Version classiqueVersion mobile

New Cannibal Markets

Jean-Daniel Rainhorn
Samira El Boudamoussi

Part 4. Organs for Sale

The Ends of the Body: Neocannibalism and Military Necropolitics

Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Texte intégral

1Drawing on Michel Foucault’s critique of sovereignty and its relation to war and biopower (Foucault 2003) and on Giorgio Agamben’s Homo sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), this chapter addresses the neglected and controversial problem of necropolitics, which Mbembé and Meintjes (2003) defined as “the exercise of sovereignty over death, maiming, and killing in wartime.”

Genealogies of a tabootopic

2My subject is the plunder of the bodies of the enemy during or in the aftermath of wars, with the complicity and collaboration of military and police states. It represents the extreme limit of what might be called neocannibalism. The theft and consumption (cannibalization) of human body parts, especially during times of war, has a long genealogy (Richardson 2001). Evidence of the biosavagery and headhunting for trophies taken from the enemy body is a common theme in the archaeological (Preston 1998; Turner and Morris 1970) and ethnographic records (Rosaldo 1980).

3However, this practice took on a new form with respect to “modern” warfare beginning in European Middle Ages when hunting and warfare were still closely related (Harrison 2012), and then late modern technologies brought in their wake new capabilities to plunder, harvest, store, and distribute human organs, tissues and genetic materials. Global licit and illicit markets to supply the demands of transplant medicine, orthopedic, and orthodontic medicine, dermatology, plastic surgery, and to serve the needs of basic science and research, commercial pharmacology, and medical training are a late twentieth-century innovation.

4There are many genealogies of war crimes and biological war booty going back to ancient Rome and the famous communal rape of the Sabine women as a war tactic. But a specifically late modern deviation began in the twentieth century with the emergence of the Nazi death camps, and continues through the early twenty-first century with the torture camps and political refugee and wartime detention camps alleged to be organ-harvesting camps. This rupture points to the demise of classical humanism, holism, and history—the end(s) of the body and the ends of history as we once knew it (or believed we did).

5Partible/divisible bodies, part-histories, and part-truths have replaced Enlightenment certitudes and universal codes of human-rights and ethics.

6A second genealogy begins with the end of the Cold War and its chaotic aftermath, which released a triumphal millenarian capitalism bolstered by an ethic of individual rights and choices. Global capitalism and advanced biotechnology led to new medically incited “tastes” for human bodies, living and dead, for the skin and bones, flesh and blood, tissue, marrow, and genetic material of the other. Rapacious demands for scarce organs and tissues produced a post-modern form of human sacrifice. Organ scarcity and needs created an unprecedented demand for them and a division of the world into organ “givers” and organ “getters,” to put it bluntly, sanctified by the medical mantra of “saving lives,” a dangerous discourse that can obliterate the collateral harm done to individuals, communities, and nation-states in the illicit procurement of human biomaterials, especially when they are still attached to their native bodies.

7Cannibal markets based on the disposability and dispensability of bio-available populations and groups have certainly flourished under economic globalization. There are cannibal markets in bodies, whole and in parts, dead and alive; in partible and portable organs; in tissues, oocytes, rented wombs, and babies; and even cannibal markets in doctors, surgeons, and nurses that move and remove these “things”—bioproducts and medical goods—from one vulnerable country to other locations and populations that have defined new rights and new sovereignties over the bodies of others. As in any market enterprise, these markets are producing winners and losers, advantaged and disadvantaged, supercitizens and subcitizens.

8Elsewhere (Scheper-Hughes 2003a, 2003b, 2006, 2008, 2011a, 2011b), I have described the criminal aspects of the traffic in humans for their disposable organs and tissues. I publicized the scars left not only on the ruined bodies of disillusioned sellers, but on the geopolitical landscapes where the illicit transplant trade has taken root. In an effort to get the attention of medical professionals, human-rights organizations, regulatory agencies and government officials, I used forceful language, describing markets in human bioproducts as “neocannibalism,” as “biolust,” “body theft,” and, even (in some instances) as “bioterrorism.” I have called surgeons involved in illicit transplants with trafficked persons “outlaws,” “vultures,” and part of an international “organs mafia,” naming their local recruiters “kidney-hunters.” I described the buyers—the medical tourists and travelers—as ethically impaired, having no qualms about helping themselves to rented wombs, buying up the oocytes and/or the embryos taken from other bodies, or kidneys purloined for pennies from depressed, displaced, disgraced, and debt-ridden-slum and shantytown dwellers, treating these “suppliers” as if they were dead bodies, or simply fresher and more mobile proxy-cadavers.

9At the heart of this book on “cannibal markets” is an analysis of post-human (see Whitehead 2009, Wolfe 2010) forms of human sacrifice. Fetishized gametes and designer infants emerge as new commodities, the new “blood diamonds” in this cannibal trade. This traffic is fueled by a neoliberal economy that values humans as commodities and the “self”—suppliers, brokers, buyers, sellers, and processors—as a market mechanism for reusable body parts, pushing human agency and hyperindividualism to their extreme limits.

10The enduring bioethical quandaries of the new biomarkets can be subsumed under the four C’s: (1) consumption, as related to the conditions making it ethically permissible to consume (cannibalize) the body parts of the other, living or dead, and what that compassionate cannibalism entails; (2) consent, especially with respect to the recruitment of the vulnerable as organs-givers and convenient sources of fresh and non-reproducible medical material; (3) coercion, in connection to the demand for sacrificial violence and bodily gifting to fulfill altruistic, kin-based, or economic survivalist needs; and, finally, (4) commodification, or the fragmentation of the body and the sale and distribution of its (alienated) parts.

11Several chapters in this book address the commodification and commercialization of the body and its parts in various forms, including transplant and reproductive tourism for kidneys, tissues, oocytes and embryos as well as the predatory recruitment of fresh and cheap doctors and nurses imported from the global South and East to the North. Today, the global quest for fresh organs from living, paid (mostly kidney) providers is widespread and robust, involving private and clandestine as well as public and normative exchanges among buyers, brokers, surgeons and sellers from North and South, East and West. Human trafficking for the removal of kidneys from the living is recognized and condemned by the global medical and transplant professions (Delmonico 2009). The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UN 2000a) and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (UN 2000b) for forced labor, sex, or to procure fresh kidneys, recognize trafficking for kidneys as organized crime, a human-rights abuse, and a potential crime against humanity.

12There is a global consensus that kidney trafficking today is: a) widespread; b) a dangerous and criminal corruption of normative organ harvesting; c) dependent on illicit organized crime; d) a serious violation of human-rights. There is also reluctance and perhaps an inability to prevent, suppress, or punish those involved in this crime. The growth of the syndicates in contrast to the small number of very limited prosecutions worldwide leads one to consider the possibility that markets in humans for the removal of their kidneys has become so normalized and routine that, despite the strong sanctions against it, few prosecutors want to take up the challenge and few governments pursue the criminals involved. There have been arrests but no prosecutions in Turkey, a major hub between East and West in illicit transplant schemes. There have been arrests and limited prosecutions of organized organs and transplant trafficking schemes in India, Israel, Brazil, South Africa, Ukraine, Kosovo, and the United States. The outcomes are variable given the different legal jurisdictions, laws applied, and legal interpretations. Some striking examples have been published elsewhere (Scheper-Hughes 2011a, 2011b; Hanssan and Sole 2011).

13A great many informed scholars from the fields of economics, bioethics, transplant medicine, and criminology have argued (as have some contributors to this volume) that regulation rather than prohibition and criminalization might be the best solution to the problem of scarcities and demands for fresh organs. The chapter by Mitra Mahdavi-Mazdeh on Iran’s government program allowing a charitable trust to organize the matching and financial compensation of willing living kidney providers for end-stage nephrectomy patients is a case in point. And compensation rather than prohibition might be a better strategy in the long run. If so, we ought to seriously consider how this can be accomplished without violating the universally shared medical ethics of care, equality, fairness, the protection of human dignity, and the avoidance, above all, of what may simply be intrinsic violence and exploitation involved in these new social and medical contracts.

Biopiracy of the dead: the body of the enemy

14Three photos of dead and violated bodies have kept my Organs Watch project alive. They are icons, displayed over my writing desk at home as I would not want my students to grapple with them. The first is a classic photo, purchased in Paris, of “Che” Guevara, his limp but graceful and slightly smiling dead body, propped up by clueless CIA agents, who did not realize they were showing the world the body of a future “saint.”

15Traumatized mothers gave the other photos to me. The second is that of seventeen-year-old Andrew Sitshetshe from Gugutethu, South Africa, whose plundered remains lay exposed on a concrete slab at the Salt River mortuary in Cape Town toward the bitter end of the antiapartheid struggle. Andrew was caught in township crossfire, while carrying his mother’s radio that had been repaired in a local shop. Andrew’s body is shown split in half and his abdomen is as empty as his eye sockets. Andrew’s evacuated body—literally a body without organs—was carelessly laid out for viewing on the Cape Times Sunday comic strips. “Like a gutted fish,” his mother, Rosemary Tandiwe Sitshetshe, told me. Then she asked a question from the Bible: “What have they done to my son?” I pursued the question, a quest that led to a full day’s reckoning at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission about politically motivated dismemberment of the dead, mixed race and black, at police mortuaries run by old school Afrikaner pathologists.

16I was given the third photo in the West Bank of Palestine, a short sprint from Jerusalem. Abdel Karim Musalmeh had been shot in the head on November 8, 1995, by Israeli Defense Force (IDF) snipers. The single bullet hole that was determined to have killed Abdel was clearly visible in the photo attached to the Israeli autopsy report from the Abu Kabir National Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv. Abdel’s execution followed a military order for the demolition of his family’s home in the Arab village of Beit Awa. Abdel was caught fleeing the family home and shot without provocation as a “wanted person on the run.” Abdel’s body was returned in tatters to his mother with the autopsy report that confirmed her son’s death by a rifle shot to his head. Why, then, his mother asked, was his dead body cracked open from neck to torso and crudely sown together and his eyes and skin removed, “Skinned,” she said, “like a rabbit.” I did not know, but promised to find an answer. And I did (Scheper-Hughes 2010, 2011c; Kugel 2010; Scheper-Hughes and Boström 2013). His autopsy at the Israeli National Forensic Institute had been followed by body plunder for organs, skin, and eyes—the skin was sent to a military skin bank at Hadassah Hospital.

17In contrast to the gradual normalization of kidney trafficking and selling, the plunder of dead bodies, especially of prisoners, enemies of war, the mentally incompetent, and children is perceived differently, as a heinous crime, a crime against the state, and (in the case of the unconfirmed allegations in Kosovo) as a crime against humanity. Ethnographic examples include: a psychiatric camp at the Argentine National Mental Colony of Montes de Oca, during and after the Dirty War; a police mortuary in Cape Town, South Africa, during the antiapartheid struggle; a militarized National Forensic Lab in Tel Aviv (Israel) during and after the two Intifadas; and finally, allegations of murder for “fresh” organs in transit-detention camps in Kosovo and Albania at the end of the Kosovo War in 1999 (Aliu 2012).

18Each case concerns missing or disappeared bodies, illegal dissections, and harvesting and stockpiling organs, tissues, and other body parts from the bodies of enemies, terrorists, combatants. In each case fact and fiction, the social imaginary, and the hallucinatory collide in media and in forensic, medical, and scientific reportage. The motives attributed to each case—eliminationist social hygiene toward the profoundly mentally disabled abandoned to the public asylum in Montes de Oca, Argentina; the desecration of dead bodies of Palestinian enemies in the Israeli case; the harvesting of tissues and solid organs from black and colored bodies in Cape Town—were often as contradictory as they were complex.

19The study of cannibal markets operating in concert with militarized states is the most toxic and self-polluting research in which one can engage. Details will not be given here but have been—and will be—published elsewhere (Scheper-Hughes 2015, in press). This research led me to engage with a taboo anthropological topic: a banned discourse on the anthropology of evil.

An anthropology of evil?

20Evil is not an anthropological subject, except, perhaps, with reference to African witches or to Amazonian dark shamans. After the Holocaust some social scientists dared to introduce a phenomenology of evil (see Ricœur 1967; Staub 1989). Few anthropologists entered the discussion. It is my intent to suggest that some forms of body plunder are just that, especially when linked to war crimes, as when the bodies of the enemy, or the bodies of terrorists, or the bodies of “subhuman” non-citizens (the profoundly disabled) are used as sources of organs, bone, skin, and tissues.

21The anthropologist’s norm of reluctance to judge or to second-guess what we are told by our informants takes on a different shape when one is working in the field of criminal behavior. Our discipline’s moral reticence may be a gentlemanly vestige of our postcolonial conventions of political reticence, one that has sometimes turned us into willing bystanders when crimes, including crimes against humanity, are taking place in our field sites. Documenting such crimes require collaborations with forensic pathologists, police and detectives, bio-archeologists, ethnographers with experience working in war zones. And anthropologists can assist governments and international investigations on organ trafficking not only from the living but also and perhaps even more urgently, from the dead, including those nightmarish scenarios in which the bodies of the enemy become the spoils of war.

22As Paul Reisman (cited by Scheper-Hughes 1995) commented in a discussion we had, “Once we identify an evil, I think we give up trying to understand the situation as a human reality. Instead we see it as in some sense inhuman, and all we then try to understand is how best to combat it. At this point we [leave anthropology behind] and we enter the political process.” For some, such as Didier Fassin (2008) and Roy D’Andrade (1995), an objectivist approach to “evil”—maintaining evil as a culturally constructed and neutral category—will ultimately provide a better understanding of how the world works. Yet modern concentration camps, transit camps, detention camps, refugee camps, pathology labs, police morgues, and transplant wards lead me to Georgio Agamben’s reflections on the Homo Sacer (1998)—the accursed ex-human, the socially dead, dehumanized entity, stripped down to a beastly form of corporality, a zoological specimen, the one to whom anything can and must be done, who can be killed with impunity. I am not afraid to identify the Homo Sacer as an evil institution. But saying so assumes no duality. It does not imply what a good opposing figure might be.

Theft of life—the real, the unreal and the uncanny

23The Organs Watch Project began in 1997, when I began to investigate rumors and strange allegations bearing on what appeared to be a collective human nightmare—the fear of being kidnapped, executed and dismantled, with one’s organs or those of one’s children stolen and distributed to strangers (Campion-Vincent and Scheper-Hughes 2001).

24Organ theft stories combine aspects of the real, the unreal, and the uncanny. There are many social and political realities that render ordinary people vulnerable, gullible, and terrified. In times of political chaos or natural disasters, people do disappear, and fears and allegations of kidnapping and murder for organs proliferate. They surface from the “political social imaginary”— where state biopower and necropolitics occupy a zone between the real and the imagined. They express the “worst fears” of vulnerable populations in the face of real acts of bioterrorism, as in Argentina during the Dirty War and in Kosovo at the end of the war there. Bodies have gone missing—where are they? Why haven’t their graves been found? Could the missing and unaccounted-for dead have fallen into the hands of medical executioners looking for their organs? I have argued that organ-theft rumors are at the very least metaphorically true, operating by means of symbolic substitution. They witness the ontological insecurity of classes of people to whom almost anything could be done, reflecting everyday threats to bodily security, urban violence, police terror, summary executions, and body mutilation, all of which were daily occurrences.

25Obviously not all allegations of body and organ theft are true. Yet, as some allegations of organs trafficking from the living and from the dead, from strangers and from enemies, were proven to be factual, my Organs Watch investigations shifted toward a kind of forensic or detective ethnography, and I followed rumors of illicit organ trafficking networks from Africa to the Middle East to Southeast Asia to South America, Europe and the United States.

26Most instances of human trafficking for the purpose of organ procurement fit into the paradigm of what the late Franco Basaglia (in Scheper-Hughes and Lovell 1987) called peacetime crimes, crimini di pace, in which the violence requires the complicity of state bureaucrats, doctors, surgeons, blood-matching technicians, public health officials, hospital administrators, medical-insurance agents and immigration officers. The crimes are directed at the displaced, disposable, distressed and sick poor, immigrants, refugees, dispossessed and the mentally or cognitively challenged. But peacetime crimes can also be deployed as war crimes, and in the worst instance transform into crimes against humanity.

27The chaos of war—civil wars, dirty wars, and genocides—provides an ideal cover for the inhumane treatment of the bodies of the enemy, the terrorist, and those seen as mentally or morally deficient, as “better off dead.” In many cases in the Organs Watch archives, the war crimes and the crimes against humanity continued under the radar, unacknowledged by Human-Rights Watch and other humanitarian organizations. They were protected by the belief that such crimes are technically impossible, that organs harvesting and transplant could not be conducted under unstable and technologically primitive conditions.

28When military interests and public health projects are enmeshed, moral reasoning is reduced to a kind of megalomaniacal hubris, which Ostrovsky and Hoy (1990, 335) describe as “the feeling you can do anything you want to whomever you want for as long as you want because you simply have the power to do so.” Under these circumstances those in power believe they are themselves in combat with a larger evil force, be it a lethal disease or political enemies of the state.

29In addition, a lack of awareness of the minimal technical-medical-surgical requirements of organ and tissue harvesting and transplantation in unruly times and places made these cases difficult to adjudicate. Even seasoned prosecutors are often confused about the difference between organ and tissue harvesting from dead bodies, brain-dead (deceased) donors, from executed prisoners, and from living, trafficked kidney suppliers.

30The role of heavily militarized states in organ theft from the bodies of the enemy combatant (the militant, the terrorist) or from the bodies of “the enemy” within—the undocumented, the new immigrants, the mad, and the mentally incompetent—is a special case in the larger realm of global organ trafficking. It is the moment when during wartime, peacetime crimes are employed on a larger, political stage, and with political intent. In unruly times severe rights abuses are perpetrated for the purpose of illicit organ and tissue theft from prisoners of war, public mental patients, and the unwanted dead bodies of the poor. Organs and tissues are harvested from nonpersons, from the socially and politically dead, the Homo Sacer of the postmodern era, and such acts can be so abhorrent as to fall under the moral-political category of crimes against humanity, that is, evil crimes.

Worst fears

31Human trafficking, kidnapping and disappearances, for the purpose of illicit organs harvesting, stem from greed, the desire to display power and authority or to curry favor with colleagues and government officials, and from political motives. Human trafficking for organs is not uncommon in war zones, during (and after) political conflict, in transitional states as well as during natural disasters, like the earthquakes in Turkey and Haiti, all of which create the public chaos that can provide a cover for illegal harvesting and plundering the bodies of the dead, or can stir up rumors that such things have happened, without any forensic evidence.

32Some of these human trafficking allegations are false, based on moral panics, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the anxiety and the abovedescribed “worst fears” of vulnerable populations and ethnic groups who have experienced the disappearances of their loved ones, and to whom (they know quite well) almost anything could be done, even the murder of their children for organs. Their lives aren’t worth 20 centavos in the mind of the organs traffickers. The fears were based on a sense of political and existential bio-insecurity.

33For example, there were many allegations of illegal organ harvesting by the Israeli humanitarian field clinic set up in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake there. A spokesperson for the UK Liberal Democratic Party called for a parliamentary investigation of the allegations, which were later dismissed as political propaganda from Iran and Palestine ( However, the rumors were actually fueled by the presence in Haiti of both US and Israeli religious organizations that proposed airlifts and adoptions by foreign families of the alleged “tens of thousands of Haitian children” orphaned by the earthquake. Organ theft and child theft are often linked in rumors. In this instance they were fueled by humanitarian interventions to rescue orphaned children whose parents were not dead but missing in the initial chaos (

34The announcement was made on Israel National News that two humanitarian organizations, “Israel Flying Aid” and “Orange Israel Telecommunications” were planning to open an orphanage to accommodate more than 200 Haitian orphans in Port-au-Prince with the hope of air lifts and adoptions by Israeli couples (

  • 1

35In Kosovo, there were allegations, some of which have been verified, of the wanton killing of Serb civilians and former militants in retaliation for the genocide in former Yugoslavia, concerns being raised regarding the several hundred Serbs whose bodies were still missing at the end of the Kosovo war (Ghia 2011). United Nations and European Union investigations were informed by what were politically generated disinformation campaigns, including the release of a tape in Serbia in September 2012 in which a former Kosovo Liberation Army militant described the illegal harvesting of a heart from a Serbian prisoner at a detention center near the Albanian town of Kukes in the late 1990s and the transport of the heart to the airport in Tirana, the capital of Albania, to be sold on the black market. The witness was unreliable, which contributed to the European Parliament decision to table the investigation altogether. In fact, the EU later found evidence from the chief prosecutor, Clint Williamson, to conclude that at the end of the Kosovo war (1998–1999),1 a small number of Serbian captives had been killed and their organs harvested. But the fears expressed were not irrational or absurd. An international scheme of illicit transplant and organ harvesting of trafficked persons did nest inside Kosovo, resulting in the deaths of the transplant patients and the kidney suppliers. In this instance, the EU was forced to act and a long prosecution resulted in convictions of local doctors and international brokers. The primary defendant, a Turkish doctor, Yusef Sonmez, is still at large, though he was reported as seen in South Africa and in Azerbaijan, in public, drinking and carousing, showing that he feared nothing, least of all the Interpol detectives.

36In the case of the abuses of the bodies of the mentally deficient at Colonia Montes de Oca during and after the Dirty War, the introduction of rumors, urban legends and the mysterious disappearance of a sympathetic doctor (Cecilia Giubileo) initially contributed to a hallucinatory cordon sanitaire that protected the criminal behavior on the part of administration and staff and allowed the abuses to continue well into the beginning of the twenty-first century. When she experienced a moral and medical ethical crisis and began to share her deep reservations about the abnormality of the system, she was liquidated, or so I have concluded based on a multi-year anthropological and archival investigation of the history of that institution. There, the patients were simply referred to by the administration as “depositos”—deposited ones whose human status was under question due to their cognitive impairments. Elsewhere, I have argued that within the political-genocidal battleground of Argentina’s Dirty War (1976–1983), a war within the war was being waged by a military-dictator-appointed doctor, Florencio Sanchez, against the mentally deficient inmates concentrated at the national psychiatric hospital, the Colonia Nacional Dr. Manuel A. Montes de Oca in Torres, and its sister institution, the Colonia Psiquiatrica Domingo Cabred, in Lujan, both in Buenos Aires province. There is evidence of medical-human-rights abuses committed against abandoned mental “defectives” who were used as sources of blood, tissues and organs and allowed to die prematurely of starvation, hypothermia, blood-letting anemia, and by an institutional regime of neglect, including death by feral dogs and wild pigs (Scheper-Hughes 2015).

37The Colonia administration defended its practices of harvesting blood, tissues, and corneas, basing their practices on a legal contract with the national organs harvesting institute in Buenos Aires, today called INCUCAI. Blood taken from the inmates on a regular basis was sold to private banks, sent to the military, and sold to individuals who were required to bring a quantity of blood to the hospitals where they would have surgery. During the period of the Dirty War, the inmates were also used in clinical trials and medical experiments, as the director of the Colonia, Florencio Sanchez, admitted in his prison memoir. As we have seen here, Argentina was not the only modern military state to recognize the value of the human body—whether the body of the enemy, the body of disposable subcitizens, and whether living or dead—to supply scarce and valuable medical, surgical, and reproductive material. In its worst form, however, the abuses at the mental colony were egregious, almost in a class by themselves.

38Primo Levi’s (1959) chilling description of the pernicious “hierarchy of bodies” at Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland identifies the lowest rung of hell as reserved for the Muselmänner—those who were like walking dead men, their eyes having receded into their sockets, their legs unsteady, unable to stand, without the will to survive, unable to flee. Central to Georgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer thesis is the figure of the Muselmann, the man or woman in an advanced state of starvation, stupefaction, and “living in death”, a life reduced to silence, awaiting death, with no other destiny. While I am suggesting that the inmates at Montes de Oca occupy a similar status, both Muselmänner and the ghosts of Montes de Oca are the extreme case, even for the concentration camps, even for the wretched madhouses that have housed the profoundly mentally deficient.

39Camp life at Montes de Oca, as described by Florencio Sanchez in his prison diary, was hardly a pleasant nudist camp of vacationers. It reproduced a hierarchy of ethnomedical folk categories, which ranged from the “high functioning,” the violent ones, the dangerous ones, the aggressive, the oversexed, the useful, the ambulatory, and then, at the bottom of the heap, were the NNs, the “depositos,” and the “gatosos,” the cats, the pissers, and the crawlers, those who seemed to have surrendered any claim to human status, and were not so much despised by their caretakers for their inability to keep themselves minimally intact, but symbolically “disappeared” and rendered invisible. But in “suffering” their inhumanity the Muselmänner of Montes de Oca stand as an indictment of the social and medical system that created them.

40Crimes such as these, ones that are often referred to as heinous crimes, unpardonable crimes, crimes “that cry out to heaven for vengeance,” are protected by the emotions of disgust, repugnance, and fear of seeing, let alone handling, dead bodies. Death anxiety, death pollution—a fear and avoidance of confronting the dead body—creates a hermetically sealed environment for abuses to take place. Such was the case at the Israeli National Forensic Institute at Abu Kabir. The elegant building housed a genetics/DNA lab on the top floor that was clean, pure, completely segregated from the morgue in the basement. Those of the third floor did not know what crimes were being committed beneath the clean scientific labs of which they were so proud.

41What explains the complicity of the forensic pathologists? Perhaps during the worst times of political conflict there was a moral dispensation, even a belief that the desecration of the dead was necessary. One thinks of many other similar cases, such as the collapse of morality among US soldiers in the prison at Abu Ghraib in Irak. Perhaps it began with the body of the enemy, the Palestinian “terrorist”, and gradually the practice of autopsies turned into ad hoc dissections spread to other populations.

42The allegations of the plunder of the bodies of the enemy at the Israeli Forensic Institute were dismissed as blood libels and political propaganda against Israel. When we began our independent investigations of Abu Kabir, neither Boström nor I knew that an internal whistleblower, a colonel, Dr. Chen Kugel, an Israeli forensic pathologist and a military officer, had been working behind the scenes with three other younger pathologists to stop the plunder of the dead and the stockpiling of body parts at the Institute. These “perversions,” as he called them, filled Dr. Kugel with righteous anger at the corruption, deceit, and abuse of the dead by public officials whose obligation was to be their final guardians. Kugel paid a heavy price for his interventions. He was forced out of his position at the National Institute and was treated as a traitor and, worse, as a “leper,” he told me.

43The unlikely collaboration among a Swedish journalist, an American anthropologist, and an Israeli pathologist and IDF military officer brought about an unanticipated outcome. The Ministry of Health and the Israeli government accepted our published conclusions and concluded their own investigations that led to the removal of Dr. Yehuda Hess and the appointment of Dr. Chen Kugel as his successor.

44“The dead body has rights and a dignity of its own,” Kugel commented as he took Israeli anthropologist Meira Weiss, Israeli Organs Watch Assistant Zvika Or, and me on a private tour of the “new” Forensic Institute and Ministry of Health, and the morgue at Abu Kabir in 2013, now under his direction. “Bad things may happen here, as in any forensic institution,” he said as he rolled out a dead body from its refrigerated cubby. “But these bodies under my care will be safe from illicit harvesting. It won’t matter if these are Jewish bodies, Muslim bodies, Christian bodies, whether they are Israeli bodies or Palestinian bodies or undocumented guest worker bodies, or Russian bodies. There is only one body here and they are all to be treated in the same way.”

45According to the dedicated Israeli pathologist, a guardian of the dead, and also a proud Israeli military officer, the dead body is not nothing. A dead body is not simply an evacuated object. Kugel often substituted the word “person” for the body of the dead and never used the words corpse or cadaver. “Dead bodies matter” could be his political slogan. The dead body was, in his view, a precious “someone” to his parents, siblings, partners, and other loved ones. The body had a history and a life. The dead bodies had grieving relatives. There are no hierarchies of dead persons. He said that the choice to practice forensic pathology meant that the pathologist and the dead were joined at the hip, joined at the heart, the lung, and the skin. What happened during those two decades of corruption of the morgue was a violation of the body politics. It was an evil, a term most secular Israelis reserve for the Shoah, for terrorist bombings, and for suicide attacks. Translated into secular language, the dismemberment, disarticulation, distribution, the stockpiling of skin, bones, organs, genitals, and tissues of the dead, was, indeed, to Dr. Kugel, a crime against humanity.

46The violations of the bodies of the incarcerated, the disabled, the despised, and the political enemy derive from a mix of base corruption, indifference, greed, and the violation of civil rights and medical humanrights. The wanton harvesting of the dead bodies of the enemy is not only a war crime, it is a crime against humanity in which morality is suspended and—in the words of Jan Gross (2001) writing about the systematic butchery, torture, and burning alive of 1,600 Jewish men, women, and children in the Polish town of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941—“the devil enters history.”



Agamben, G. 1998. Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Aliu, F. 2012. Medicus Clinic was “part of wider crime syndicate.” Interview with Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Balkan Insight. September 14. Accessed at:

Campion-Vincent, V., and N. Scheper-Hughes. 2001. On organ theft narratives. Current Anthropology 42(4):555–558.

D’Andrade, R. 1995. Moral models in anthropology. Current Anthropology 36(3):399–408.

Delmonico, F. L. 2009. The implications of the Istanbul Declaration on Organ Trafficking and Transplant Tourism. Current Opinion in Organ Transplantation 14(2):116–119.

Fassin, D. 2008. Beyond good and evil? Questioning the anthropological discomfort with morals. Anthropological Theory 8(4):333–344.

Foucault, M. 2003. Society Must be Defended. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976. New York, NY: Picador.

Ghia, R. M. 2011. A word with: Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Bright: Organising Media against Organised Crime. Accessed at

Gross, J. T. 2001. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hanssan, F., and S. Sole. 2011. Kidneygate: What the Netcare bosses really knew. Mail and Guardian, April 29.

Harrison, S.. 2012. Dark Trophies. Hunting the Enemy Body in Modern War. New York, NY: Berghahn Books.

Kugel, C. (Lt. Col). 2010. Medical human-rights abuses at the National Forensic Institute Abu Kabir. Paper delivered at the University of California Organs Watch Conference, Berkeley, CA, May 21.

Levi, P. 1959 (2010). Survival at Auschwitz. New York, NY: Orion Press.

Mbembé, A., and L. Meintjes. 2003. Necropolitics. Public Culture 15(1):11–40.

Ostrovsky, V., and C. Hoy. 1990. By Way of Deception. The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Preston, D. 1998. Cannibals of the Canyon. Originally published in The New Yorker. November 30.

Richardson, R. 2001. Death, Dissection, and the Destitute. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Ricœur, P. 1967. The Symbolism of Evil. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Rosaldo, R. 1980. Ilongot Headhunting, 1883–1974. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Rothman, D., E. Rose, T. Awaya, B. Cohen, A. Daar, S. L. Dzemeshkevich, C. J. Lee et al. 1997. The Bellagio task force report on transplantation, bodily integrity, and the international traffic in organs. Transplantation Proceedings 29(6):2739–2745.

Scheper-Hughes, N. 1995. The primacy of the ethical: Propositions for a militant anthropology. Current Anthropology 36(3):409–440.

—. 2003a. Keeping an eye on the global traffic in human organs. The Lancet 361(9369):1645–1648.

—. 2003b. Rotten trade: Millennial capitalism, human values, and global justice in organs trafficking. Journal of Human-Rights 2(2):197–226.

—. 2006. Alistair Cooke’s bones: A morality tale. Anthropology Today 22(6):10–15.

—. 2008. The illegal organ trade: Global justice and the traffic in human organs. In Living Donor Organ Transplantation. Edited by R. W. G. Gruessner and E. Bedetti. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Medical.

—. 2010. Body parts and bio-piracy: tissue, skin, bone and organ harvesting at Israel’s National Forensic Institute. CounterPunch, October 25. Accessed at

—. 2011a. The Rosenbaum kidney trafficking gang. CounterPunch. November 30.

—. 2011b. Mr Tati’s holiday and João’s safari: Seeing the world through transplant tourism. Body and Society 17(2-3):55–92.

—. 2011c. The body of the terrorist: Blood libels, bio-piracy, and the spoils of war at the Israeli Forensic Institute. Social Research: An International Quarterly 78(3):849–886.

—. 2015. The ghosts of Montes de Oca: buried subtext of the Argentina’s Dirty War. The Americas 72(2):87–220.

—. 2015 (in press). The Ghosts of Montes de Oca: Naked Life and the Medically Disappeared. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Scheper-Hughes, N., and D. Boström. 2013. The body of the enemy. Brown Journal of World Affairs 19(11):243–263.

Scheper-Hughes, N., and A. M. Lovell, eds. 1987. Psychiatry Inside Out. Selected Writings of Franco Basaglia. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Staub, E. 1989. The Roots of Evil. The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Turner, C. G., and N. T. Morris. 1970. A Massacre at Hopi. American Antiquity 35:320–331.

UN (United Nations). 2000a. United Nations Conventions Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols Thereto.

—. 2000b. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Whitehead, N. L. 2009. Post-human anthropology. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 16:1–32.

Wolfe, C. 2010. What is Posthumanism? Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.




Professor of anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, where she also directs the doctoral program in medical anthropology. Her research and writings focus on violence, suffering, and premature death as these are experienced on the margins of the late modern world. She has written or edited several award winning books including Death without Weeping: the Violence of Everyday Life, Violence in War and Peace (with Philippe Bourgois), and Commodifying Bodies (with Loïc Wacquant). Scheper-Hughes is the founding director of Organs Watch, a fieldwork-based, medical human-rights and documentation project, based at the University of California, Berkeley. She has participated in the production and filming of several documentaries on the human organ trade.

© Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2015

Conditions d’utilisation :

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search