BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - At least 20 people died and 74 more were hospitalised in a Buenos Aires suburb after consuming cocaine cut with a toxic substance, possibly opioids, the Argentine authorities said on Wednesday (Feb 2).
Officials said they were working quickly to determine what the cocaine was mixed with, but warned those who bought the drug over the last 24 hours to dispose of it.
Mr Sergio Berni, security chief for Buenos Aires province, told television channel Telefe that the authorities were trying to locate the toxic substance "to remove it from circulation".
"There is a key ingredient that is attacking the central nervous system," Mr Berni said.
About 10 people were arrested after the police raided a house in the poor Tres de Febrero neighbourhood, where they believe the cocaine was sold.
Packets of cocaine similar to those described by the victims' families were seized.
The drugs were taken to a laboratory in La Plata, the capital of Buenos Aires province, for analysis.
The authorities issued an urgent warning early on Wednesday after three separate hospitals reported several deaths and serious cases of poisoning.
Several of those being treated told doctors that they had taken cocaine together.
Ms Beatriz Mercado told AFP that she had found her 31-year-old son, one of the victims, lying face-down on the kitchen floor.
"He was almost not breathing, his eyes were rolling back," she said.
She took him to the hospital, where he was on life support as at Wednesday evening.
"I hope in God, nothing else. A miracle."
An initial toll of 12 deaths and 50 hospitalisations kept rising, with victims admitted to eight different hospitals, a Buenos Aires province government spokesman told AFP.
Earlier reports said the victims suffered convulsions and sudden heart attacks.
The health authorities said at least four of the victims were men aged between 32 and 45.
Cut with harmful substance
Mr Berni's office said late in the day that emergency services were reporting new patients in "critical condition" being brought to hospitals.
He said: "Every dealer that buys cocaine cuts it. Some do it with non-toxic substances such as starch. Others put hallucinogens in it, and if there is no form of control, this kind of thing happens."
On this occasion, however, the drug was cut with a harmful substance as part of a "war between drug traffickers", Mr Berni added.
San Martin public prosecutor Marcelo Lapargo told Radio Mitre that the authorities' main concern "is to be able to communicate, so that those who are in possession of this poison know that they should not consume it".
Investigators fear the toll could rise, with some people who bought the cocaine unable to reach a care centre in time.
Mr Lapargo said that this case was "absolutely exceptional".
He added that the idea of a battle between drug traffickers was "conjecture" at this point.
The police clashed briefly with residents in a part of Tres de Febrero who were protesting the arrest of local young people in the drug raid.