MEXICO CITY — Numerous pharmacies were shut down in the Mexican tourist strip of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum for allegedly selling dangerous bootleg pills, mostly to foreigners without prescriptions.
The crackdown, dubbed “Operation Albatross” by Mexican authorities, came on the heels of a series of investigations that found fentanyl in pills being sold as other substances like Oxycodone, Percocet, and Adderall in various areas around the country.
A June VICE News investigation with drug testing company Bunk Police found fentanyl, methamphetamine, and xylazine (an animal tranquilizer known in the U.S. as “tranq”) in pills sold in the state of Quintana Roo, where Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum are located. The investigation found that the pharmacies were connected to major Mexican criminal organizations like the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel.
The four-day operation conducted by the Mexican Navy and the Federal Commission for the Protection Against Sanitary Health Risk Department investigated 55 locations and ended with the suspension of operations of 23 pharmacies along the Caribbean coast.
“In response to various citizen complaints, an operation of unprecedented dimensions was designed in a region of the country that receives millions of national and foreign tourists every year,” the Navy wrote in the press release announcing the closures. Authorities announced that they intend to test 21 drug samples seized in the operation for fentanyl.
The Navy said it also found numerous other irregularities in the pharmacies, such as a “lack of health license; controlled drugs without proof of legitimate possession; there is no traceability in the management of controlled medications; lack of legal documentation from suppliers; control books without the signature of a health officer; medical prescriptions without patient data, without dates, prescriptions without the doctor’s signatures; sale of medicines without sanitary registration; non-prescription sales receipts; expired medication for more than a year, among others.”
Authorities said the pharmacies in question targeted non-Mexican tourists and “sell the irregular and non-prescription medication only to foreigners.”
The proliferation of sketchy pharmacies selling dangerous pills without prescriptions is not isolated only to tourist hubs like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. A study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), published in January, found multiple towns and cities in Northern Mexico close to the U.S. border were selling counterfeit pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine, among other drugs.
Ahead of March spring break, when legions of U.S. college kids flood to various parts of Mexico, the U.S. state department issued a travel warning that “counterfeit medication is common and may prove to be ineffective, the wrong strength, or contain dangerous ingredients.“