Organ Harvesting

Author: Quinten Epting / Team ATII


When we hear the phrase “human trafficking” our collective minds tend to conjure up dark and unsettling visions of the sexual exploitation of helpless women and children. Such perceptions evoke unpleasant emotions that cause people to create a sense of denial that such atrocities actually occur – and yet, they are occurring. While abhorrent, it is a fact that countless women and children are regularly being exploited, both domestically and abroad. It is thus shocking to learn that sexual exploitation is only one of three forms of human trafficking – the other two forms are forced labor and organ harvesting.

Without question, all forms of human trafficking are, cruel, immoral, and gruesome; and yet, organ harvesting, due to its nature, is particularly so.  

An article published June 18, 2019 discusses Chinese prison camps harvesting organs. “Forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale” exchanging prisoners organs for money from the wealthy. Showing the depth that organ harvesting is permeated even governments.

Due to technological advancements, “stranger” organs, are able to be utilized with a higher success rates and remain viable for a longer period of time than before; this has created a huge supply and demand vacuum. For human traffickers, as distasteful as it sounds and is, organ harvesting is an extremely lucrative business. “In 2007, WHO estimated that out of all transplants worldwide, 5–10% were conducted illegally. 21 In 2011, it was estimated that the illicit ‘organ trade’ generated illegal profits between USD 600 million and USD 1.2 billion per year. Underground ‘organ markets’ present a significant threat to the security of national organ donation systems, eroding the image of transplantation and public confidence in organ transplantation worldwide”[1].

The Council of Europe, Europe’s leading human rights organization, has adopted a Convention Against Trafficking in Human Organs in 2014 which recently went into effect in January of 2018. This is a critical development, as it is the first legal mechanism that provides a cohesive and universally agreed-upon definition for organ trafficking.

The true extent of organ trafficking is still widely unknown due to in part the avenues that are used. Similar to human trafficking as a whole, the amount of organ trafficking known is a small fraction due to the dark shadow of crime. As more resources are pushed into the area of human trafficking we will get a better handle on the amount of human trafficking is specific to organ trafficking. The use of Anti-Money Laundering will be vital in this fight against human trafficking as this is explicitly reliant on cash flow.

Regardless of the form that human trafficking takes – whether via organ harvesting, forced labor, or sexual exploitation – the ‘theme’ is consistent; to human traffickers, people are nothing more than disposable products to be exploited for financial gain. The pain, suffering, and abject terror that an individual must experience while at the hands of a human trafficker is untenable.

Even with the funding to combat Organ Trafficking, locating the offenders and victims can prove to be incredibly difficult to locate or detect. Law enforcement and anti-money laundering professionals are routinely faced with hurdles that

hinder or outright impede their ability to do their jobs; to wit, there is a lack of domestic laws that deter travel abroad so that the wealthy can receive organs in an out of the country location, the scope of transnational organ harvesting, and the savviness of those who know how to circumvent laws by using shell companies and legal offerings.

Money Laundering Indicators

  • Wire transfers to entities in high-risk jurisdictions (See Figure A)
  • Payments between charities and medical tourism sites
  •  Credit card payments to travel agencies, airlines or hotels, before movement of money and travel
  • First-line banking staff indication of potentially ill customers moving large amounts of funds to numbered companies or charities before travel
  • Medical tourism websites that offer transplant services abroad that recommend utilizing their own trusted domestic doctors before traveling
  • Methods of payments such as wires payment, email money transfer and bulk cash withdrawal (See Figure B)

The First Case of Organ Trafficking in the US

Organ harvesting is not just an other world issue. This type of crime is happening right here in the United States and to illustrate how Human Trafficking, Money Laundering, and Organ Harvesting can collectively lead to a vicious cycle, one simply needs to look at the 2009 Levy Izhak Rosenbaum case. Part of a larger, federal corruption sting in New Jersey, Rosenbaum, an Israeli native who resided in Brooklyn at the time, was arrested for brokering the sale of three illegal kidney transplants to New Jersey customers. He purportedly bought the organs from Israel for $10,000 and sold them to desperate patients in New Jersey for upwards of $160,000. Nancy Sheper-Hughes is an Anthropology professor with the University of California at Berkeley and an author of an upcoming book on human organing trafficking. She tracked tbe ring for years and was told, “ Rosenbaum carried a gun, and when a potential organ seller would get cold feet, Rosenbaum would use his finger to simulate firing a gun at the person’s head.” 

While Rosenbaum had been engaging in a lucrative organ “brokering” business for at least a decade, making millions of dollars in profits, it wasn’t until the sting took place that he was detected, apprehended, and arrested.

Rosenblaum pleaded guilty to brokering the three illegal kidney sales and was sentenced to 2.5 years in a federal prison. This was the first federal conviction on record involving an individual who profited from the illegal sale of human organs.