At least 20 people have died in Argentina after consuming cocaine suspected of containing a poisonous substance and almost 50 other individuals have been hospitalized, local government officials said on Thursday.
The cases are clustered around several towns in Buenos Aires province, the country's most populous and home to many suburbs of the national capital.
The officials said they believed some of the victims suffered from opioid intoxication, a statement from the province's health ministry released on Wednesday said.
"Currently there are 49 people hospitalized, of which 21 are receiving mechanical respiratory assistance in hospitals in San Martin, Tres de Febrero, Tigre, General Rodriguez, Moreno, Moron, Ituzaingo, Hurlingham, San Isidro and Vicente Lopez," a provincial government source said.
Marcelo Lapargo, San Martin's attorney general, is in charge of the investigation. In a television interview with C5N on Thursday he said they were waiting for the results of the toxicological studies to determine the contents of the drug and that 10 people had been arrested, of which six were detained.
"It could be a conflict between rival gangs. I don't tend to believe that it was something unintentional ... I'm extremely concerned for people who still have this in their pockets and may still consume it," Lapargo said.
Some local media outlets reported that the cocaine had been "cut" with a toxic substance, possibly by a drug gang looking to reduce costs amid a turf war with rival groups.
On Wednesday, the Buenos Aires health ministry declared an epidemiological alert and reinforced the distribution of medicines for the treatment of patients in hospitals.
Maria, a relative of one of the victims, said in a television interview: "He is in serious condition. They just gave us the medical report and he is in serious condition. They used drugs with rat poison they bought."
Investigators said they still do not know what the cocaine was contaminated with. Reuters could not independently verify the claim that the substance was rat poison.