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Four more charged in the poisoned medicines affair
by Eric Jackson, partly from other media
On November 16 prosecutors charged two lab technicians, the head of the now closed Seguro Social medicine production lab and the lab's quality control director with homicide in the poisoned medicines case, which has now claimed at least 43 lives. The four were summarily fired by Seguro Social director René Luciani, but some or all of those firings may be challenged before labor tribunals or civil courts.
The following morning the president of the company that imported the material that went into the cough syrups and other medications was arrested, after several weeks on the run. He reportedly admitted in an interview with La Prensa that he had altered the expiration date tickets on the glycerine barrels, but claimed that this is a common practice and had nothing to do with the deaths. Two others connected with his company, MEDICOM SA, also face criminal charges. One was a "paper director" who had nothing to do with running the company and makes her living by running a small fonda, and the other was the attorney who did the paperwork for the company's incorporation but likewise did not participate in its operations.
That adds up to seven people facing charges in the case, but the investigation is continuing and prosecutors say there may be more charges. There is also a growing avalanche of civil litigation, including lawsuits by the families of the victims and a suit by MEDICOM against its Spanish glycerine wholesaler.
The latest set of criminal charges has brought complaints from Seguro Social unions that low-level scapegoats have been selected to be punished for serious management problems, and the voices calling for the removal of Health Minister Camilo Alleyne and Seguro Social director René Luciani are if anything getting louder. Documents have surfaced indicating that the top health authorities knew at least by early September that there was an unexplained rash of deaths, yet this information was withheld from the public until early October and by all appearances this cover-up was one of the causes of several of the deaths.
On November 16 traffic snarled throughout Panama City when patients suffering from chronic illnesses blocked the Transistmica to demand regular supplies of their prescribed medications. A lot of times patients with kidney problems, high blood pressure, hemophilia or AIDS are told that the drugs they need are unavailable and given unprescribed substitutes or sent away from the Seguro Social pharmacies empty-handed.
Toward the end of Thursday's work day, workers from Seguro Social joined the protest to support the patients' demand and also to show their opposition to the charges against four of their colleagues.
An extra aggravating factor for Seguro Social workers was the publication in El Panama America of a story about how one of the lab technicians accused suffers from bipolar depression and was hospitalized for it. Somebody released the man's medical records to the press and Social Segurity Fund Employees Association leader Priscilla Vásquez told The Panama News that it might have been someone in Seguro Social management who violated the confidentiality of medical records.
In Panama in recent decades, largely because the justice system is notoriously prone to influence peddling and bribery, high-profile court cases tend to be fought in the press. Both the Seguro Social management and lawyers for those who have been accused are fighting publicity wars in this affair, and various news media, for reasons of partisan affiliation or competition for scoops in a sensational continuing story, are playing up some of the conflicting claims and not always very clearly indicating the sources and self-serving nature of some of what is reported.
For example, while it has been reported the glycerin barrels tainted with diethylene glycol (DEG) contained a mixture that contained a little under one-quarter of the deadly toxin, MEDICOM claimed that its tests showed that the problem barrels were pure DEG and La Prensa ran a headline alleging that and only down into the story did it identify the company as its source. Why would that matter? Because according to one version, that there was a mixture of chemicals in the toxic barrels, there would be the natural suggestion that glycerin had decomposed because of being stored too long or under improper conditions, which in turn might turn the inquiry toward Seguro Social management practices. However, if the toxic barrels contained pure DEG, then the natural suggestion is that somebody along the line of distribution mislabeled poison, in which case it was a mistake by a supplier complicated by the failure of various persons and agencies to detect the switch. It would still look bad for Seguro Social management and MEDICOM, but they could both argue that they were sold a bad batch of chemicals rather than having caused a usable lot of glycerin to go bad because of their negligent or dishonest practices.
Meanwhile El Panama America has reported, based on a claim by the jailed former head of quality control at the Seguro Social medicine production lab, that the institution never had the proper equipment to test the materials put into medicines in the first place, and that René Luciani and his predecessors were aware of this deficiency but did nothing to rectify the situation.
In an effort to put the affair behind him, President Torrijos has declared the medicine production lab permanently closed, proposed a reorganization that will take the medicine testing lab --- which was not involved in this situation, although by law Seguro Social should have had its medicines tested and certified there even though they were not --- away from the University of Panama and placed under the central government. He has also appointed a committee of physicians and private health care facility owners to come up with a plan for a complete reorganization of the public health system, and named Partido Popular apparatchik and former national ombudsman Juan Antonio Tejada to represent the families of the victims.
The victims' relatives, however, have organized on their own as the Patients Committee for the Right to Life and Health, are demanding Luciani's ouster and don't accept Tejada as their representative. To get around those objections of paternalism and conflict of interest, the Torrijos administration has created a "rival group" led by a Public Ministry employee who also happens to be the niece of current corrections director and former Noriega G-2 officer Carlos Landero. The PRD-aligned media are treating this as a split among the families of the victims but have yet to show that there is actually any support among those affected for this purported organization.
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