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31 pharmacies in Mexico are shut as authorities crack down on fentanyl-tainted pills

A drug store in Playa del Carmen advertises a range of medications.
A drug store in Playa del Carmen advertises a range of medications. Authorities have raided pharmacies in at least three Mexican states this year.
(Connor Sheets / Los Angeles Times)
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Mexican authorities raided dozens of pharmacies in Ensenada and seized thousands of boxes of pills as part of a broader effort to crack down on drugstores suspected of selling counterfeit and fentanyl-tainted medications.

The joint effort by the Mexican navy and federal health authorities is at least the third such operation this year; over the spring and summer, local and federal agencies conducted similar raids in Los Cabos and the Yucatán Peninsula. Though the searches in Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo led to four arrests, it’s unclear whether anyone was arrested this time. Neither the navy nor the health officials responded to requests for comment.

The raids follow a months-long investigation by the Los Angeles Times, which found that pharmacies in border towns and vacation destinations across the country have been passing off powerful drugs — including fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine — as legitimate medications commonly sought by American tourists.

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Dubbed Operation Albatros II, the recent raids targeted 53 pharmacies in the Baja California port city roughly 50 miles south of Tijuana, according to statements issued Friday by the navy and federal health agency. Thirty-one of the pharmacies were shut down due to a variety of irregularities, including selling pills officials said were probably laced with fentanyl. The raids netted 4,681 boxes of medicine, including items sold as hydrocodone and alprazolam — better known in the United States by the brand name Xanax.

New testing by Times reporters has revealed that some pharmacies in cities across Mexico sell counterfeit medication tainted with fentanyl and methamphetamine.

June 14, 2023

A statement posted online by the navy and federal health agency emphasized officials’ commitment to protecting the population “against establishments that fail to comply with current regulations” and to preventing “the irregular marketing of controlled medications, the consumption of which without proper medical supervision endangers the health and life of those who use them.”

Authorities did not say exactly when the raids took place, but on Friday the federal health agency posted several photos on Facebook showing large signs reading “Suspensión” posted outside one store and below the counter of another. Other images showed boxes and bottles of pills.

Unlike in the prior rounds of raids — after which authorities did not release the exact names and locations of the pharmacies they targeted — officials posted a detailed list of the places they visited, what they found and how much the items cost. Aside from seizing controlled medications, officials also seized Viagra tablets in bulk, food supplements that didn’t have the proper health registration, boxes of expired and unlabeled medications, a shelf with “raw materials” and a black bag containing tablets with no label.

Strips of tape are spread across shelves.
Health officials seized boxes of unlabeled medication, as well as controlled medications and raw materials during a series of raids on pharmacies in Ensenada in late 2023.
(COFEPRIS)
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Local news outlets reported that the operation began the night of Nov. 27 and led to pushback from pharmacy owners, who said it was initially unclear why they were being closed and how they could correct mistakes.

“It is affecting us too much, this has never happened to us in 50 years, in our case we have three pharmacies closed with 20 families without work,” pharmacy owner Enrique Araiza told one news outlet.

Los Angeles health officials caution travelers against purchasing prescriptions over-the-counter in Mexico.

June 20, 2023

The news releases by the navy and health officials Friday did not explain how authorities selected the pharmacies they targeted. As with the earlier raids in the Yucatán Peninsula, officials cited “citizen complaints” as the impetus for the operation.

After the June crackdown in Los Cabos, a delegate of the attorney general’s office in Baja California Sur told The Times the four-day series of raids was spurred by local news reports, which were largely based on the Times reporting and work by a team of UCLA researchers.

Chelsea Shover, one of the researchers who published a study documenting the problem of counterfeit pills in Mexico this year, welcomed news of the raid.

“This is an encouraging step,” she said Saturday. “Stopping pharmacies from selling counterfeit pills that may contain fentanyl will likely save lives.”

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Drugstores in Mexico have long sold an array of medications over the counter, including many that would require prescriptions in the U.S. Though tainted pills have been a known problem on the black market for some time, until recently many drug experts generally believed that pills sold in brick-and-mortar stores were at least what the labels said they were.

In early 2023, Times reporters purchased and tested pills from pharmacies in Tijuana, San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. In each city, some of the medications sold as either oxycodone or Adderall tested positive for fentanyl or methamphetamine. The UCLA team recorded its findings around the same time.

In June, The Times published a broader investigation documenting the problem across the country — including in Tulum and Playa del Carmen, two of the three cities in the state of Quintana Roo that authorities later targeted in the first Operation Albatross.

Of the 55 pills Times reporters purchased nationwide, more than half were fake. More than a third of the purported painkillers were actually fentanyl, and 80% of the Adderall samples contained either methamphetamine or, in one case, MDMA, a stimulant commonly known as ecstasy.

The Times also identified at least half a dozen Americans who overdosed or died after taking pills purchased from pharmacies in cities across Mexico.

A U.S. Senate appropriations proposal could force the State Department to release data about overdoses linked to fentanyl-tainted pills sold by Mexican pharmacies.

Nov. 2, 2023

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In the months since the Times’ investigation began, authorities in the U.S. have begun taking action. The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory in March warning American tourists about the dangers of buying medications from drugstores in Mexico.

In June, Los Angeles County health officials cited the reporting in their own advisory.

“The safest course of action is to avoid using pills from any sources besides those that come from an FDA-licensed pharmacy or are prescribed by your healthcare provider,” the county health department said in a news release at the time.

This year, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) added language to a Senate appropriations proposal that would force the State Department to take further action, including revealing key information about deaths from pills containing fentanyl purchased from Mexican pharmacies.

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