A series of warnings about counterfeit medication being sold in Venezuelan pharmacies has revealed how this illicit economy is growing thanks to criminal networks that have taken advantage of the country’s ongoing health crisis.

So far in 2023, Venezuela’s “Rafael Rangel” National Institute of Hygiene (Instituto Nacional de Higiene “Rafael Rangel” – INHRR) has issued six alerts regarding counterfeit medical products nationwide.

The most recent came at the end of October. It warned of sales of a counterfeit drug used for cancer treatment, which was allegedly purchased from a pharmaceutical distributor in Colombia. The first alert, in March, flagged the sale of a breast cancer treatment that can cost $1,800 in private pharmacies in Venezuela. 

SEE ALSO: Venezuela’s Thriving Black Market for COVID-19 Vaccines

In July, Douglas Rico, the director of Venezuela’s Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigations Corps (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), published a message on Instagram recommending the population to take precautions in light of fake medications circulating.

“Avoid buying medicines from untrustworthy people. Buy them from reputable pharmacies,” the official said. 

Warnings from authorities about counterfeit cancer treatments, intravenous solutions, children’s syrups, and ointments, among other medical products, have increased sharply compared to 2022 when only one alert was published.

This criminal economy peaked between 2017 and 2018, when 80% of medicines experienced a shortage, according to a report from the Organization of American States (OAS).

Venezuela has experienced a widespread public health crisis since mid-2016. The capacity of the healthcare system to care for patients has dropped by an estimated 70% since then. This has pushed millions suffering from illnesses and chronic diseases, to seek the medications and drugs they need from the informal economy, helping the market for counterfeit drugs grow.

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With a health system on the verge of collapse and a shared border with Colombia, which has a long history of producing counterfeit medicine, Venezuela has the ideal conditions for a counterfeit drug market to flourish.

In recent years the government of President Nicolás Maduro has permitted the importation of medications from countries like Iran and Russia, but counterfeit medications controlled by criminal networks continue to line the shelves of the country’s pharmacies.

In September of this year, Venezuela lacked almost a third of the medical drugs it required.

SEE ALSO: Colombia Busts Fake Medicine Ring Worth Millions

High-cost drugs are the most scarce. Criminal networks have focused on filling this gap through informal sales of these expensive drugs at marked down prices. These networks take advantage of large parts of the population with little purchasing power and a serious need to access cheaper drugs, despite knowing little about the drugs’ provenance or effectiveness. During the global COVID-19 pandemic, criminal groups even sold fake vaccines filled with water, analgesics, and antibiotics that had no effect on the virus.

A representative from a pharmaceutical chamber of commerce, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the counterfeit drugs being marketed in Venezuela come mainly from Colombia. 

“Counterfeit medicines enter Venezuela mostly through the border of Paraguachón, in Zulia state, where the six batches reported by the National Institute of Hygiene were detected. Another small part enters through the state of Táchira,” they said. 

The emergence of counterfeit medicine production in Colombia was facilitated by e-commerce, which enables sales of these drugs in Venezuela, according to a report by the Anti-Corruption Resource Centre. The issue is exacerbated by lax regulations surrounding counterfeit drugs.

However, the discovery of clandestine laboratories in Venezuela means that the country is not only a recipient of counterfeit drugs, but also a producer, suggesting local crime groups have also taken advantage of the gaps left by a system in crisis.

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