By Andy Brienzo, HTC Research Fellow
The March arrest in Mexico’s Michoacán state of Knights Templar cartel member Manuel Plancarte Gaspar on suspicion of organ trafficking has brought this under-researched and mostly overlooked form of human trafficking into the spotlight. Plancarte Gaspar is alleged to have been part of a cartel ring that would target people – particularly children – for kidnapping to facilitate the harvesting and sale of their organs. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Knights Templar cartel, which no longer counts drug trafficking as its primary source of income, has turned to organ trafficking. It is, after all, an incredibly lucrative trade, with trafficked kidneys selling for about $150,000 each and hearts pulling in as much as $1.5 million apiece.
The United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking has identified three potential ways trafficking for organ trade takes place. Firstly, traffickers sometimes force or deceive victims into giving up an organ. This is what Plancarte Gaspar and the Knights Templar have been accused of doing. Second, some victims will agree to sell their organs but are then taken advantage of – they are either not paid or are not paid the agreed-upon price. An organ trafficking ring broken up in 2013 that was operating out of a medical clinic in Kosovo engaged in these sorts of practices, promising their donor victims £12,500 per kidney and then simply dumping them, fresh surgery wounds and all, at the local airport without paying them. Finally, some victims are given surgery for an unrelated – and possibly fabricated – ailment, during which time one or more of their organs are harvested without their knowledge.
According to UN.GIFT, a host of offenders is involved no matter which method is used – the recruiter who identifies the potential victim, the staff of the hospital or medical clinic where the surgery is taking place, the doctors who are performing the surgery, the middlemen and contractors, the buyers of the organs, and the banks where the organs are stored. As a result, it is almost impossible to fully uncover the entire racket whenever an individual like Plancarte Gaspar is arrested for organ trafficking, meaning it is very difficult to stop this illicit trade.
Organ trafficking has become more popular in recent years as seatbelt legislation has reduced the number of young adults dying in car accidents and as the number of people waiting for organ transplants has increased. In addition, as pointed out by the University of California, Berkeley’s Nancy Scheper-Hughes, the rapid dissemination of advanced medical procedures and biotechnologies all over the world has allowed more people in more countries to get involved in trafficking for organ trade. As a result, it is now possible to purchase a trafficked organ online, and the United Nations estimates that about 10,000 kidneys are illegally transplanted each year, with some experts claiming that number is actually closer to 20,000. Trafficking for organ trade is clearly an issue that is gaining salience, and the large networks of individuals required to facilitate it and incredible sums of money involved mean it is unlikely to be stopped in its entirety by law enforcement efforts alone.
Instead, what policymakers and counter-trafficking practitioners must realize is that, despite its status as the often-overlooked side of human trafficking, trafficking for organ trade should be approached in the same manner as the other forms of trafficking in persons. That is, as suggested by its inclusion in the United Nations’ Palermo Protocol alongside trafficking for forced labor and sexual exploitation, organ trafficking can only be stamped out if its underlying causes are addressed. This becomes abundantly clear when one realizes who the victims and beneficiaries of organ trafficking are.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, trafficked organs flow from poor, desperate donor victims in the developing world – countries like China, India and the Philippines – to wealthier recipients in the developed world – countries like the United States, Canada and Israel. This means that, in the words of Scheper-Hughes, “The poor have become a spare-parts bank for the well-to-do.” Just as with other forms of human trafficking, then, organ trafficking is driven by poverty, corruption, and greed, and facilitated by extreme global inequality and the world’s increasing interconnectedness. Policymakers must address these issues if trafficking for organ trade is to be effectively combated. Following the logic of organ transplantation itself, it is the disease – and not merely its symptoms – that must be treated if recovery is to become possible.
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC