In South Africa, the sale of human body parts is an issue often shrouded in secrecy.
It is a country where cultural practices still hold sway and discussing them openly is something even the media finds difficult.
There has long been a reluctance to investigate “muti murders”–the killing of people for their body parts–or to investigate those who traffic or use human body parts in traditional medicine for its so-called supernatural qualities.
But this week, police decided to speak out. They often find mutilated bodies, the victims of muti murders.
“That practice is unethical and in its nature, it’s evil. It must be stopped,” police spokesman Colonel Leonard Hlathi said.
Police do not keep statistics of how many people die in ritual murders.
But in 2001 they said almost 2,500 people were caught in possession of human body parts.
This week they announced a major breakthrough.
Police had carried out a successful sting operation at a regional hospital and intercepted bags of body parts being sold.
Colonel Leonard Hlathi has spoken out about the crimes and what he had to say speaks volumes of the exasperation being felt by those trying to tackle the trade in human body parts.
“Those people who are using other people’s body parts tissues, why they don’t take their own and use them and see if it works and leave other people to live?” he said.
“Because you are taking a life of another person . . . in the name of money. Use your own body tissues and we’ll see are you going to live after that.”
Colonel Hlathi admits there is a large market for human body parts.
“I’m a policeman and my job is to arrest criminals that are selling body parts, which means there is a market and these people that are buying these body parts seemingly they’ve got the knowledge as to where are they using these body parts,” he said.
The police operation at the hospital, near Kruger National Park in the country’s east, began with a tip-off.
Police heard there were buyers in town. They set up a surveillance operation and moved in at the point of sale. They uncovered bags of body parts being handed over.
In this case the Colonel Hlathi says the parts had been removed during legitimate medical procedures.
“We are content with what we have found right now and we are optimistic that more people are still going to be arrested,” he said.
“These parts that we’ve already recovered have been sent to our forensic department for further checks.”
South African traditional healers who make muti medicine are considered powerful people and the medicine they make even more so. Most rely on herbs and animal parts, but not all.
Colonel Hlathi has this warning for anyone trying to keep those so-called healers in business.
“Our aim is to kill the market and that can only be done if ever there is an understanding between the police and the community members,” he said.
“So we are saying that all those people that are using body parts in the form of muti, we are saying that should come to an end. Sooner or later we will pounce on them.
“I want to take this opportunity to warn the public, more especially those that are buying body parts, because they are nothing else than killers.