Investigative journalist Scott Carney

Investigative journalist and author of The Red Market discusses child trafficking and describes how easy it is to find black market organs online.

Scott Carney has worked in some of the most unlikely corners of the world, including India, which he first visited while he was a student at Ohio's Kenyon College. The investigative journalist is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and has had his work appear in various outlets, including NPR, the CBC, the BBC, National Geographic TV and Foreign Policy. In his first book, Red Market, Carney goes behind the scenes of the little-known multibillion-dollar underĀ­ground global industry of buying and selling organs, bones and live people.


Tavis: Scott Carney is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor at Wired Magazine whose eye-opening new text is called “The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers and Child Traffickers.” Scott, nice to have you on the program.

Scott Carney: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Tavis: I’m gonna start with a question that might have an arresting answer for me. Let me ask anyway. So your body, you have calculated, on the underground market would be worth about a quarter million dollars. So how do you assess what my body would be worth seriously on the underground market?

Carney: Well, you have to look at the above-ground market first. We can be sold with our blood, our internal organs, our skeletons, our ligaments. For men, maybe the sperm is maybe the thing that varies the most. I mean, you’re famous, so you’re worth a little more [laugh].

You know, every market is completely different. When you’re actually selling on the black market, or on the red market, as I say, it’s really about how much you can bargain for. I mean, it’s sort of like selling a used car.

When I’m selling a kidney, you know, that broker who’s doing the transaction is gonna want to buy it for as cheap as possible from you and they’ll sell it for as much as they can get.

Tavis: So I’m worth at least a quarter million dollars.

Carney: I’d say at least a quarter million dollars.

Tavis: I’m asking that in all seriousness because I’m just trying to get a sense of what kind of position that puts people in around the world who are really living in abject poverty when that kind of money is thrown around for body parts.

Carney: Well, I’m saying I’m worth about a quarter million in the United States as an American. If we look at somebody who’s living in India where I’ve spent a great deal of time, their bodies are worth considerably less because they have no real bargaining power when it comes down to it.

What has happened is that, for a lot of people, they see their body as a last ditch social safety net where they have nothing else to bargain with. The only thing that they can sell is their body. You know, there’s this quote that I begin by book with where I interview this activist named Maria Selvam and, in it – maybe you can read it.

Tavis: Yeah, let me read it. “In other parts of India, people say that they are going to Malaysia or the United States with a glimmer of hope in their eyes. In Tsunami Nagar, people speak that way about selling their kidneys.”

Carney: Exactly. This was a village where these were all tsunami refugee survivors. They’d been living in this camp for years at this point with really no government help. The organ brokers just descended there and, within the course of a couple of months, 80 women all sold their kidneys at once.

You know, you can go to this village and the women are wearing their saris and you can all see these cross-sections just taken out of them. It’s because that’s all they had left to bargain with and there was an industry just waiting to get them.

Tavis: Who is at the helm, if there is such a thing? How does this industry thrive around the world? I mean, who’s behind this?

Carney: Well, there’s no kingpin. There’s no big godfather involved with it. Really what it is is a bunch of doctors who get a patient who has kidney failure and they really want to help that patient. You know, the organ transplant list could be five or ten years here in the United States. For somebody who doesn’t want that, they will look wherever they can to get one.

If you look hard enough, you start coming into touch with people who will make things happen for you. Then it’s these individual negotiations with doctors, individual negotiations with brokers and a great deal of these organs actually move that way through the black market.

Tavis: To your point of looking hard enough, you can find somebody that will get you what you need, how hard do you really have to look?

Carney: It’s not immediately apparent, but I would say three or four hours on Google and you’ll come across some leads, yeah.

Tavis: That easy?

Carney: That easy, yeah.

Tavis: What kind of money is generated around the world as a result of this red market, as you call it?

Carney: It’s really difficult to say. I mean, these are criminal organizations that the records are really poor and we’re talking about a great variety of industries. I’m looking at child trafficking into adoption, I’m looking at kidneys, I’m looking at blood, skeleton sales, really a whole variety of things.

But I’m estimating it’s at least in the billions of dollars altogether. You know, it could be maybe tens of billions, maybe that’s too high. It’s difficult to say for sure.

Tavis: There’s a lot that’s arresting – back to that word – in the text. One of the things that troubled me the most is the reality, Scott, that these are poor people, to your point. Their bodies are all they have left to bargain with or to leverage.

More often than not, it’s the poor who are sacrificing body parts for the elite. This stuff doesn’t go – it’s not top down. This is a bottom up enterprise. What say you about that?

Carney: Well, one of the core issues in the books is that human flesh always rises through social classes. It doesn’t come back down. You don’t find a lot of millionaires willing to give up their kidney altruistically or even sell one because they’re in a place where they don’t need to. Whereas, the poor, when they don’t have a lot of options, they become victims very easily and very quickly into this industry.

Let me take the example of child trafficking which I spent a great deal of time exploring. I found this family in India, in Chennai, who lived in a slum and in 1999 had their child – his name was Sabach – stolen right by a water pump and bought by an orphanage there. The orphanage needs a fair number of kids to sell on the international market in order just to keep their revenue stream going.

That kid was adopted out into the United States, in the American Midwest, and I found him ten years later. You know, this was an upright, middle class family, Christian family, good people. They didn’t know that they were participating in child trafficking.

But even after they did know, this kid is rising from the slums to the first world, there’s no effort or even interest like how do you bring the kid back to that world. You can just see him rise and then, once he’s risen, how do you go back?

Tavis: To your example now, though, Scott, how prevalent do you think this notion is that people are participating in this kind of activity unwittingly?

Carney: It’s easy to disguise the truth from yourself, I think. I think that when you feel you have a need and you presume that you’re doing good that it’s very easy to overlook what crimes might be behind that. For instance, with medical skeletons, every doctor needs to study a real human skeleton. It’s a good way to learn.

When you have a skeleton, you just think I’m studying a human anatomy. You don’t realize that this skeleton might be coming from a grave. It might have been robbed from the gravesides in Calcutta and sent in a big industry to medical schools here. You just assume that, because the end result of a medical education is good, the whole system must be good.

Tavis: But there have to be rules and regulations that allow one to participate in what they believe is altruistic activity that is legitimate. There’s got to be rules and regulations that allow you to know when you go to this particular firm, this particular route, this particular entity, this is legitimate. Yes? No?

Carney: I think that we would hope that there’s a system to regulate everything, but when you go between international borders, there’s no real enforcement agency. Like who is monitoring kidney transactions between countries? It’s not the United Nations. It’s not really the WHO. We don’t have entities or the facilities to deal with these sorts of things and that’s why red markets are so dangerous.

Tavis: Let me cut you off real quick. Are all these things even illegal around the world as they are here in the states?

Carney: Oftentimes not, and sometimes it’s a gray area. Every country has different laws. In Iran, it’s legal to buy a kidney. In China, it is state policy to execute prisoners for kidneys and that’s legal, but is it ethical? Then when you try to create a world system, a world order to look after these issues, the problems mushroom. It just gets so difficult to do.

Tavis: Disabuse me of the notion, if you can, that this process isn’t going to get worse in the coming months and years.

Carney: It’s going to get worse unless we do something about it, unless we open up the supply chain to scrutiny by the public or by, you know, a trusted body.

There’s no reason to think that – you know, we’ll need more kidney transplants in the future because more people are getting diabetes and more people are getting kidney failure. You know, more adoptions are going to be happening every year. As a population grows, this issue is going to be at the forefront of globalization.

Tavis: Of all the issues that you tackled in the text, “The Red Market,” the one that I come across the most in terms of radio and television conversations and articles that might be the one that we can get some political traction on is the issue of child trafficking.

I read more about that. I hear more about that. I’m involved in more conversations about that than the others. Would you agree with that assessment?

Carney: I think that, when you’re dealing with live children, you don’t want to see anything bad happen to a child, so I think you can get a lot of traction behind that. I think that we have the ability to do this, but there hasn’t been much action in adoptions.

Adoption reform is still behind the times, I would think. I think that, as we raise awareness of this issue, we can actually engage it.

Tavis: Anybody in Washington taking this issue seriously?

Carney: Not yet. At least no one has contacted me about it. I think that there have been some bills that have entered Congress and not really gone anywhere. We will see.

Tavis: For a subject matter that is so hush-hush and, to your point, on the red market, the black market, how do you get access to this data in the first place?

Carney: It’s difficult. I mean, this book took me about six years of research in four or five different countries around the world. I hate to say it, but a lot of it’s luck. I decided that I’m going to investigate this market and I just stuck my nose to the grindstone and looked and looked and looked.

It would have been much easier if there was any sort of public records that were open that I could have actually investigated. So I feel like I’m just touching the surface of what’s actually going on here. I exposed a lot of very horrible things, but it might just be the surface of that iceberg.

Tavis: Let me offer this as the exit question. To your point about unveiling some pretty horrible things, when you finish a book like this, “The Red Market,” you feel how? How does this make you feel as the author of it?

Carney: I’m very happy to have brought awareness to this, but I also feel I need a little break from looking at this particular issue for so long. I think that it is sort of dark material, but I think it’s also fascinating material. You know, I’ll probably move on to another project pretty soon.

Tavis: But it’s information that we can’t ignore now that you’ve brought it to our attention. I thank you for it. The book is called “The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers and Child Traffickers” written by Scott Carney, also with Wired Magazine. Scott, good to have you on the program.

Carney: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: My pleasure. Thanks for the text.

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Last modified: June 27, 2011 at 1:19 pm