JAKARTA, INDONESIA - Deaths from drinking toxic bootleg alcohol in Indonesia have surpassed 100 this month, police said Wednesday as they vowed a "scorched earth" crackdown on the makers and distributors of black-market liquor.
Deputy National Police Chief Muhammad Syafruddin said deaths have been concentrated in populous West Java and Jakarta, the capital, but there were also cases in South Kalimantan and other regions that brought fatalities to more than 100.
Indonesian TV has broadcast images of distraught relatives in several cities and lines of gurneys bearing dead bodies in hospital hallways as the death toll relentlessly climbed since late last week. There were 31 deaths in Jakarta and satellite cities at the beginning of the month followed by a dramatic surge in deaths in West Java and hospitalizations of dozens of people suffering nausea, blurry vision and loss of consciousness.
"This is a crazy phenomenon," said Syafruddin, standing in front of seven handcuffed suspects at a news conference. "If we let it continue, it will harm the nation."
"I have ordered all the police chiefs in Indonesia to make these cases stop, zero victims, meaning to reveal the roots ranging from the producers, distributors, sellers to those who have the idea of mixing alcohol with fatal chemicals," Syafruddin said.
Police displayed huge quantities of confiscated alcohol at the news conference, some of it in the small clear plastic bags it's sold in for about 25,000 rupiah ($1.80) as well as professionally labeled bottles purporting to be whiskey or wine.
Syafruddin said production of illegal alcohol must be eradicated completely with a scorched earth campaign and called for the cooperation of the Cabinet and government agencies.
It's unclear how effective the crackdown will be. Curbs on sales of legal alcohol in Muslim-majority Indonesia, including a ban implemented in 2015 on sales at tens of thousands of convenience stores, have created a significant black market for bootleg liquor among the country's poor.
"If what is needed is limited in the legal market because of (government) policies, then the need would be fulfilled by those who want to make a profit" from the black market, said Sugianto Tandra, a researcher at the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies.
"The current incidence of rampant bootleg alcohol is because there is a need to drink but the product is not available in the legal market," he said.
Potentially lethal methanol can be a byproduct of bootleg distilling and the tainted alcohol is also sometimes mixed with soft drinks. In the recent spate of deaths, police said pure alcohol was sometimes combined with ingredients such as cough mixture and insect repellant.
Syafruddin said laboratory testing of black-market alcohol sized by police in several raids in Jakarta showed it contained methanol.
Construction worker Andri Rizal, who was hospitalized near the West Java capital, Bandung, said he and three friends fell ill after drinking palm wine mixed with an intoxicating ginseng drink he'd bought for $1, an unusually cheap price.
"We purchased and mixed it with the palm wine just to make it feel better and slower to get drunk. Ginseng by itself is too hard," said the 28-year-old. "It was not like usual when it's instantly delicious. I felt limp and dizzy."
Deaths from toxic alcohol are common in Indonesia and foreigners are occasionally among the victims. Some governments warn travelers to the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok to be cautious about consuming local spirits and alcoholic beverages.
But the latest cluster of fatalities is extreme, leading to speculation that a single large distributor was responsible. But West Java police said they have found no evidence to support that.
The Kompas newspaper said there were 32 deaths last year from bootleg liquor.