Leonardo Calcagno

A Colombian Liver With Your Turkish Cornea?

Your son wakes up with a cold. As a worried parent, you take him to the doctor. You pick him up two hours later and something is wrong. His head is wrapped in bandages, and his eyes are gone. The doctor tells you that your child was afflicted with a rare fatal disease which required immediate surgery. The tragedy of your loss is compounded by the fact that your child was healthy; the doctor took his eyes to sell them on a black market of human organs.

This scenario is all but inconceivable in America. But in poor Third World countries, stories like this are tragically commonplace. A healthy pair of human corneas can be easily sold to an El Messanjero for $3,000 US. Third World country children are no longer just work slaves or sexual toys, they're also spare parts. I met "Dr. A" (His name will not be mentioned. He does work in South America, where officially the problem doesn't exist), who works in a donor bank in Montreal. After speaking with me on the phone and screening my text, he agreed to tell me about this trade.

Calcagno: I've been hearing about this trading since my teens -- my step-mother is Colombian -- stories about kids and the homeless missing their eyes and organs are common. For instance, at The Barancilla, a medical university in Colombia, a guard killed and stole organs from 'recicladores' (homeless that live by selling recycling). An incident like this should have caused great panic and concern in the west, but nothing happened.

Dr. A: This is a lucrative business! Did you know that a human body can be sold for $35,000 and the skeleton alone can be sold for $200 a gram? That's almost four times the price of cocaine. Osteotech Corporation and Cryolife Inc. buy hearts from India for $150 and sells them for $5,000. They are multi-billion-dollar science companies.

Calcagno: Where does this happen?

Dr. A: Everywhere. In the US, for example, there's been a Congressional report to regulate donors banks. There is a lot of concern about the origin and quantity [of donated organs], but the report was rejected. Doctors and corporations don't want government control. These companies hate it when there's somebody watching over their shoulder.

Calcagno: But in 1987, The United Nation, The International Health Organization, OXFAM and non-governmental organizations from all over the world expressed concern about the commerce of humans organs. In 1991 The International Health Organization created principals to help stop this commerce: 1) Minors and vulnerable persons have to be protected against abusive and/or illegal organ donation; 2) No organs should be removed from a living human; and 3) The human body and parts of it cannot be part of any transaction.

Dr. A: All those organizations are empty shells with no power. The World Trade Organization is the only one that can move something. These health and human rights organizations just make reports, no more no less. It took almost forty years and some big guns to legally make pedophilia trading an international issue, with an international task force to prosecute and arrest pedophiles.

Calcagno: What do you mean "officially" organ trafficking doesn't exist in Latin America?

Dr. A: There is no real investigation or collaborated proof to back such allegations. There are magazines in South-America, like El Tiempo, La Tribuna and Cambio, that have investigated and even proved of the existence of this market, but they all had to retract the stories. Too many high-placed officials and, of course, the Mafia were involved.

Calcagno: Is there a market for blood?

Dr. A: Travenol Hyland and Armour Revlon, USA; Nayer and Hoechst, in Germany; Immuno in Austria buy 10 billions liters of blood every year in Third World countries and their profit are over $5 billion. They have medical facilities all over the world. Put this in your head: Everything can be sold. Everything has a value, if you can use it.

Calcagno: Is the waiting list for donors long?

Dr. A: The list is way too long. People get desperate. You have to understand something. If you are a parent and your kid is dying because he's waiting for a transplant, you will do anything in your power to save him, even if is taking someone's life.

Calcagno: What can be done about organ trafficking?

Dr. A: Sign your donor cards. The traffic persists because there is great demand for organs. People don't sign their donor card for a number of reasons, some religious and others personal. Contact your officials and demand investigations, call Human Right international and sign petitions, demand a tighter control of donor banks.

Calcagno: We know that a lot of Third World governments are corrupt and anything goes if you have money. My trips to South America have confirmed that. But I know there's been a couple of arrests by local police against foreigners.

Dr. A: Money talks. There is no [international] agreement to arrest such activities. The foreigners just get a fine and continue.

Calcagno: Can you give me some examples of arrests?

Dr. A: Guatemalan police arrested two Israeli brothers who exported babies to Israel and the US, which cut in pieces and their organs for were sold for $75,000. Los Robaninos (children stealers) at the Mexican border kidnapped kids for their livers. Turks sell organs to the UK, France and Germany, just so they could eat or save their farm. In Villivakkam, India, 150 people reported that they sold their organs to a Munich private hospital for $1,000. I could go on forever, but politicians don't care because people don't know or just don't care.

Calcagno: Is this part of continuing colonization and the European idea of superiority?

Dr. A: You've been to South America. You are a white Latino American, you are one of the "lucky" ones. Indians, black or dark skinned classes are seen and used as utilities.

Calcagno: Hasn't there been any protest or human right watch about organ smuggling?

Dr. A: There was this protest a couple of years ago in Bogota, Colombia, by 'Los Desechables' (The Disposables) because they are tired of being seen as a Coca-Cola deposit bottle -- the deposit on a bottle has more value for some people. When I went to Brazil, Colombia and Peru, there is graffiti with slogans like 'Muerte a los Ninos' (Death to Kids) and 'Medellin and Cali limpia' (Medellin and Cali clean). Did you know that there are 8 kids killed every day by Los Escuadron de la Muerte (Death Squadrons) in South America. Poverty has always been the factor. The black market for organs will always be alive. It's survival.

Leonardo Calcagno, who is based in Montreal, writes a weekly column for Upath.com. He also contributes to various French and Spanish zines.