Corpse-selling case outrages Colombians Police say homeless slain to get bodies for med school
David L. Marcus
The Dallas Morning News
BARRANQUILLA, Colombia—The bleeding man who staggered to a police station three weeks ago told a story so bizarre that the patrolman had to listen.
“The night guards called me into the medical school to pick up cartons,’ said the man, Oscar Rafael Hernandez, 24, a nearly toothless garbage-picker. “When I was inside, they smacked me over the head and shot me. They left me for dead on a metal table. . . . I heard them say, “We need one more to fill the quota.’ Soon I heard a lot of shouting and beating, and they put a body on another table.’
Although the tale sounded outlandish and the witness looked dubious, the patrolman went to the medical school shortly before dawn Feb. 29. The guards refused to unlock the gates. When more officers came and forced their way inside, they found a horrifying sight: 10 freshly killed cadavers of homeless men and women, and body parts of at least 14 more victims—all ready for study by medical students.
There on an aluminum table—just as Mr. Hernandez had said—was another pummeled, bullet-pierced garbage-picker, his heart still beating.
Colombians, though numbed by violence, have been outraged by the extent of the carnage at the Free University of Barranquilla. For months, apparently, guards lured down-and-out garbage hunters, killed them and sold their bodies. The victims included a 16-year-old girl, as well as a woman who peddled coffee outside the university.
The scheme was convenient for everybody but the victims. The way police describe it, the guards made $200 per cadaver. The medical school got a steady supply of cadavers and organs. The purchasing director kept to his tight budget and made a healthy profit for himself. And the city of 2 million found a grim method to reduce its homeless population.
Colombia, with the highest murder rate in the Americas, has nearly become inured to massacres. Television news anchors bleat out a nightly report of killings by guerrillas, by the army, by drug traffickers, gun smugglers and common criminals.
But the Free University case has made even some of the most hard-bitten Colombians question what is happening. Doctors’ university
“This is very different because it took place at a university for doctors, who were supposed to study to save and cure people. Instead, people were being killed for them,’ said Maria del Carmen, 41, leader of a new trash-pickers’ association in this city.
Two thousand garbage-pickers from across the country last week gathered in Bogota for a memorial and protest march. The Justice Ministry and the government’s human rights office have said the killers in this case should be made models and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Investigations at other universities in Colombia—which has some of the best medical schools in South America—have raised suspicions about the source of body parts. One survey showed that the Free University and the two other medical schools on Colombia’s Caribbean coast have not legally bought a cadaver since 1990, despite the fact that they need several cadavers per semester.
The scandal at the Free University widens by the day. Fifteen people have been arrested, including the university’s comptroller, director of morphology and security chief. The president was fired. The rector—who also serves as a senator—was forced to resign from the Senate ethics committee.
A newsmagazine, Semana, said investigators have found numerous examples of sexual abuse, grade-selling and awarding academic posts as political favors at the Free University.
The medical school has admitted no wrongdoing, but two weeks ago it was closed indefinitely because auditors found “grave irregularities.’ In a typical example of sloppy bookkeeping, administrators still cannot say exactly how many medical students were enrolled. Estimates range from 1,400 to 2,000.
One of the many tragedies in the case is that the Free University’s reputation has been sullied, especially in the eyes of the poor it was supposed to serve. The school was founded 60 years ago so that ordinary Colombian families—those without savings or political clout—could have access to higher education.
The prosecutor and the lead defense attorney in the case are graduates of the Free University. Both caution that the reports of body-snatching at the Barranquilla campus are nothing more than “hypothetical’ at this point.
But every day, truck drivers, cabbies and even schoolchildren pass judgment. After newspapers published the picture of a wooden club that security guards allegedly used to knock out garbage pickers, the school was dubbed “Club U.’
Thursday, medical students finished an emergency meeting and walked to the university’s main gate on a four-lane street. Drivers slowed to yell “Assassins!’ and “You’re gonna club us to death!’
Luz Miriam Torrente, 22, listened with a grimace.
The first woman in her family to attend college, Ms. Torrente wants to be a pediatrician.
“A few days ago we were coming out of a Mass for the victims,’ she said. “These little kids came up to me and said: “We’re afraid of you. How could you do those things to those people!’ ‘
Ms. Torrente and other medical students say they are being unfairly stigmatized. Patients have recoiled in horror when they learned that they were being treated by doctors from the Free University, and other schools have rebuffed applicants from the university.
“Doctors have needed to study body parts since the beginning of medicine in ancient Greece,’ said another student, Tania Campo Pernette, 21. “What no one understands is that these people who got organs by one means or another had no connection with us.’
Hints that something was amiss surfaced in November. Oddly, the tell-tale sign was the absence of bodies.
Barranquilla’s garbage-pickers—who call themselves recyclers—stopped finding bloodied corpses on the Circunvalar, the highway that leads out of the city, past giant chemical plants, cement factories and open-air dumps.
“Some mornings, we used to find up to seven corpses by the road, beaten and tied up,’ said Mrs. del Carmen, head of the recyclers’ association. “Then we didn’t see any at all, which was strange.’
Often, police said, the corpses were dumped by right-wing groups organizing a cleanup campaign to rid Colombia of the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes and beggars. But after November, investigators believe, some of those corpses may have been sold to the medical school.
Recyclers, who have organized in recent years, told the Justice Ministry that 289 of their peers were killed or had “disappeared’ nationwide. Others complained of being robbed by the police. But no investigation was started.
Adriana Christina Mejia, a social worker for a private foundation, said society’s attitudes come through in the words used to describe the country’s estimated 50,000 recyclers. They are commonly called “garbage people’ and “the disposables.’
“They are treated as something beneath human beings,’ said Ms. Mejia. “But they are finding uses for things that are thrown away, like cans, glass and plastic. It’s honorable work and good for the environment, although people look down on it.’
Third World-style recycling is brutal, unpredictable work. The day often starts at sunrise and ends well after sunset. Earnings usually come to about 1,500 pesos ($2.50)—enough for a couple of sodas and sandwiches.
As Colombian cities have sold their garbage operations to save money, recycling has become profitable. Companies have chained garbage dumps and limited the number of recyclers. In Barranquilla, the newly privatized dumps charge a daily entrance fee of several cents, and middle-men buy metal and cardboard at low prices.
It took a news story about the sale of corpses for Colombians to understand the dangers faced by the garbage people.
“We want society to recognize us as human beings, to see that we share a desire to live, to have what other people have, like adequate homes and medical service,’ said Mrs. del Carmen, who lives in a clean, spare wooden shack on the edge of a dump. The biggest decoration on the wall is a 1982 calendar printed on cloth.
So far this year, 60 recyclers are missing nationwide, according to their association.
In Barranquilla, the authorities never admitted a problem until Mr. Hernandez sought out the police three weeks ago.
Mr. Hernandez had been shot in the right ear at close range with a .38-caliber revolver. He was left for dead in a refrigerated morgue but managed to sneak out. The university was closed for a break between semesters, and Barranquilla was teeming with its annual carnival.
Mr. Hernandez is still in intensive care in a closely guarded hospital room. The other surviving recycler is in intensive care. He lost consciousness during the beating and has been unable to testify, said prosecutor Jose Anibel Gonzalez.
When the news broke, Sen. Jose Ramon Navarro Mojica, rector of the university, issued a statement denying any crimes had taken place.
“The guards had a confrontation with some suspects who tried to clandestinely enter the university, leading to some being wounded,’ the statement said.
But several recyclers came forward to tell how they had been invited in to the university at night in recent weeks but had either forgotten or become suspicious.
Reporters witnessed tearful scenes when bodies were identified.
Luis Antonio Fulleda Mejia, a private in the Colombian army, identified his mother, coffee-seller Maria Alvarez Mejia.
“She earned her living in a decent manner, and look at the state she’s in,’ he said.
Flor Pacheco recognized her 28-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who hadn’t been seen since dropping off $5 and going off to enjoy carnival several days before.
The university’s security chief, Pedro Viloria, tried to commit suicide by drinking insecticide, but he was saved and arrested.
Mr. Navarro, the rector, still hasn’t admitted any wrongdoing by the school. But he vowed to ask Amnesty International, the human rights group, to look into the deaths. He demanded that the Senate approve the death penalty for anyone killing people for the purpose of selling corpses. It’s not likely to become law because Colombia bans capital punishment, no matter what the crime.
Convictions of those arrested aren’t guaranteed. Ernesto de la Espiella Barcenas, lawyer for five of the guards, said he will prove that the victims were killed outside the university, then brought to the grounds already dead.
That is important because it will indicate that someone else—police or paramilitary squads—is responsible for murder, he said.
This month, one of the police officers who first arrived on the campus said night watchman Saul Hernandez offered a $250 bribe to call off the investigation. Mr. de la Espiella, the lawyer, denies it.
“How could someone with 20,000 pesos in his pocket offer a 130,000 bribe?’ he asked.
The defense attorneys are likely to portray the victims as unsympathetic characters. “Five of those whose identities are known had been charged at one time or another with possessing or selling drugs or with prostitution,’ said Mr. de la Espiella.
But he conceded, “That’s not justification for killing them.’
Already the slayings have had a political fall-out. In elections in mid-March, Bernardo Hoyos, a left-wing priest, was elected mayor of Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city. Many say voters were attracted by his message of justice for everyone, rich and poor.
The medical students—who have no idea when classes are going to resume—also are learning about politics.
Several are looking into opening a park where the homeless can clean up and sleep in this filthy city.
Others are doing volunteer work with the sick, in part to restore the good name the university had decades ago.
“People have done so much damage to us that we can’t practice our profession,’ said Omar Oliveros, who is halfway through medical school. “We want to be doctors, good doctors, to save lives.’
PHOTO(S): Garbage-pickers march in Bogota, Colombia, to protest killings that police say were committed at the Free University of Barranquilla medical school; (The Dallas Morning News: David L. Marcus) MAP(S): 15 have been arrested inthe Free University cadaver scandal; (The Dallas Morning News) ; PHOTO LOCATION: Columbia-Politics & Government.