Mexican police have reportedly arrested a member of a notoriously violent drug cartel on suspicion of abducting children in order to steal their organs.

According to an Associated Press story, “Police in Mexico’s western state of Michoacan detained an alleged member of the Knights Templar cartel who is suspected of kidnapping children to harvest their organs, an official said Monday.”

The claims seem to have first been made by the head of a local anti-cartel vigilante group who told a local radio station that “people in the area knew the Knights Templar gang was involved in organ trafficking because several children had been rescued in his town while being transported in a refrigerated container inside a van.”

How Organ Recipients Are Chosen

The informant was very vague on particulars (including when the children were rescued, whether police arrested anyone, and so on), leading many to suspect he was simply repeating rumors.

Mexican drug gangs are notoriously bloody and brutal — they are known to leave dead bodies hanging from highway overpasses and behead their victims to send a public message — but are they so ruthless as to kidnap and kill young children for their organs?

It seems very unlikely. Though organ sales occur, there is no evidence of an organized black market in stolen organs, and in fact it would be nearly impossible to conceal an entire organ-snatching ring. Sophisticated medical equipment must be used, and donors and recipients must be carefully matched. Blood and tissue typing must be done in advance. The operation would take between four and six hours and involve 10 to 20 support staff. Highly paid surgeons and medical staff are unlikely to risk performing such unethical and illegal operations, thus jeopardizing both their licenses and their reputations.

Furthermore the economics of it don’t make sense. Organized crime syndicates profit from a wide range of illicit activity, including drug trafficking, extortion, and prostitution, but selling stolen organs is a whole different matter.

Drugs (which can be mass-produced, are easily smuggled, and can be sold anywhere) are a far more profitable commodity to obtain, distribute, and sell than human organs which must be harvested to order (the organ donor and recipient need to be compatible); are perishable (they must be transplanted within about 24 hours); and so on.

Not only that, but kidnappers, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses would have to be paid off, further reducing any profit from organ theft sales. Drugs are much more profitable than stolen organs; the Knights Templar may be bloody, but they’re not stupid.

Mexican Organ Theft Rumors

This is not the first time that organ theft rumors have come from Mexican officials. 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.

Anonymous Hackers Vs. Mexican Drug Cartel

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 14 of the nearly 90 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.”

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.”

The Russian Connection

This is also not the first time that a criminal enterprise has been accused of running an organ theft ring; similar accusations were made in the late 1990s that the Russian mafia was doing the same thing.

In late 2000, a horrifying news story came out of Russia: A grandmother was arrested for trying to sell her five-year-old grandson Andrei. Police said that the grandmother told the boy he was going to Disneyland. With the help of the boy’s uncle, little Andrei was handed over to a man in exchange for $90,000.

But the story is more than just a tragic tale of a child sold into slavery or prostitution: he was sold to a man who would then take him to “the West,” where his kidneys and other organs would be removed and sold. That was the story, anyway; nothing more was ever heard about it.

Baby Organ Theft Rumor Circulates as News

Ms. Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, isn’t convinced that the trade in children’s organs exists, calling the stories “rumors.”

According to the 1999 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, “Rumors persist that there exists an illegal trade in human organs, and the Special Rapporteur has received allegations that street children in [Latin America] and the Russian Federation are being killed so that their organs can be used in transplant operations. Such allegations have recurred repeatedly for over 20  years, but to the best of the Special Rapporteur’s knowledge, nobody has been convicted of being connected with such an offense.”

It is also possible that the story’s sensational details were encouraged by Russian organized crime. A motive for inflating the story is provided by Viktor Vasilievich Luneev, a professor and chief scientific researcher at the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences.

In a report titled “Crime in the Twentieth Century: International Criminal Analysis,” Luneev notes that in recent years it has become fashionable in Russia to sensationalize crime stories, in particular ones with a possible connection to organized crime.

In fact, one of the tactics of organized crime is “Dissemination of frightening rumors as to their power, which brings criminal organizations more benefit than harm, since it demoralizes witnesses, victims, journalists, and law enforcement organs and supports the criminal spirit of rank and file members who execute functions.”

Perhaps the Knights Templar is taking lessons from the Russian mafia: If you want the public to fear your organization, spread rumors that you’re killing children for their organs.

U.S. Couple Faces Bizarre Murder Charges in Qatar

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 not the first time in recent years that this particular urban legend has made headlines. A few months ago an American couple in Qatar was arrested on suspicion of killing their daughter for her organs; their trial is ongoing.

Photo: An operation room. Credit: iStockPhoto