What’s in the bottle may not be what the label says

Judicial Investigating Organization photo
Smuggled or fake? Only the lab techs will know.

Christmas is coming, and the business tradition here is to reward customers with gifts. Frequently the gift is a bottle or two of top-shelf liquor.

Family members also exchange similar gifts.

But what is in the bottle may not be what the label says. There is a thriving business here of bootlegging, falsifying label contents and just simple adulteration of alcoholic products.

Judicial agents detained four persons Tuesday afternoon in Guápiles on suspicion of such practices.

The Judicial Investigating Organization said agents had been on the case for three months. They determined that the four persons were selling alcohol to liquor stores when the product had been smuggled into the county or just adulterated.

Agents detained the men when they were traveling in two vehicles, including a microbus that was loaded with cans and bottles. A short time later agents searched two homes in Guápiles where the men appear to have kept their product.

The men face prosecutor for falsifying trademarks and for violation of the health laws.

The men who were detained do not appear to be producers. But there are illegal stills that produce bootlegged alcohol.

In 2007 agents raided a still where women were making guaro, the local sugar cane alcohol, in Alajuela. The investigators reported that the fluid contained a dangerous level of methanol.

Earlier this year, agents detained a 74 year old for making illegal alcohol in a makeshift cauldron in his home in Buenos Aires de Puntarenas.

Illegal alcohol producers sometimes have the common goal of finding ways to skirt government regulation and taxes. Legally produced alcohol is regulated and taxed up to almost 50 percent of it’s retail value.

This year agents have disrupted several larger operations. One bust involved an illegal manufacturing operation in which the bootlegged liquor was distilled in country and then labeled with popular and expensive brand names for resale. The most recent bust involved a ring of distributors who brought liquor hidden in trucks from Panamá and then distributed it from Cartago to avoid paying national taxes.

Police caught on because the bottles were being resold for uncommonly low prices.

Alcohol that comes from smugglers is far less dangerous than home brew, which can kill those who partake. And the alcohol is dangerous even if it is dressed up in bottles carrying well-known labels and packed in boxes that appear to come from reputable manufacturers.

The local bootlegged alcohol here is called chirrite, and it is popular in lower-income neighborhoods. There even are illegal bars where cheap, local alcohol is all that is on the menu. The customers know this. With some much illegal alcohol on the market, there is a temptation to dress the beverage up and sell it as an internationally known brand.

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