Mexico’s health secretary said Friday he had to call in the Marines, literally, because the country’s drug safety regulatory agency was so riddled with corruption.
Health Secretary Jorge Alcocer said “there was corruption” among a group of employees of the Federal Commission on Medical Risks who held up import permits for precursor chemicals needed to make medicines.
He said they used their discretionary power to give import permits for some companies and not for others, implying they may have received bribes. Alcocer mentioned fentanyl, a synthetic opioid used for anesthesia, but did not clarify whether the scandal involved import permits that had been improperly granted or withheld.
Fentanyl is also widely trafficked by Mexican drug cartels, who press it into counterfeit pills that are then smuggled into the United States.
Alcocer said “several employees had to be removed” from the Mexico City offices of the commission in late September and mentioned there were threats, explaining in part why the marines were called in.
He said the marines were also needed because the navy is in charge of customs operations at Mexican seaports, and thus has chemists who are familiar with precursor chemicals. The marines operate under the navy in Mexico.
The drug regulatory agency has been at the center of a number of corruption scandals over the years, in part because of its discretionary power to approve the import of medications. Manufacturers of some medicines waited for years for import permits, either because of corruption or inefficiency.
The most recent scandal comes despite a shakeup at the commission announced by the government earlier this year, suggesting the corruption has been hard, if not impossible, to root out.
It is also a sensitive issue in Mexico, where the huge increase in patients placed on ventilators during the coronavirus pandemic caused temporary shortages of anesthetic drugs in some parts of Mexico. Patients on ventilators must be sedated because the procedure is so uncomfortable.