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Salvadoran Officials Draw Fire for Deaths From Tainted Liquor

October 28, 2000|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN SALVADOR — After two weeks, the deaths have finally stopped.

Rows of caskets no longer fill the front pages. The evening news does not begin with a new, higher body count.

After two weeks, the toll reached 129 people, enough to have provoked public outrage had the victims died from eating poisoned tuna or impure milk.

But the writhing and cramps that accompanied their final hours was caused by methyl alcohol illegally added to 57-cent half-pints of Trueno, or "thunder," the drink of Salvadorans who pick their booze for effect rather than flavor.

"The social level of the victims has been a factor in the lack of attention these incidents have received in relation to the dimensions of the problem," said political analyst Roberto Turcios. "These people died not from drinking alcohol but from drinking adulterated alcohol that was sold with impunity."

The victims' bodies were found along abandoned railroad tracks and on the sidewalks outside hospital emergency rooms in five of El Salvador's most impoverished provinces.

In the hamlet of San Martin El Escobal, death waited for Dionisia Gonzalez, a 42-year-old mother of two boys, who drank the poisoned sugar-cane-based liquor at the end of a seven-month binge.

The day she died, reporters spoke with her neighbor, Alberto Rosa Monge, as he drank a bottle of Trueno outside a village store. He laughed and toasted a photographer who asked if the poisoning worried him. Monge died the next day.

A week into the epidemic, when 111 deaths from alcohol poisoning had been reported, Health Vice Minister Herbert Betancourt charged that whoever was distributing the methyl-tainted booze was killing people on purpose. Following so much publicity, he reasoned, it could no longer be a mistake.

After two weeks, only a few poor women who sold liquor from their shanties had been arrested.

"Even though more than 100 people have died from poisoned alcohol and the geographical distribution of the deaths indicates that this product was widely marketed, there are still no concrete results in the investigation nor any major suspects brought to justice," noted an editorial last week in the respected La Prensa Grafica newspaper.

Juan Carlos Fuentes, the district attorney for the province of San Vicente, where the first deaths occurred, laid the blame squarely on the national government. "The Health Ministry and the legislators . . . are responsible for controlling this product, and the government is responsible for what has happened," he indignantly told reporters.

When he began to investigate the first deaths and asked the Health Ministry for records on the distribution of alcohol, Fuentes said, officials there did not even know that they were responsible for keeping track of it. A Health Ministry lawyer replied that the Environmental Ministry has jurisdiction over dangerous substances.

The Legislative Assembly argued for three days before passing a law making it illegal to sell liquor in unlicensed stores--for a period of 10 days. Measures that would have regulated the importation of methyl alcohol, an industrial product, or permanently controlled the retail sale of liquor were not included in the finished version of the law.

"It is frightening that a massive poisoning by methyl alcohol [can occur and] law enforcement authorities cannot, so far, find the origin or arrest those responsible," noted an editorial in the conservative newspaper El Diario de Hoy. "If this is occurring now with alcohol, only God knows what other food or medicine can be adulterated in the future."

After two weeks, President Francisco Flores announced Tuesday that the investigators have found the trail that will lead to the guilty parties. "Prosecutors and police are ready to reveal what happened," he promised, by early next week.

Turcios remained skeptical. "The way things have gone so far," he said, "it is difficult to believe that the case will be solved."

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