US fury at kidnap stories

It was a rare diplomatic furore between old friends. When King Juan Carlos of Spain handed over an $8,200 journalism prize to a Brazilian reporter on Monday, Washington exploded.

The reporter, Ana Beatriz Magna de Silva, had written a series on illegal trafficking of Latin American children, mostly for adoption in Europe but sometimes, she suggested, so that their vital organs could be removed for transplants to wealthy patients. The series won her the Ibero-American prize, sponsored by the Spanish government.

A furious US embassy in Madrid immediately attacked its Nato ally as "an accomplice to dangerous and damaging fiction, perpetuating a myth". The Spanish Foreign Ministry retorted that the embassy was "out of line". In Washington, a State Department spokesman said reports of babies' organ traffic was "a lie" and that there was no "credible evidence that a single case of organ or cornea theft has ever occurred."

Why was the US so angry? As a bemused Ms Magna da Silva pointed out, she had not even mentioned the US in her series and had focused on illegal adoption, not organ-stealing. The answer is threefold.

First, the US has always insisted reports of traffic in babies' organs from the Third World were a disinformation concoction of the Soviet KGB during the Cold War, spread in Latin America by agents of Fidel Castro. Secondly, the US says such reports complicate legal adoptions and legitimate organ donations. And thirdly, several American women have been attacked by angry mobs in the Third World on suspicion of trying to steal babies.

But is there any truth to the babies' organ reports?

Kidnapping statistics from around Latin America suggest a shift from stealing children to work as beggars, to kidnapping for prostitution and more recently for sale to wealthy childless families. Concrete evidence of using them as organ donors, however, is sparse at best.

A Spanish journalist, Jose Manuel Martin Medem, author of Ninos de Repuesto ("Spare Parts Kids"), cited Salesian missionaries in Brazil as saying children were often held in granjas de engorde, "fattening-up barns" where they were held like battery hens before being killed for their organs. But no proof was produced. Fattening-up houses were uncovered last year in Argentina and Honduras but in both cases police said the children had been kidnapped foradoption. In the Argentinian city of Goya, a gang was charging $15,000 (pounds 10,000) for babies, more if they had blue eyes.

In a 1993 BBC documentary, Bruce Harris, an Englishman based in Costa Rica who campaigns for childrens' rights, and a film-maker, Judy Jackson, claimed to have found a mental institution in Argentina where corneas were removed from the eyes of live children, who would then die. Argentine authorities, however, dispute this.

"There is more and more demand for organs and not enough supply," Mr Harris said. "In this world, whenever there's a demand, someone will make money out of it."

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