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Ecuador reels from worst alcohol-related tragedy ever

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After 50 dead, 600 hospitalizations, and 14 left blind from consuming poisonous moonshine, Ecuador’s contentious relationship with alcohol has once again flared.

The tiny Andean nation is the third largest consumer of alcohol per capita in Latin America, behind only Argentina and Guyana. While guzzling less than their European counterparts, Ecuadorians still consume 9.4 liters on average per year according to World Health Organization statistics. In response, the government has raised taxes, much to the chagrin of industry, and banned sales on Sundays, a move unpopular with the public at large.

Now some are blaming the government for the country’s worst alcohol-related tragedy ever. And critics say its response, focusing on a large-scale buyback program, has failed to keep the population safe. It is still unclear how quickly, if ever, the government will manage to obtain toxic alcohol still flowing around Ecuador.

The tragedy began in mid-July, after deadly intoxications in the southwestern province of Los Rios were reported.

The government initially banned all sales of alcohol nationwide for three days. Officials launched an investigation, which eventually showed that the lethal concoctions originated from 14 brands from the same factory in the coastal region of Guayas, where methanol, a type of alcohol that is highly toxic, was used as a base instead of ethanol.

Health officials shut the factory down, and the owners were arrested. But unable to obtain all of the toxic liquor, the government initiated a week-long buyback program, urging residents to sell back alcohol for $0.80 per liter of alcohol returned.

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