At least 70 people have died across Mexico since late April after drinking tainted alcohol, including at least 20 residents of a poor mountain town in the central state Puebla who consumed a cheap, popular moonshine.
Mexican officials said the spate of deaths, coming as the nation struggles to contend with the coronavirus pandemic, might be related to the imposition of dry laws and other measures meant to combat the spread of the virus.
As the outbreak has worsened in Mexico, some local and state governments have banned the sale of alcohol to discourage people from gathering in groups or having parties, activities that could further spread the virus.
In addition, the federal government has declared breweries as nonessential businesses, forcing them to shut down and leading to widespread beer shortages.
These restrictions, officials say, may have driven more people than usual to buy alcohol on the black market.
“It’s possible to begin to speculate that with a smaller supply of regulated alcohol, there’s a larger supply of unregulated alcohol,” said Gady Zabicky Sirot, director of the National Commission Against Addictions in Mexico.
The country has a robust illegal trade in alcoholic beverages that has either been unlawfully adulterated or produced under unregulated conditions, and people in Mexico occasionally become ill, with some dying, from drinking tainted alcohol.
“This is something that happens more or less periodically,” Mr Zabicky said.
The US State Department warns travellers heading to Mexico to be alert to the possibility of inadvertently consuming illegal alcohol. “There have been reports of individuals falling ill or blacking out after consuming unregulated alcohol,” the advisory says.
But the surge of alcohol-related deaths in the past two weeks is unusually high.
One of the hardest-hit places has been the mountain town Chiconcuautla in the state Puebla. For weeks, the town had kept the coronavirus at bay, with no confirmed cases among its residents, many of whom work in the surrounding fields growing coffee, chillis and tomatoes.
But a deathly scourge of another sort arrived this week. Since Monday, 20 people, from a population of about 12,000, have died after drinking a cheap moonshine known as “refino”, officials said.
The most recent death occurred on Wednesday, said Eduardo Soto Velazquez, private secretary to the town’s mayor. All of the victims are thought to have consumed the tainted alcohol on Sunday, which was Mother’s Day in Mexico.
Refino has been around for years, Mr Soto said, and is especially popular because it is so cheap, costing between 40 and 60 cents per half litre.
“We’ve never had this problem,” he added. “This has been a very big blow for the town.”
A statewide order prohibiting the sale of alcohol in stores and other business has been in effect since mid-April, and the authorities in Chiconcuautla issued a plea on Tuesday to residents to steer clear of intoxicants because of the poisonings.
“We call on the population to avoid the sale and/or consumption of alcoholic beverages in the face of this unfortunate situation,” the authorities said in a statement posted on social media.
The deaths were among at least 35 fatalities reported this week in Puebla and in the adjacent state Morelos that were related to the consumption of tainted alcohol, according to the authorities.
At least 28 people died in the western state of Jalisco after drinking a cane alcohol known as “El Chorrito”, officials there said. Federal regulators said the product was contaminated with methanol, also known as wood alcohol.
Another seven people died in recent days in the state Yucatan on the Gulf of Mexico, after consuming adulterated alcohol, according to local news media.
The New York Times