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What is a kidney worth?

(Page 9 of 11)

But then, a man named Shushan Meir, who later is charged with being part of the syndicate, called the police and told them Mr. Zohr was stealing the money. Mr. Meir apparently hoped, strangely enough, that the cops would help prevent this illegal deal from going sour. It was the final confirmation the police needed to bust up the ring.

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On the morning of Nov. 27, 2003 - a year and a day after Hernani went under the knife - Johan, Helberg, and a police team that includes a photographer and several plainclothes detectives converge on the back parking lot at St. Augustine's. They walk quickly up the hill into the facility's transplant division.

Helberg, the team leader, announces that they have a search warrant and will be seizing files. Johan adds that he's an independent investigator looking into crimes committed under the Human Tissue Act. He doesn't need a search warrant and can look at any of the clinic's files at any time. He steps into a side office where a whiteboard hangs on the wall. Scrawled on it are two names - "A. Robel" and "Rogerio Bezzera" - and today's date.

"What are those?" he asks Lindy Dickson, a staff member who would later be arrested and charged with complicity in the scheme. She tells him the two men are, at this moment, on operating tables upstairs.

Robel. That's the guy who was left stranded when Zohr jumped off the table last week, Johan realizes. And he's already been paired up with another donor, a Brazilian named Rogerio Bezzera da Silva. With this, Johan gets a glimpse of the efficiency and sophistication of the syndicate. Only days after one donor gets cold feet, the group has another one on the operating table. This one, he will learn, is getting only $6,000 for his kidney. Robel, the recipient, is paying $45,000 for a new organ.

Police decide against arresting the two men while they're on operating tables, but several days later, they make three arrests. Robel, the recipient, pleads guilty. He's fined about $770 and returns to Israel. Two apparently low-level syndicate operatives, including Meir, are charged. One makes a plea bargain, while Meir will be tried beginning July 13. Mr. Bezzera da Silva isn't charged, but he forfeits his $6,000.

That same week, Brazilian police also arrest two Israelis and nine Brazilians.

The $6,000 is gone

Nearly a year after his South African trip, every last bit of Hernani's $6,000 is gone. Daisy sells popsicles to pay the bills. Hernani sold his motorbike after sliding off the road one rainy night and running into the back of a truck. He now walks with a limp.

Hernani continues to see Antonia. There is no dialogue between Hernani and Daisy, only the occasional monotone orders for her to get the phone, go shopping, mind the children. He will not hold 9-year-old Luiza's hand when they walk around the neighborhood together, and he cannot, or will not, pay for her to play organized soccer, even though she controls the ball better than half the boys during their games in the street.

Hernani's plight is common among kidney sellers. According to the study in India, organ selling actually increased poverty. Some 54 percent of sellers were extremely poor before losing a kidney. A year later, 74 percent were still in debt, and the average family income had declined by about 30 percent.

For Hernani, things could hardly get worse.

But they do.

On Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2003, Hernani, like 40 million other Brazilians, is watching the nightly news on TV Globo. He's had a tough day. He's heard that the friend with the white VW, who was instrumental in convincing Hernani to sell his kidney, was arrested in a surprise raid that morning. No one knows why the Brazilian FBI would be after him.

Sitting on the couch that night with another friend, Hernani discovers why. Police in South Africa have broken up an international organ-trafficking ring, he hears the announcer say. Authorities have detained 11 people in the last 24 hours and expect to make more arrests. The words "organ trafficking" and "arrests" jump out at him, just like that day when he heard a man behind him say: "We pay people $6,000."