Update: El Salvador, 119 Deaths Blamed on Alcohol

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Nando Times

Alcohol blamed for 119 deaths in El Salvador

By MARCOS ALEMAN, Associated Press

SAN VICENTE, El Salvador (October 20, 2000 2:46 p.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com) - Antonio Lopez Maldonado thanks God he is merely blind: The liquor that took his sight has killed 119 people across El Salvador in the last three weeks, dozens in San Vicente alone.

"It was only one drink, a drink of that cursed firewater," Lopez, 51, said from his hospital bed Thursday, rubbing his eyes with his hands. "Every day I hope to see the light when I wake up, but everything is black. Today the doctor told me I will never see again. The cursed firewater left me this way."

In this community of 60,000 people, 40 people died and 27 were, for a time, gravely ill. Lopez is one of two left blind.

The federal prosecutor's office says alcoholic drinks laced with methyl alcohol are to blame.

All the victims drank either an alcohol sold in small shops and used to spike juice or a cane-sugar alcohol known as "Trueno" - Spanish for "Thunder." Both are common here. But in recent weeks, some have contained methyl alcohol, officials say.

Regional prosecutor Juan Carlos Fuentes Real said authorities are still investigating how the methyl alcohol got into the drinks. Tests of Trueno at the factory and in shops did not turn up adulterated products.

The results have been tragic.

Most of the 119 people who have died across the nation were farmers or poor city dwellers. And many Salvadorans suspect the toll was higher, because some deaths are not carefully recorded.

"They say ... some died in the street, others died in their homes. They are so poor that they had no money to be taken to the hospital," said Napoleon Vigil, director of San Vicente's Santa Gertrudis hospital, where 35 people have died.

In his hospital room, Lopez sat beside Jose Roberto Ruiz, 35, the other man left blinded by the liquor.

"A friend gave it to me," said Lopez, who has five children. "I'm not used to drinking but I was tired. I thought it would pick me up, and it almost killed me."

Ruiz said he had purchased 90-proof alcohol at a pharmacy.

"I mixed it with water and took a drink and that left me blind," he said. "It was only a little ... but when I drank it, it felt oily and soapy. I slept, and I haven't seen the sun since."

Local officials have tried to ban the sale of Trueno, but the drink has long been popular because a bottle costs only about 80 cents.

On Friday, the national congress enacted a 10-day ban on the sale of liquor containing more than 25 percent alcohol. Police have raided more than 100 shops and seized their bottles.

Those who violate the sales ban face fines ranging from $1,150 to $57,471.

-- Rachel Gibson (rgibson@hotmail.com), October 20, 2000

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