At least 20 people have died and 74 more have been hospitalised in Buenos Aires Province after consuming cocaine cut with a toxic substance, possibly opioids, authorities said Wednesday.
Officials said they were working quickly to determine what the cocaine was mixed with and "remove it from circulation", warning those who bought the drug over the last 24 hours to dispose of it.
Buenos Aires Province Security Minister Sergio Berni described the additive as "a key ingredient that is attacking the central nervous system" while speaking to the Telefé television channel.
Beatríz Mercado told the AFP news agency she had found her 31-year-old son, one of the victims, lying face-down on the kitchen floor.
"He was almost not breathing, his eyes were rolling back," she said. She took him to the hospital, where he was on life support as of Wednesday evening. "I hope in God, nothing else. A miracle."
About 10 people were arrested after police raided a house in Puerta 8, a poor neighborhood of the Tres de Febrero district, where they believe the cocaine was sold.
Packets of cocaine similar to those described by the victims' families were seized. The drugs were taken to a laboratory in La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires Province, for analysis.
Authorities issued an urgent warning early Wednesday after three separate hospitals reported several deaths and serious cases of poisoning. Later in the day, eight hospitals were treating patients.
An initial toll of 12 deaths and 50 hospitalisations kept rising – with victims admitted to eight different hospitals, according to a Buenos Aires Province government spokesperson.
Several of those being treated told doctors they had taken cocaine together.
Early reports said victims suffered convulsions and sudden heart attacks.
Health authorities said at least four of the victims were men aged between 32 and 45.
"We are desperate, we want to know why one person is dying after another here," said María Morales, outside the hospital where her brother-in-law was being treated.
Berni's office said late in the day that emergency services were reporting new patients in "critical condition" being brought to hospitals.
His office said late Wednesday that emergency services were reporting new patients in "critical condition" being brought to hospital.
Authorities also believe there are cases of people who have died in public areas and at homes that have not yet been discovered.
The victims are mostly from districts of Hurlingham, Tres de Febrero and San Martín, according to police.
Cut with harmful substance?
Berni explained that "every dealer that buys cocaine cuts it. Some do it with non-toxic substances such as starch."
"Others put hallucinogens in it, and if there is no form of control, this kind of thing happens," he added.
“When we talk about bad cocaine, we are not talking about rotten or expired cocaine. Cocaine is bought inatits maximum purity and then in places like these they cut it, and they cut it with issues that are very toxic, "explained the official.
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He suggested that on this occasion, however, that the drug had been cut with a harmful substance as part of a "war between drug-traffickers."
But the San Martín public prosecutor, Marcelo Lapargo, told Radio Mitre that authorities' main concern "is to be able to communicate, so that those who are in possession of this poison know that they should not consume it."
Investigators fear the toll could rise, with some people who bought the cocaine unable to reach a care center in time.
Lapargo said that this case was "absolutely exceptional." He also said that the idea of a battle between drug-traffickers was "conjecture" at this point.
Investigators fear the toll could rise, with some people who bought the cocaine unable to reach a health centre in time.
Lapargo said that this case was "absolutely exceptional."
Police clashed briefly with residents in a part of Tres de Febrero who were protesting the arrest of local young people in the drug raid.