredia and two are pending investigation.

The suspicion arises because, in the process to distill alcoholic beverages, two products interact: ethanol (which is the base of liquors) and methanol, a chemical substance that is generally used as a solvent and in refrigeration systems.

Subsequently, ethanol is processed to extract the different types of liquor. In this transformation, there should be no methanol residues. Ingesting methanol can result in headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and even death.

The Policía de Control Fiscal (PCF) del Ministerio de Hacienda y la Policía Municipal de San José says that so far 29,943 bottles of potentially tainted alcohol have been confiscated.

So far, it is unknown where the adulterated guaro was manufactured.

Samples from six brands including Guaro Montano, Guaro Gran Apache, Aguardiente Estrella, Aguardiente Barón Rojo, Aguardiente Timbuka and Molotov Aguardiente, tested positive for methanol adulteration, promoting Health officials to call on people not buy or consume those brands.

Photos from the Ministry of Health bulletin.

Because the brands are registered with the Ministry of Health, officials suspect that products circulating in the national market are counterfeit. However, there is the impossibility of distinguishing between originals and adulterated products.

Dr. Donald Corella Elizondo, head of emergency services at Hospital Calderón Guardia in San Jose, told La Nacion on Saturday, some of the alcohol tested contained between 30 to 50 percent methanol.

The doctor added that while four people at the hospital survived, they sustained “very serious after-effects” ranging from irreversible total blindness to brain lesions that cause tremors similar to Parkinson’s disease.

For his part, Costa Rica President Carlos Alvarado said on Twitter he “deeply regrets” the lives that have lost and has instructed the Ministry of Health and other authorities to collect all possible data to establish responsibilities.

The Ministry of Health is asking people, besides not to consume, buy or sell the above products, to report immediately by email denuncias.drpis@misalud.go.cr if you or someone you know shows symptoms of methanol poisoning with the guaro and to also report establishments or persons and companies suspected of marketing adulterated guaro.

People or companies selling the adulterated liquor may be subject to various civil or criminal penalties.

Evading justice

For more than eight years, the Policía de Control Fiscal (PCF) reported the presence of organizations dedicated to smuggling and counterfeiting of liquor that, in principle, were defrauding the treasury and, at the same time, put at risk the health of people, because There was guarantee of the quality of the guaro.

Irving Malespín, director of the PCF, said that at least 13 criminal organizations were identified during this period, some of which have been raided twice.

Malesping added that during the raids, sufficient evidence was found to presume that they were committing a crime and the complaint was presented to the judicial authorities, but he did not know what happened with the cases.

The police chief explained that the raided bands have a simple way of operating. They import ethanol illegally, then, in homemade plants, dilute it with water to make the guaro and, later, they sell it in stores.

The entry of ethanol to manufacture alcoholic beverages is restricted in the country since the Fábrica Nacional de Licores (Fanal) – National Liquor Factory (Fanal) – has a monopoly.

The concern of the PCF was tax fraud. Only now that there have been numerous deaths has the problem elevated to more than just about money.

Malespin told La Nacion that he regretted that, at this moment, consumers are dying and “For the last five years, I’ve been saying it, we do not want to mourn Costa Ricans for the consumption of adulterated alcohol, but there are already 19.”

Toxic

“Methanol is extremely poisonous. As little as 2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) can be deadly to a child. About 2 to 8 ounces (60 to 240 milliliters) can be deadly for an adult. Blindness is common and often permanent despite medical care. Intake of methanol affects multiple organs. Organ damage may be permanent. How well the person does depends on how much poison is swallowed and how soon treatment is received,” says Medicine Plus.

Methanol poisoning symptoms include blurred vision, blindness, breathing difficulties or “no breathing,” low blood pressure, confusion, dizziness, seizures, coma, bloody vomiting, and other adverse symptoms, the website says.

In recent yeas, there have been a number of methanol poisoning outbreaks around the world, according to the U.N. World Health Organization.