15, Number 15
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Families of DEG poisoning victims block Via España. Archive photo by FRENADESO
Prosecutor admits cough syrup killed many more than government admits
by Eric Jackson
Word from the protest groups, and from remote communities in the indigenous comarcas, has long been that many more people than the 125 or so whom the government admits died from the cough syrup tainted with toxic diethylene glycol (DEG) that was mixed at the old Seguro Social medicine lab. The Torrijos administration's ploy was fairly obvious --- they denied funds for the Institute for Legal Medicine to do toxicology tests on the remains of alleged victims until they were too decomposed to get a certain positive result, and then declared that any case not documented by an absolutely positive toxicology test result never happened.
The main organization of family members of those who died and people who were poisoned but survive, the Comite de Familiares de las Victimas, has put the death toll at 760.
The prosecutors limited their scrutiny, and the government limited compensation to, those cases positively identified by toxicologists' tests. The prosecutors also protected key Torrijos administration officials, spuriously pressed charges against the Seguro Social directors from the Moscoso administration, and refused to look into the information control game that the Torrijos government played, wherein word that something was terribly amiss was suppressed and thus the rash of poisonings was extended. Plus, the prosecutors pleaded corporate secrecy to protect the owners of an import company that sold the DEG, mislabeled as glycerine, to the Social Security Fund. (On the street, the rumors have long held that the company is owned by a relative of one of the top PRD leaders --- but because of the country's corporate secrecy and banking secrecy laws nobody ever went after the owners.)
A pared down case against some lower level functionaries designated to take the fall went to court, was appealed to on high, and the Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutors had done an incomplete job and must gather more evidence against more aspects and more potential defendants in the case. They sent the file back to the Public Ministry for further proceedings.
But what to do, if the lab tests were sabotaged by denial of funding? Although the former president may have thought he had effectively put the genie in the bottle, there are other sorts of proofs that can be made. For example, a person suddenly gets sick and dies, witnesses describe the symptoms (which match DEG poisoning) and the flask of tainted cough syrup which the person was using just before getting sick is produced. That's a fairly good set of circumstantial proofs that the person died from ingesting DEG-laced cough syrup, but the Public Ministry heard lots of those cases and rejected them --- until now.
So how many new cases does that add to the file? Prosecutor Dimas Guevara estimates that there may be as many as 1,155 so-far unacknowledged victims. To put the historic scope of the tragedy in perspective, slightly fewer than 700 people are known to have died in the 1989 US invasion.
The country thus faces, at the very least, evidence that suggests the cover-up of hundreds of negligent homicides. However, we still don't know if there will be an investigation of, let alone a prosecution of, those who appear to be responsible for the cover-up.
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