A little over a year ago, doctors, nurses and pharmacists in Panama's public health care system began to notice a strange series of deaths and illnesses, mostly involving kidney failure. It wasn't until October that the Ministry of Health said anything to the public and declared an emergency. It turned out that the patients had been poisoned by cough syrup mixed in a government lab using Chinese-made diethylene glycol (DEG) that had been mislabeled as glycerin. DEG, commonly used as automotive antifreeze, is a deadly toxin. The material had been marked "TD glycerin" (imitation glycerin) by its Chinese manufacturer, was sold by a Chinese wholesaler to a Spanish wholesaler as medical grade glycerin, which sold it to a Panamanian wholesaler, which sold it to Seguro Social (CSS). After months in a warehouse, it was mixed into medicines at the CSS Medicine Lab near the University of Panama, which has since been closed. Somewhere along the chain of distribution, probably at multiple somewheres, the labels on the plastic jugs of DEG were switched to alter expiration dates and misrepresent the material as medical grade glycerin. Neither the CSS nor the wholesalers tested the stuff to verify that it was what it had been represented to be. The CSS not only didn't test the medicines it made for purity and safety, it didn't have the budget or equipment to do so.
When the government finally did call an emergency, it was a matter of about a week before, after a false start or two, experts from the US Centers for Disease Control identified the problem. It was found that some 20,000 bottles of DEG-laced sugar-free cough syrup had been distributed and the government called for people to turn them in and sent out investigators to visit patients who had been prescribed the medication and recover the material. Fewer than 3,000 of the bottles of tainted medicine were recovered.
China blamed Panamanian firms for passing off the industrial solvent for use in the medicines. A Chinese official said Panamanian firms doctored paperwork to mislabel the chemical's use and shelf life.
A senior official in Beijing, Wei Chuanzhong, said the chemical had been confusingly labelled as "TD glycerine" when Chinese companies sold it to Spanish firms. They then sold the product on to Panamanian firms.
He accused Panamanian traders of doctoring the records to show the product as medical glycerine which was then used in cough syrups and other medicines.
They also changed the shelf life of the already expired product from one year to four years, he said.
Whoever is at fault the results have been awful.
The official death toll --- those proven by forensic medical tests or conceded by the government to have been caused by DEG --- was set at 102. The government is holding the line at that number on the list of people who might get compensation.
Meanwhile, a group of Ngobe students at the University of Panama complained that in remote communities of the Ngobe-Bugle Comarca there were many deaths and illnesses that went unreported and uncounted because it's just not practical for many in that area of the country to make their way to a prosecutor's office. Investigators from the Public Ministry went out to the comarca and the prosecutors' list of suspected DEG deaths climbed over 600.
The families of many of the victims and some of the ailing survivors organized the Comite de Familiares por el Derecho a la Salud y la Vida (Relatives Committee for the Right to Health and Life). Not surprisingly these people wanted drastic action taken against those responsible for the injuries and deaths of their loved ones.
Then on July 19 members the presidential guard beat and kicked family members of those who had died from toxic cough syrup distributed by the government as well as some ailing survivors of the mass poisoning.
The following comes from the Panama News.
Fallout continues in beatings of protesting poison victims
On August 3 Minister of the Presidency Ubaldino Real announced that José Gómez, the director of the Institutional Protection Service (SPI) that guards the president, had been suspended for 30 day for "the lack of control of the SPI units" that beat and kicked diethylene glyclol (DEG) poisoning patients and relatives of those who died from the government-distributed toxin in a July 19 incident near the Palacio de las Garzas. Also suspended were a SPI agent who sprayed chemical mace on one protester and another who stomped on a demonstrator who had been knocked down. A SPI lieutenant who was shown on Telemetro news videos kicking protest leader Gabriel Pascual was not sanctioned. The Torrijos administration declined to say whether the three SPI members were suspended with or without pay.
Gómez, who was at the scene and in charge during the presidential guards' attack on the protesters, was originally put in charge of the investigation of the incident by President Torrijos, but after public protests a three-member commission, including two of Gómez's subordinates, was given the task of investigating.
The president himself has had no comment about the actions of his guards, and over the past year very little to say about the at least 102 and possibly more than 600 poisoning deaths caused by his administration's production and distribution of DEG-tainted medicines.
The Relatives Committee for the Right to Health and Life, the group that organized the July 19 protest, called the disciplinary measures a "mockery." Across the spectrum of opposition groups, from left to right, similar opinions were issued. The labor/left FRENADESO umbrella group, referring to General Noriegas' infamous riot squad, called the SPI "the same Dobermans as always" and accused the investigators of covering up a second beating of protester Ransés García while he was in custody. Law professor Miguel Antonio Bernal said that the violence presages the Torrijos administration's intention to move Panama in the direction of becoming a police state. Former President Guillermo Endara accused the current administration of trying to insult Panamanians' intelligence.
The videos of the beating were widely seen on television. The network that recorded the incident, Telemetro, is part of the MEDCOM conglomerate and politically aligned with the PRD. However, there is a power struggle brewing within the ruling party over the 2009 presidential nomination and MEDCOM is run by relatives of former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares, whose quest for another term as president is opposed by Martín Torrijos. Thus the network, which is normally not very subtle about its partisan allegiances, apparently put family and faction before party in its decision to air the damaging videos.