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Criminals in Mexico exploit desperation for oxygen canisters

High rates of coronavirus infection have led Mexico to crack down on the illicit trade in oxygen canisters, though thieves are coming up with new ways to defraud families.

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.

Even as Mexico’s president continued fighting the virus in isolation at his apartment, and the country’s richest man quickly was admitted to a top hospital, treatment for average Mexicans remained difficult and dangerous.

People wait to refill oxygen tanks for relatives sick with COVID-19 in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City, on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The city is offering free oxygen refills for patients with COVID-19. (AP PhotoMarco Ugarte)

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.

A man waits for his turn to refill an oxygen tank for a family member sick with COVID-19 in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The city is offering free oxygen refills for patients with COVID-19. (AP PhotoMarco Ugarte)

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.

A woman takes her place as she waits to refill an oxygen tank for a family member sick with COVID-19 in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The city is offering free oxygen refills for COVID-19 patients. (AP PhotoMarco Ugarte)

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.”

Health worker Jose Antonio Peña refills oxygen tanks for patients with COVID-19 in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The city is offering free oxygen refills for patients with COVID-19. (AP PhotoMarco Ugarte)

Health worker Jose Antonio Peña refills oxygen tanks for patients with COVID-19 in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The city is offering free oxygen refills for patients with COVID-19. (AP PhotoMarco Ugarte)

A woman walks off after refilling two tanks with oxygen for patients with COVID-19 in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The city is offering free oxygen refills for patients with COVID-19. (AP PhotoMarco Ugarte)