Death in a Bottle for a Handful of Haitian Coins

Selling Clairin

Selling Clairin

He had heard rumors that the “Williamson” market had sold the methanol, but also heard another rumor that fishermen in the town of Luly found a drum of methanol “floating on the sea” and sold it. It sounded preposterous, but anything is possible, so we went to Luly to find out.

Luly is a beautiful seaside village and feels and looks like another place in time. Beautiful shells are piled high on a beach littered with plastic and other flotsam and jetsam. No one collects the shells; they are an everyday occurrence and nothing remarkable for the villagers.

The sea in Luly is rich with food. Nets and traps, with plastic bottles attached to keep them afloat, drifted a short distance offshore, collecting bounty for the village. We found a thriving community there—a community thriving in spiritual if not monetary graces.

We also found anger there, but it was not directed at us. Leaders were furious with the Haitian Public Health Ministry (MSPP) and even more livid when they heard the rumor about the floating drum of methanol, which they vehemently denied. They had just buried one of their own on the beach the day before—another victim of the poisoning. Three had died and to be accused of trafficking in methanol was an insult too great to bear.

haiti july


“We have a mute state in Haiti,” Jacob L. said. Did he want me to use his full name? “Yes!” I am leaving out his last name, even though he wanted his full name used. Political retribution is still common in Haiti and this man, however bold, deserves some protection.

“I hate the state, you can quote me. We are supposed to be living in a democracy, but this country has no vision. The government, the MSPP, the Haitian Red Cross, no one is doing anything about this. It (the methanol) will be sold again. We are living like animals. We have no electricity and no water.”

Did he know the source of the methanol?

“Two people died in the Williamson (two miles south) market, but villagers here usually buy from the market in Cabaret.”

So now, we had three possible sources, Williamson, Cabaret and Montrouis. It was becoming obvious that our investigation would take more time and resources than we had at our disposal. People liked to talk, but our failure in Montrouis to “prove” a source for the methanol did not bode well for success in Williamson and Cabaret. We were certain, though, that the fishermen of Luly had not found a barrel of methanol floating on the ocean before using it to poison their own neighbors and family.

haiti bounty in luly

Bounty in Luly

It was evident that this was a job for the Haitian authorities. If the locals could not track it down, we had slim chances to do so.

Out next stop would be in Port-au-Prince for a conversation with Dr. Gabriel Thimothe, the Director General of MSPP.  Everyone we met along the way had mentioned the Haitian health authorities, so it was time to ask them what their investigation was producing, and how they planned to ensure the safety of a common marketplace product.

It is fair to remember that the MSPP offices were decimated, along with most government buildings in the earthquake. Many government workers perished. Thimothe’s office is housed in what is either a trailer or large cargo container. Long and narrow, with his office off to the left as you enter the door—it was difficult for one person to wedge between the wall and his secretary’s desk, let alone allow passage for another to the row of desks beyond.

Thimothe is an imposing man, possessing an affect of arrogance, but he was open to a conversation.

MSPP had found “bottles” of methanol in the Williamson market, he said. MSPP conducted two surveys, one in Fond Baptiste, drawing blood samples that confirmed the presence of methanol.

haiti show of hands

The show of hands indicates who lost family members. the woman in foreground lost her mother

We wondered if this was the “IV” that our victim in Fond Baptiste spoke of, but he was day’s drive away and there was no way to contact him for follow-up.

Thimothe said, “The Minister of Justice and Commerce will launch an investigation.” Criminal prosecution was not in the mandate of the MSPP, nor was it in their job description to level accusations of malfeasance.

Did he know of any possible sources for the methanol?

Thimothe said it “could have been imported as an industrial solvent,” but he was waiting for direction from the Justice Minister to “face this challenge.”

So far, there had been fifteen victims, he said, including twelve in Fond Baptiste. Our tally had 12-15 in Fond Baptiste, 3 in Luly, and 2 in Williamson. The count was inconsistent, and as of this writing there are at least seven more victims. Our count agrees with that of Le Nouvelliste, and is certainly more than 20 victims.

Still, Thimothe felt MSPP was doing all they could, given their mandate. The Monday after the first cases were reported in Fond Baptiste, doctors and nurses were in the village, he said. Three days later they visited the markets in Williamson and Cabaret, but not Montrouis.

Thimothe told us the drinking in Fond Baptiste was due to a “voodoo” ceremony—he did not use the correct term “Vodun”—and seemed surprised when we told him that patient zero was a 45-year-old woman, and that people had gotten sick at her funeral.

He promised us that his secretary, who was busy at the time, would email us his “press release” on the poisoning and also forward lab results. That was a week ago.

georgianne nienaberAt this point, fingers are pointing everywhere, but the poisonings are continuing. Hopefully, this account will offer insight into what Haitians face in matters of health and safety. In the first world, entire industries are shut down if someone eats a tainted egg.

For Haitians death is in a bottle, and death is in the water. For them, there is not a safe drop to drink.

Note: I ran the medical aspects of this narrative past an American physician who has worked in Haiti. He offered the following: “Also, it should probably be pointed out that SOMEONE needs to educate the public that the practice of sedating babies with Clairin is extremely dangerous. At 190 proof, .2 oz is toxic and 2 oz potentially lethal in a 15 kg (34 pound) toddler. Half that is toxic in a 15 pound baby.”

Georgianne Nienaber

Author Spotlight: Georgianne Nienaber


  1. MavsHMB says

    Excellent article, Georgianne. I was appalled to read about the poisonings, but more appalled that the subject isn’t being covered anywhere else. My heart breaks for the Haitian people. My question is, wouldn’t the methanol smell different than the Clairin? As you’ve pointed out, a few sips of the stuff and the damage is done. I truly hope that whoever is responsible for these intentional poisonings are caught. Perhaps as punishment they should be forced to imbibe what they’ve been peddling to the Haitian people. It’s truly despicable that these poor Haitian villagers, who are already victims of a system that has failed them, are further victimized by monsters looking to make a quick buck.

    • Georgianne Nienaber says

      There are other cases of poisonings, I think up to 90 people died, from tainted Chinese cough syrup a while back. Mostly children. I was urged to include that, but this narrative was so long, it would have confused the issue. The bottom line is that Haitians are vulnerable in every aspect of their lives. Quality control of what they buy in the markets is impossible given the challenges they face with the simplest needs, like clean water.

  2. Kris White says

    Excellent investigative reporting. Great insight–not only for the main story, but how life really is in Haiti. The main investigation to get to the root of these deaths shows the reality of every day life in Haiti.

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