Posts for category ‘crime’

Wired on the Red Market (or: I’m a journalist, not an organ broker)
| February 15, 2011 | 2:54 pm

“The Red Market” had its magazine debut this month in Wired as an eight page info-graphic that divides the human body price. The model they used is a very hairy man who sort of gives me the heebie-jeebies to look at. But I guess that is appropriate since the topic itself can get a bit creepy. Think of this as a preview of what the book will be like with a few major differences. Reducing the book to a chart creates a few limitations that fuels my love/hate relationship with the format. On one hand, it’s an easy way for reader to digest an incredibly difficult and nuanced topic. Most people only know about illegal markets for human bodies through urban legends and movies like “Dirty Pretty Things”. Even fewer have given thought to markets for tissue outside of kidney transplants. The simplicity of price tags come at a cost. Since these are mostly illegal markets prices vary much more widely that I was able to illustrate. Just about every transaction on a red market is an individual negotiation that far more resembles the haggling process over a used car than it does a regular purchase in a grocery store.  As one reader pointed out in a post named “Damn You Wired!” putting price tags on organs makes the market look very regular and stable–and much to the author’s chagrin–that the US market for illegal organs is booming internally.

The truth, of course, is that there is a large market for transplant organs in the United States but most of the operations are done abroad. Americans fly all over the world for kidney transplants, egg donations, surrogacy, adoptions and questionably legal surgeries. Hospitals in America generally do not preform the operations themselves; instead it’s usually American  brokers who connect patients with foreign surgeons and hospitals. Either way it’s still huge business. And once the article came out I immediately started getting e-mails from US patients on the kidney transplant lists asking me to put them in touch with hospitals and brokers who could arrange transplants for them on the cheap. (note to would be transplant patients: please don’t contact me for an organ hookup. I’m a journalist, not an organ broker.)

The infographic form is also not really able to convey why these markets exist in the first place. Red Markets are not simply a fact of life in the world, or a simple expression of supply and demand. Rather they exist because of lack of transparency in the legal supply chains for human tissue. There are very few cases where anyone will ever know who donated blood that saved their life in surgery, or what specific person gave up a kidney after their car accident. The identities of donors are screened behind a wall of patient confidentiality. While there are legitimate reasons to keep these things anonymous,that very lack of transparency provides great cover for an organ criminal to ply their trade. This is something that I go into much more detail in in my book–particularly the way that the crooked history of the blood business has shaped all modern red markets.

In the meanwhile, click on the pictures above to see the article online. Or even better, buy Wired’s underworld issue in print. It’s on newsstands for a few more days.

Two Radio Appearances for Adoption Story
| March 13, 2009 | 3:28 am

The response to “Meet the Parents: The Dark Side of Overseas Adoption” has been overwhelming. People from all over the world have been writing in expressing their support for Nageshwar Rao and Sivagama and wishing for a positive ending. Several people have pledged money, and an adoption agency in New Mexico has offered to help with legal services. I saw Nageshwar Rao and Sivagama two days ago and they were very happy that the story had come out, but were still very sad that they have had no contact with the family in America. “We just want them to call,” he told me again.

In the next week I’m going to post an update on Mother Jones about the case and show how the adoption agency in Amercia has been invovled in several questionable adoptions here in Chennai. In 1999 an adoption agent in this city is said to have been involved in as many as 20 similar cases. These children are presumably all across America.

In the meanwhile, I’ve done two radio appearances that you might enjoy listening to.

The first, was on Here and Now, a nationally syndicated program across the United States that devoted a full half-hour to the topic.

The second, was a shorter (and unfortunately, less coherent) piece that aired on Free Speech Radio News.

(photo: funkypancake @ flickr)

Chief Minister Refuses to Eat in Response to Riot
| February 24, 2009 | 3:35 am

Now in its fifth day the struggle between thousands of disgruntled lawyers and the police has drawn the attention of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M. Karunanidhi who says he intends to fast until the two groups sort out their differences. The octogenarian politician is currently recovering from a spinal surgery in a local hospital and is apparently guilt-tripping both sides to stand down. He isn’t actually taking a stand to resolve the differences that have led to a “shoot on sight” by the police order and severe unrest around the High Court that has resulted in a destroyed police station and the burning of dozens of vehicles.

The lawyers outside the court are of two minds about the Chief Minister’s actions. One group of 300 lawyers has decided to follow his lead and start their own fast to shame the police into submission. Another group has kept on with its riotous activities and stabbed a police constable.

Meanwhile the courts have been shut down until next week when they will open up to record case backlogs and the business-as-usual approach that has made a travesty out of the Indian legal system.

Police Orders to Shoot Lawyers on Sight
| February 23, 2009 | 4:01 am

The police have issued a shoot-on-sight order to kill any lawyer caught attacking public property in Chennai. The order comes as a response to a riot that broke out between the police and lawyers near the High Court on Thursday and Friday. During the incident hundreds of lawyers from the high court set fire to a police station, four city buses, several rickshaws and motorcycles. The cause of the riot is ostensibly because of the lack of government support towards the embattled LTTE in Sri Lanka, however the rage pent up by lawyers across the state to seek remediation in their cased through the law seems to be the underlying reason for the unrest.

To my knowledge, the police have not actually shot anyone, though there have been several newspaper photographs of bloodied lawyers who had been hit on the heads by riot police.
While I am not an expert on court politics in Tamil Nadu, it seems to me that it is a bad sign for the state of the government. Lawyers presumably have access to the wheels of justice and it is shocking that they would resort to violence rather than attempt to push their disagreements through official channels.

But their actions show that the legal system in India is badly broken. Cases languish in courts. And there is a backlog that can take decades to even get a hearing, and the near endless appeal process means that no decision is ever truly final. While the lawyers I know speak highly about the ideals of the legal system, they are hopelessly bogged down by its processes and rarely believe that courts can effective deliver justice.

With courts impotent, organized crime syndicates have flooded the market with their own brand of justice, and allowed underworld figures to adjudicate decisions on their own. I wrote about this happening in Bangalore for WIRED last year.

The current riots in Tamil Nadu (which are said to be spreading to Madurai and Trichy) are a natural outgrowth of the current system. If the law is completely broken, what incentive do lawyers have not to riot? When lawyers are reduced to street thuggery what does that say about the functioning of the state itself?

Of course the police’s current order to shoot lawyers on sight shows the low esteem in which the government holds the legal profession.

India Today’s 10 Crore Fake Rupee Boondoggle
| February 12, 2009 | 10:34 am

Are Pakistani spies flooding vast amounts of fake cash into the Indian economy with the intend ot devaluing the rupee? That the question that India Today wants you to ask this week with its cover story titled Fake Currency, The New Threat. It’s a solid topic for an investigative piece, too bad they don’t have any evidence for the claim.

Quoting a mid-level minion on Maharashtra’s Anti-Terror squad named Param Bir Sing, reporter Malini Bhupta claims that 8 out of every 1000 notes are counterfeit. Never mind that the anti-terror squad doesn’t have jurisdiction over currency matters, the rate of .8% isn’t exactly staggering.

Which is to say, in absolute terms, peanuts.

The real story killer comes when you start to read the data they’ve collected. In 2007, when counterfeiting in the country was at its absolute worst, the police seized about Rs. 10 crore (about $4 million) worth of fake notes. In addition to those busts, all commercial banks in the country combined reported receiving rs 5 crore ($2.5 million).

By contrast, in 1993 alone, the US seized $120 million in counterfeit currency.

Even if they were off by a factor of 10, and there was $70 million worth of fake rupees changing hands in a year, it would barely be a hiccup on India’s road to development.

Given that India’s GDP is $3.319 trillion. It would take billions of fake notes to even come close to making a dent in the economy. Counterfeiting isn’t much of a problem at all. In fact, the total fake currency detected by the government between 2001 and 2007 comes to just 61.7 crore rupees, or about $15 million. Which is to say, a little less than a nice apartment in Mumbai.

There is no way that a story like this should pass through even a rudimentary fact checking process, let alone end up on the cover of a national magazine. India Today is becoming the Fox News of South Asia. The claim of a counterfeit menace doesn’t even stand up to its own internal logic and seems only aimed at scaring readers into believing that Pakistan is up to no good dirty tricks.

Mobgalore: How Organized Crime Took Over Bangalore
| October 24, 2008 | 9:59 am

Since the beginning of India’s IT boom Bangalore has been the darling of globalization pundits and and development dreamers. The gist, as Thomas Friedman articulates it, is that the world is flattening so that workers and companies can compete for opportunities from anywhere on the planet. Bangalore, of course, is the shiniest example of globalization’s success. However, what has been occluded from the discussion is how the massive investments and capital flows into Bangalore have also contributed to the rise of a powerful and violent mafia. Bangalore’s economy is growing much faster than its judicial, regulatory and enforcement systems. The gap has proved to be fertile ground for an unregulated, informal and often criminal systems to fill the space.

In this month’s issue of WIRED magazine I wrote a story called “The Godfather of Bangalore” where I showed how underworld dons have taken control of many of the city’s land dealings by providing an alternate judicial system to mediate land claims. There is no easy way to solve a land dispute in India. Inherited parcels are often contested by dozens of semi-legitimate claimants and court cases routinely take 15 years to come to a judgment. But the pace of land development is relentless, and companies and wealthy individuals don’t want to wait for the wheels of justice to finish, they want immediate resolutions.

Muthappa Rai is one of the most feared men in Bangalore

And this is where the land mafia comes in. Rather than go to courts, a land developer can approach one of the five or six major dons in the city and ask them to mediate a dispute, and seal the deal with threats of violence.

In the course of my research I met people who killed with guns, knives and swords. They fought each other and they fought local people for rights to the land. And most of them got rich along the way.

The most famous don (who says that he is now reformed) is Muthappa Rai, who has beaten the rap on several murder and extortion charges, but is commonly referred to as the most powerful underworld figure in the city.

I have been working on this story for three years, following the story of several different underworld figures through newspapers, government reports and on the ground reporting. In July and August I was able to meet the most influential people in the underworld, and the authorities charged with keeping them in check. The picture I’ve come up with is pretty grim. In effect, very few people have any faith in the law to resolve problems in Bangalore. Mafia dons act with impunity, and routinely defeat legal cases against them.

In my view, Bangalore isn’t only an example of the best that India has to offer. Instead Bangalore shows how the worst elements of Indian society can co-exist with a ultra high tech and modern image. Bangalore today isn’t much different than it was three hundred years ago when kings ruled the land. The kings of today are power brokers, IT captains of industry, underworld dons and government ministers who play by their own rules. Bangalore isn’t neo-colonialist as some people have claimed. It’s neo-feudalist.

Check out the video slideshow that I did for WIRED News for more information on the bangalore mafia that didn’t make it into the WIRED magazine story. I’ve also posted more photos that I took during my research here.

Kidnapping for Profit: The Ugly Side of International Adoptions
| August 30, 2008 | 10:58 am
The only memento that Salia has of his daughter Zabeen is a small photocopy of her face.

For the last week I’ve been working on a story about kidnapped children who have ended up being sent abroad by international adoption agencies. This story came out in this week’s edition of The Sydney Morning Herald and Asian Age. This is only the beginning of my research into this issue, there is a lot more to come.


‘Maybe now, we will get justice’

NOVEMBER 11, 1998, was like any other day in Chennai: hot and humid. Fatima, a young housewife with three children left her house for a grocery run across the street while two of her children, Zabeen, 2, and Sadaam Hussein, 4, played in an alley.

A three-wheeled auto rickshaw pulled up at the alley entrance and the children peeped inside. A woman reached down and grabbed Zabeen and Sadaam and dragged them into the rickshaw. The driver, a man, sped away but Sadaam managed to break free. He ran home to an empty house and cowered under a small wooden bed.

“I can still remember their faces,” says Sadaam, now 15.

While his parents searched the neighborhood, the kidnappers were meeting with the owners of Malaysian Social Services.

Police records indicate the MSS orphanage admitted Zabeen under the name Suji and claimed that her mother had abandoned her and another child.

“The documents were obviously forged,” says D. Geetha, a human rights lawyer who is representing Zabeen’s family. “The woman who signed it wasn’t a relative, it was her kidnapper.”

According to court documents the kidnappers sold children to MSS for 10,000 rupees ($280) each. Since 1991, MSS has sent almost 300 children to Australia, the Netherlands and the United States.

The orphanage demanded large donations to manage the international adoptions and collected almost $250,000. Zabeen was sent to Queensland under her new name.

“They took my child because she was beautiful,” Fatima says.

Indian orphanages are often overcrowded, but many of those children may not be as attractive to foreigners as healthy children raised by their parents.

The next five years were the stuff of nightmares. Fatima and her husband, Salia, immediately filed a report with the local police, but were not encouraged by their response.

“They barely looked at the report, it wasn’t a priority for them. There were no detectives, nothing,” Salia says.

Instead, Salia and Fatima stopped working and spent their days scouring the city for news of their daughter.

“We had to sell the jewels from my dowry and most of our property just to keep going,” Fatima says.

Then, in 2005, as news reports of adoption scandals rolled across India, a police officer asked Salia to pick out Zabeen from some photos. He identified her immediately.

The police officer told him that his daughter was safe in Australia, but that it would be difficult to bring her back. The news gave Fatima some relief.

“Every day I searched the streets for some sign of her. I had gone mad. But once the police told me that she was OK, I began to feel better. I could sleep again,” she says.

Now after almost 10 years, what they want most is news of their child. “If I could only see her and know that she is in a good place, getting a good education that is enough for me. She can stay in Australia, but we should still give her a choice to come back to her family,” Fatima says.

Until then, all they have of Zabeen is a small, photocopied picture of her aged two.

“Maybe now that the world is watching, we will get justice,” Salia says.

[Link to article in the Sydney Morning Herald]

[More photos of Zabeen’s family here]

Scarlett Keeling: Goa’s Lost Innocence
| March 14, 2008 | 12:29 am

About a month ago the half-naked body of a 15-year old British girl was found on a Goa beach. Initially police said that Scarlett Keeling was only the most recent casualty of Goa’s live fast and die partying lifestyle. Their initial crime report siad that she had dies of a drug overdose and drowning.. It took two weeks of agitating by her mother to get the police to preform a second autopsy. Their findings were that Scarlett had been drugged, raped and left to die. The mother has accused the police of taking part in a massive cover-up of her daughter’s murder.

Nerlon Albuquerque, the sub-inspector who initially led the investigation has been suspended from duty, while the BBC reports that a senior police official hints and a broad internal conspiracy.

“It is a very complicated story. It has wider ramifications,” a senior police official, who prefers anonymity, said.

He hints at influential local politicians being involved in the flourishing drug trade on the beach. – [via BBC]

Yesterday the police announced that they had solved the Keeling case and arrested two men who were said to have been in compromising positions with Keeling before her death. Placido Carvalho and Samson D’Souza have both been arrested. MSNBC reports

“The first arrested accused D’Souza has confessed to his role and has also named four others involved in the murder,” Kumar said. The others named by D’Souza would be arrested after evidence against them was established, Kumar said.

But despite the confession, several questions remain–not the least of which were if the interrogations were fair, or if D’Souza confessed only under duress. Sources on the ground in Anjuna tell me that local people believe that D’Souza is only a scapegoat being used to pacify the media interest.

In a few hours I am catching a plane to Panji to report on the Keeling case and dig up whatever I can. For now, at least, the Goan Paradise seems to be lost.

The Bone Factory: India’s Underground Trade in Human Remains
| November 28, 2007 | 10:17 am
Manoj Pal: Dom and Cadaver Deflesher

It is pitch black and raining when I first meet Manoj Pal: a man who makes his living defleshing rotting cadavers. I am a hundred kilometers outside of Calcutta in a small village called Purbasthali where police confiscated more than 100 bright white human skeletons. The bones they found were on their way along a two hundred year old pipeline for human remains. The smugglers route begins on the banks of Indian rivers and ends in the sacred halls of medicine in Western countries. The skeletons Pal prepared could have fetch as much as $70,000 on the black market.

Manoj Pal is grunt labor for the industry. As part of the dom, or grave tending, caste his job is the most grim. Day and night he recovers bodies from a nearby cremation ghat. He binds the corpses in mosquito netting and soaks them in the river for a week. When the bodies are waterlogged and mostly consumed by fish and stray dogs he scrubs off the remaining flesh, dumps the bodies in a boiling solution of caustic chemicals and lets them dry in the sun.

Before he was arrested Pal’s boss, Mukthi Biswas would sell bones to a medical supply company in Calcutta called Young Brothers for a few thousand rupees. From there the bones were wired together into free hanging skeletons and sold both domestically and abroad.

I spent three months piecing together the path that human bones take from Calcutta to the Western world for WIRED magazine. I found suppliers and buyers in well respected companies and universities across the United States. When I brought this to the attention of police in Calcutta they told me that they do not view grave robing as a serious crime. On the rare occasions that the police catch a grave robber, they mostly just let them off with a slap on the wrist.

The bone business dates back to colonial times when British doctors needed a steady supply of human skeletons to stock anatomy classes in England. Before they had set up a reliable system for preparing human skeletons on a mass scale there was an extreme shortage of bones available for study. It drove some British doctors to rob graves in their own neighborhoods. Some cemeteries were so notorious for skulduggery that there were frequent fist fights between grieving families and shovel-carrying medical students.
A bag of leg bones confiscated on the Bhutan Border

But with the advent of colonialism doctors began to look to Calcutta for fresh body supplies. By the mid 1800’s Calcutta Medical College was sending hundred of bodies abroad every year. The trade continued to flourish until the 1980s. At its peak every aspiring doctor in the world bought a box of bones along with their first year’s medical textbooks for about $300. Calcutta was exporting more than 60,000 skeletons a year making it a multi million dollar business.

But it couldn’t last forever. In 1985 rumors began to surface that the bone dealers had run out of skeletons in Calcutta’s graveyards and were killing children for their skeletons. Child skeletons are rarer than adult skeletons and fetched a higher price on the market. A man was arrested for exporting more than 1,500 child skeletons. A member of the legislature accused him of murder and put the nail in the coffin for the legal industry. By 1986 exports had all but stopped. The 13 original bone exporters all seemingly shut their doors. Medical schools in the West began relying on model skeletons for their anatomy instruction needs.

What no one knew was that at least one company was still exporting human bones. They had rekindled factories across West Bengal and had clients all over the world.

The most active bone exporter is Young Brothers. It’s a medical supply company that sits between one of Calcutta’s most active morgues and its largest cemetery. In 2001 neighbors complained that the warehouse stank like the dead. Some people reported seeing bones drying on the roof. When the health department chief Javed Ahmed Khan heard the reports he raided the facility and found bones boiling away in cauldrons and export invoices for orders all over the world. It was proof that the business was violating the export ban. But when Khan took the case to the police the owner of Young Brothers, Vinesh Aron, only spent one night in jail. The case was thrown own over a jurisdictional dispute and the business given a subtle nod that it could continue.

Since then Young Brothers has been more discreet about its business affairs, but it hasn’t exactly shuttered his doors. In October I met Aron’s in law in yet another medical supply company in Chennai. He told me that Vinesh Aron is the only man in the family with “guts”. To prove it he pulled a fetal skull off the shelf and offered to sell it to me for $400.

In the meanwhile bones are still being smuggled though illegal channels in Singapore and Paris. I found a reseller in Canada who says that he still sells Indian bones across North America.

For more about the global trade in human bones check out this month’s issue of WIRED magazine in a story called “Inside India’s Underground Trade in Human Remains“. I have also produced a shorter radio segment for NPR titled “Into the Heart of India’s Underground Bone Trade“.

For more photos of the bone cache check out these two galleries: mine and NPR’s

Dadua Slain. Is Banditry on the Wane?
| July 27, 2007 | 12:41 am
The only known picture of Dadua

I did a short interview for NPR yesterday on the last stand of the feared bandit Dadua in Uttar Pradesh last week. Special forces surrounded the dacoits position and lobbed grenades at him and ten of his armed colleagues.

I’m interested in doing some more research on banditry in India. Unlike the various revolutionary movements across South Asia, there is something romantic–if unnerving–about the dozen or royal dacoits who have spend decades resisting the government. Unlike the Naxals men like Dadua, Veerapam, and Man Singh didn’t have grandiose political aims, but were unwilling to live by conventional morality. It almost that the most powerful dacoits in India are the inheritors of India’s long dead feudal traditions.

Dadua survived in the ravines and jungles of Uttar Pradesh for so long because he fashioned himself as a patron of the rural downtrodden. He got the vote out for political parties, and paid dowry money for families who could not afford to get their daughters married off. He was half-magnanimous monarch and half cold blooded killer with over 150 murder cases attributed to him by the police.

Man Singh, the notorious bandit king who was gunned down in a similar manner by the police in the 1950’s, has risen to god like status in Madya Pradesh. Today a score of temples in rural areas include his bust along with the pantheon of Hindu gods. Even 60 years after his death local people see him as a benefactor.

Yet the central government seems to be stepping up operations against bandits and I wonder if soon there won’t be any place for these sorts of figured in India’s IT future.

I’d like to find out more about Dadua. Perhaps I’ll take a trip up to UP and visit the temple he consecrated.

Listen to the NPR story here: