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Criminals in Mexico exploit desperation for oxygen canisters

·2 min read

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico continued to post near-record rates of coronavirus deaths Tuesday, and the huge demand for oxygen canisters has led to frauds, robberies and other crimes against families trying to care for relatives at home.

Mexico posted a near-record 1,743 newly confirmed COVID-deaths, bringing the total to over 152,000, and 7,165 new infections.

Hospitals in some parts of Mexico are almost 90% full, forcing families to treat their relatives at home. But the oxygen tanks they rely on have been the object of thefts, hijackings and fraud.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continued fighting the virus in isolation at his apartment, and Assistant Health Secretary Hugo López-Gatell said he was doing well and “has minimal symptoms.”

“On Sunday he had a headache, but apart from that he hasn't had any other symptom” besides a low fever, López-Gatell said.

While the president was getting care from a team of top doctors, and the country’s richest man quickly was admitted to a top hospital, treatment for average Mexicans remained difficult and dangerous.

The head of the country's consumer protection agency, Ricardo Sheffield, reported Tuesday that hundreds of ads have been found offering industrial oxygen cylinders — used by torch and welding operators — for medical use.

“These are stolen cylinders, for industrial use, you can't use them to breathe,” Sheffield said. In other cases, fraudsters advertised tanks or oxygen concentrators at excessive prices, or accepted deposits and then disappeared.

“You are throwing away your money and they probably won't deliver anything,” he said.

Sheffield said police have forced the removal of 700 Facebook pages and 100 internet offers that were found to involve fraudulent or abusive offers of oxygen equipment. There have been several armed robberies of oxygen cylinders in recent weeks in Mexico, and hijackings of trucks delivering the canisters.

And on Tuesday, Mexico City police arrested a couple who posed as sellers of disinfectant liquids and gels whose use has skyrocketed in the pandemic. Once a potential customer showed up to the apartment they were using, the man and woman would kidnap the person and demand a ransom. Police believe they were involved in at least three such crimes.

Sheffield said the government had reached an agreement with companies that produce oxygen to purify and certify their product so that as much as 70% of what normally goes for industrial use, could be used to treat patients instead.

He also said that northern states could start to import oxygen from the United States.

Most of all, he urged Mexicans who bought canisters as a precaution, or who had finished using them, to turn them in so others could use them, noting “Returning a tank saves lives.”

While there are long lines at oxygen-refill outlets, authorities have said the bigger problem is a lack of tanks to store the gas in.