The border between Mexico and the United States has often been a dangerous area. For the past decade or so, a string of unsolved killings – many of the victims young women – have occurred near Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. The crimes have been investigated as rape-murders, and despite public outcry little progress has been made in stemming the killings or capturing the culprits.
The investigation took a bizarre turn when Mexican Assistant Attorney General Carlos Javier Vega Memije, at an April 30, 2003, conference in Chihuahua, announced that fourteen of the nearly ninety victims may have been kidnapped and killed for their organs. The implication was that the stolen organs were transplanted into rich Americans in nearby border hospitals and clinics. “Several details support the idea that these women were killed to extract their organs and sell them,” the Justice Department said in a statement. Though Memije did not conclude that the killings were definitely organ-related, he did say that it was “probable.”
The story made the front page of the May 2, 2003, edition of New Mexico’s Albuquerque Journal newspaper: “Mexico Theory: Dead Women Harvested.” To his credit, Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson regarded the announcement skeptically, pointing out that “the physical evidence in the organ-trafficking theory is slim,” and quoting several experts who cast serious doubts on the story. Three forensics examiners in Juarez, two of whom had examined most of the bodies in question, said they had never seen any evidence of organ theft. Stevenson noted that the organ-theft rumors, which have fueled anti-American sentiment for decades, “have always proved baseless.”
Vega Memije and the Justice Department did not explain why only women would be killed for their organs, nor how it was even determined that organs were removed, since the bodies were often little more than skeletons when recovered. The main evidence seems to be a statement given by a T-shirt vendor who claims to have been paid to find three victims for another man, who then killed them and removed their organs. To date no physical evidence has surfaced supporting the story.
Publishing what is almost certainly a rumor, one news organization, News24 in South Africa, reported that “police in northern Mexico have found four human organs packed in jars labeled in English.” The report quoted an unnamed prosecutor, who said that the organs were “conserved in a formaldehyde-like fluid.” The New York Daily News (May 2) repeated the story but cautioned that “authorities weren’t certain the organs were even human.” According to Fox News, the prosecutors also suggested that the killings may be linked to pornographic filmmakers – thus adding a second urban legend to the story, that of the snuff film. (Presumably the women were killed in the process of making such a film.)
The organ-theft rumors are a variant of the kidney-theft urban legend, in which is prevalent in much of Latin America, parts of Africa, and Russia. This is the second time in recent years that this particular urban legend has made headlines around the world. In late 2000, many news agencies including CNN carried a news story about a Russian grandmother who supposedly sold her five-year-old grandson for his organs.
According to Stevenson, the Juarez organ-theft tale is the latest in a series of bizarre conspiracy theories proposed by prosecutors “who claimed the killings were motivated by a mix of sex and greed and committed by a street gang and a ring of bus drivers.” Some believe that the organ-theft charges are simply a pretext for the federal police to take over the investigation, in place of the ineffective and maligned state police.