How kidney sellers were lured to SA

2010-12-12 16:45

In 2001, Alberty Alfonso da Silva, a resident of the Jardim Sao Paulo favela (slum) near Recife, Brazil, received an offer that he felt he couldn’t refuse.

A night watchman who lived in a mud hut and used a piece of cardboard for a bed, Alberty had been approached by retired military ­police captain, Ivan Bonfiacio da Silva, a man feared and respected for his close ties to organised crime and the political establishment.

Captain Ivan’s offer was ­tempting: $6?000 (about R42?000) for taking a flight to ­Durban, South ­Africa, undergoing a “minor operation” and returning home to a life of plenty.

Captain Ivan – who was recruited by Gadalya Tauber, a retired Israeli army officer ­working for illegal transplant­ ­kingpin ­Illan Perry – was ­convincing.

Durban’s St Augustine’s ­Hospital was fit for movie stars. ­Alberty signed up and made the flight to Durban, sold his kidney and ­returned.

But the money didn’t change his life. He used his kidney loot to pay child support he owed to a former girlfriend, and paid off part of a used-car debt.

In the end, he lost the car ­because he couldn’t meet the ­payments. He sold the car for a ­jalopy, the jalopy for a bicycle and the bike, finally, for a good pair of running shoes.

In 2002, Rogerio Bezerra da ­Silva, a 31-year-old mechanic, was living with his wife and two kids in a two-room shack behind his ­parents’ slightly larger shack in Jardim, Sao Paulo.

Rogerio and his pals were ripe for the taking. The first sellers ­recruited were treated well in South ­Africa – housed in tourist ­hotels and luxurious private homes and paid an extravagant $10?000 for their kidneys.

In Durban, the first sellers were taken on holiday tours. There were photos of Zulu dancers and wild animals taken at a private game farm.

The word was out. More than 100 sellers wanted in. It was a ­buyer’s market and the price for a “fresh” kidney fell almost immediately to $6?000 and then to $3?000.

Rogerio told his wife and ­children that he had found ­well-paying work in South Africa, painting a highway billboard that would take a few weeks.

Rogerio – who hoped to open a car repair shop with the money – awoke in the recovery room in St?Augustine’s Hospital with a painful wound that began at his last rib and crossed his flank. It hurt like hell. As soon as he was able to get out of bed, Rogerio wanted to check in with his recipient, an ­Israeli named Agiana Robel.

What he didn’t know was that Shlomo Zohar, a young Israeli who was paid $20?000 to donate his kidney to Agiana, had had a change of heart just as he was being prepped for surgery, and had ducked out of the hospital by a back staircase.

The local broker, Meir Sushan, was alerted by Agiana’s surgeon that the kidney provider had ­escaped. Sushan notified police at the airport that a thief was about to make off for Israel with $18?000.

Rogerio was in the recovery room when the interpreter for the network appeared and told him to get moving.
“Get up! You’ve got to get out of here as quickly as you can. The ­police are after us!”

Rogerio was in so much pain he could hardly move. One of the nurses gave him another shot and rubbed some calming ointment under his bandaged wound.

It didn’t take the police very long to find Rogerio and his buddies hiding in a safe house, to arrest them, and to relieve them of their kidney cash.

Zohar’s foiled escape and arrest were exactly what South African police captain Louis Helberg of the commercial crime branch had been waiting for. They had been tipped off in March 2003 about the trafficking scheme and they had staked out the Netcare transplant unit at St Augustine’s.

In December 2003, the police swooped and 11 people were ­arrested in Durban, including ­Agiana.

In Recife, almost simultaneously, nine members of the ­trafficking ring were arrested.

Rogerio hardly knew what felt worse, his oozing kidney wound or the end of his dreams of economic self-improvement.

Back in Recife, he and his fellow sellers appeared in court and ­before a congressional hearing on the illegal transplants and were eventually jailed for various terms.

Most lost their jobs while they were overseas and never got them back. Their faces appeared in newspapers and on TV.

Everyone in Recife knew them as the ­“mutilados” – the mutilated ones.

Even their wives and children suffered from the stigma.

Joao Cavalcanti was one of the first sellers recruited. His wife left him, taking his children with her. She couldn’t stand the shame of what her husband had done and the fact that he had lied to her.

As for Alberty, he lost weight and his energy, and still wonders if maybe, when the surgeons put him under anaesthesia, they hadn’t done more to him – maybe even ­removed part of his liver.

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