Friday, September 3, 2010

How Rumors Get Started-- and Why they Spread

Little did we know a week ago when we posted about Leonardo Villeda Bermudez crying wolf about Honduran teachers, that we would be writing again so soon about child organ trafficking in Honduras, the topic that first made him notorious.

To refresh your memory: in January 1987, Villeda Bermudez told a reporter in Honduras that there was a child organ trafficking problem in Honduras; specifically he said:
"Many families came forward to adopt children with physical defects. At first we thought they were decent people who loved children, but in time it was discovered that they wanted to sell them for body parts..."

(quoted in Tim Tate, "Trafficking in Children", in C. Moorhead, Ed. Betrayal: Child Exploitation in Today's World. Barrie and Jenkins, 1989, pp. 115)

It wasn't true; Villeda later retracted the statement, albeit too late to avoid getting fired by President Jose Azcona.

Imagine my surprise, then, to read the headline in Friday's La Tribuna: "Supposed christians linked to organ trafficking in Honduras", over a story reviving the fear that children are being abducted to harvest their organs.

Attributed to documents leaked from the Supreme Court of Honduras, as broadcast on radio station HRN, La Tribuna reported that Mexico is investigating the trafficking of organs of Mexican children transported to Honduras.

Similar stories appeared in Friday's El Heraldo and La Prensa but with one critical difference: there are two separate investigations alleged, one of organ trafficking, and the second of the trade in the children of migrants. La Tribuna apparently merged the two and revived the old rumor about trafficking of organs of children.

The story in from Mexico is very different.

The Mexican government is investigating child trafficking by members of the Christian Restoration Church in Mexico. A judge in Mexico City has issued arrest warrants for Alonso Emmanuel Cuevas Castañeda, a pastor, Elvira Casco Majalca, ex-director of a children's shelter run by the church, and Leticia Arrieta Estrada, an English teacher for the children's shelter. All are accused of trafficking in children and organized crime.

What the members of this church are not accused of in Mexico is any kind of organ trafficking, let alone traffic in the organs of children. And the Mexican news coverage doesn't make any connection to Honduras.

But that hasn't stopped the story from gaining official traction in Honduras.

La Tribuna lavishly illustrates its story with pictures of human torsos with surgical scars, letting us assume they are scars on involuntary organ donors. It quotes the Director of the Honduran Institute of Children and the Family (IHNFA), Suyapa Nuñez, as being very preoccupied by the story:
"We will investigate the sources which generated [this story], to then take the necessary actions to stop the traffic in children's organs."

Nuñez promised to take strong measures to stop the organ traffickers who the media claims are operating in the country, even though there is no basis to the story.

Organ trafficking is a real, world-wide problem, especially in poorer countries, where adults are induced by relatively small amounts of money to "donate" organs used in sophisticated international transplant facilities.

Nonetheless, the claim that children's organs are being harvested is a persistent yet unsupported rumor, one that is far from harmless, leading to attacks on innocent people.

And it is a rumor that is especially associated, according to research by anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, with particular political circumstances:
“You could map the rumour and see that it was tied especially to states going through civil war or genocide.” So, looking at this wider pattern, she developed a new theory: “maybe it can be seen as a sort of inchoate testifying by illiterate people on the margins, who don’t have other discourses to fall back upon, but who recognise that their bodies are not safe under these regimes, where there’s torture, disappearances and so forth”.

As, for example, a country in the aftermath of a coup, still facing unrestrained police repression in response to legal protests. Like Honduras today.

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