Surgeons Who Promise Beauty Destroy Lives By Lethal Injections

Mexican women desperate for full curvaceous bodies are dying in agony after illegal backstreet operations.

Ten years ago a pretty 17-year-old called Silvia Munguía was working as a movie extra when an impressively voluptuous woman appeared as if out of nowhere and offered her ‘the body of a goddess’.

A few days later in a backstreet clinic the woman, who turned out to be a man, took the skinny teenager’s gold jewellery and in return injected her buttocks, calves and thighs with several large syringes full of a transparent oily liquid.

Within months Munguía’s legs began a slow but sure mutation into the elephantine trunks they are today, inflamed and covered in flaking, scaly and dying discoloured skin. For years she bore the pain in near silence, trying to build a happy family while she chastised herself for what she had done and hated herself for what she was becoming.

A couple of years ago two huge seeping ulcers in her thighs finally forced her to seek medical help, putting her in hospital since September where she is likely to remain for many months more. ‘This illness ended my life,’ says the somehow still sweet-faced Munguía.

Such stories are terrifyingly common in Mexico, where an underground beauty industry lures victims with promises of easy and cheap curves through the injection of everything from industrial silicone, to baby oil, to motor oil. The hidden cost is a lifetime of suffering, or even sudden death.

This is the chilling flipside of the rising popularity of plastic surgery that has made Mexico second only to the US in the world table of legal procedures. It is all illegal, but most victims are too ashamed to report the crime and the authorities appear happy to let them stay silent.

While the scale of the problem is hard to quantify, doctors at the General Hospital in Mexico City, the biggest hospital catering to poor people without social security, say they see hundreds of cases every year which must represent only a fraction of the number of victims.

‘Many never seek medical help, and when they die nobody knows what they died of,’ says Dr Carlos del Vecchyo, head of the plastic surgery at the hospital.

The phenomenon is also hard to gauge because while some victims fall ill immediately others can stay relatively healthy for 20 years. Still most doctors say that sooner or later they will all suffer serious complications.

These often begin when the injected area turns hard and the body’s attempt to expel the alien substance triggers inflammation and constant fevers. The oil also tends to migrate around the body, creating similar problems elsewhere. Soon small wounds become gaping holes, light knocks cause unbearable pain, joints do not bend and necrosis sets in. And all the while death lurks in the background because the oils can seep into the blood and cause a pulmonary embolism or renal failure. So why do so many people do it?

Some had no choice – like one young woman who was kidnapped at a bus station when she was 17 and forced into a prostitution ring where she was kept submissive through repeated rape and constant violence. The pimp, who controlled her and a dozen or so other girls, would periodically take her to be injected all over her body in the backroom of a seedy flat. As the years went by this bright, beautiful and extraordinarily dignified survivor (who still fears being hunted down and so prefers not to give her name) watched her body rot as she felt her insides burn up. She escaped five years ago and lives in semi-hiding with her adored young son and her incurable illness. Reunited with her family, she does not dare reveal the truth, spinning a tale of how she migrated to the US instead and suffers from bad circulation. ‘It’s best to deal with it inside,’ she says. ‘They would not believe me if I told them.’

But there are also many patients who actively sought out the injections. Perched on the edge of her tatty bed in her one-room, breeze-block house, Ana María Mérida, 46, says she had hoped injections in her hips might stop her partner’s humiliating and hurtful affairs.

Mérida went to a thoroughly clandestine backroom injection hub and willingly received about a pint of what she was told was harmless collagen into each buttock over three sessions. It cost her about £50, significantly more than she earned in a week’s cleaning but about 50 times less than implants.

For a few years she felt sexy, but her lover left her anyway and soon she was in a desperate state, in constant pain, peeing blood and unable to bend over. ‘I swear that if I had known what would happen I would never have done it,’ Mérida says. Sobbing she dropped her trousers to reveal a deep scar that has yet to heal from an operation 18 months ago, above twisted purple folds of flesh where her backside once was.

‘Look at me, I cannot accept myself like this. I am ashamed to go outside, I am so ashamed, so angry with myself. I am never going to be happy. Who is going to look at me now?’

Dr Juan José Bustamante, the head of psychiatry at the General Hospital, is sure many who claim they were duped into believing the injections were completely safe were at least partly aware of the risks but desperate enough to take them.

He blames a culture that dictates a beauty ideal of women with large bottoms and large busts and a system that forces them to ‘market themselves’ to men in order to obtain financial and emotional security. ‘It’s a type of dictatorship, and women accept it.’

But if some women accept this dictatorship tacitly, many transvestites here seem to throw their arms around it.

‘It’s all about vanity, we all do injections,’ said Marta, a 24-year-old transvestite who has worked as a prostitute since the age of 12. ‘If you don’t want to take risks, then put on trousers and a suit and get a day job. This is the life we chose.’

Almost every day, Marta says, there are newly plump and rounded figures mincing up and down the street corner. She knows of about 10 ‘girlfriends’ who have died and she herself was in intensive care two years ago when a baby oil injection left her gasping for breath as it made its way to her lungs.

Some medics search for ways to surgically remove the oil, like Dr Humberto Anduaga who works at one of the main social security hospitals in Mexico City.

He implants sponge-like expanders under healthy skin around the affected areas. The idea is to stretch the skin until there is enough extra to cover the hole left by removal of the oil encapsulated in dead tissue. But the vast majority of patients are not eligible for this treatment because the affected areas are too large, making the issue for them one of control rather than cure, involving both emergency surgery and long-term dependence on drugs.

In the western city of Guadalajara, an unusually assertive group of women got together to testify against a phoney doctor dubbed later the Matabellas, or Beauty Killer. But while the case had a huge impact in Guadalajara itself, it barely made the national news and is now all but forgotten in the capital.

‘There is a kind of disdain for these patients, as happens with kids with Aids,’ said Bustamante, the psychiatrist. ‘The system is designed so that they go off and die alone.’


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© Guardian News & Media 2008
Published: 11/13/2004