Blood Money: Inside the Desperate — and Illegal — Search for Blood in Chihuahua

To find enough, hospital patients' family members turn to the black market.

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Blood Money: Inside the Desperate — and Illegal — Search for Blood in Chihuahua

Lilette A. Contreras, GPJ Mexico

In public and private hospitals in Mexico, many patients and their families must provide blood for their treatment.

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CHIHUAHUA, MEXICO — In October 2023, Rebeca set out to buy blood — a crime in Mexico — to save her brother’s life.

Suffering injuries from a bullet wound, he had been admitted to a public medical center in the northern city of Chihuahua. Medical personnel performed surgery to save his life. However, this meant his family would be in debt to the hospital — and not financially.

They owed blood.

“After the operation, my brother took a turn for the worse, and we had to readmit him,” Rebeca says in tears. The Chihuahua resident, like many interviewed for this article, asked that her last name not be used for fear of legal repercussions. “They had to operate on him a second time, but they postponed it because we owed units of blood from the last time and we needed even more.”

In Chihuahua, health centers often ask patients’ families to donate the blood needed for their medical procedures. In the midst of the emergency, many pay strangers to get it, an activity that carries health risks and is punishable with imprisonment under the General Health Law. Though there’s little data available, this practice has become widespread across Mexico, where altruistic blood donations barely cover 6.8% of what hospitals require.

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Lilette A. Contreras, GPJ Mexico

Special chairs for altruistic blood donors at the State Blood Transfusion Center in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Despite the fact that Chihuahua’s State Blood Transfusion Center (CETS) is at 70% capacity, according to official figures, many resort to purchasing blood, driven by desperation and a lack of knowledge about legal alternatives.

In August 2023, local legislator Ana Georgina Zapata Lucero introduced a law entitled Ley para el Fomento de la Cultura de Donación Voluntaria y Altruista de Sangre (Law for the Promotion of a Voluntary and Altruistic Blood Donation Culture) in the State of Chihuahua. Its aim is to encourage donations and ensure there is enough blood for the state’s population.

Zapata was not available for comment, but her initiative highlights the importance of “institutionalizing the culture of blood donation” and facilitating family replacement donation to support those who need blood.

Desperate measures

In the case of Rebeca’s brother, the hospital — Hospital General Regional No. 1 Unidad Morelos — required 10 units of blood to operate. However, family and friends were only able to produce eight (one unit is equivalent to 450 milliliters of blood). In a race against time, Rebeca went to one of many Facebook pages where members, ranging in number from 600 to 7,200 on a given page, usually go to buy and sell blood.

Rebeca knew she was committing a crime. “At times like those, nothing matters to you,” she says. “What you want is to have the blood they’re asking you for. My brother could have died.”

Two people came to give blood for her brother for 500 Mexican pesos (approximately 29 United States dollars) each. Her brother’s operation went ahead.

Miriam Márquez Córdova, state laboratory coordinator for the Chihuahua Ministry of Health, says that, although securing blood “should not be a condition for performing [surgical] interventions, it is a common practice” at hospitals in response to shortfalls in altruistic donations.

“In the hospital, they tell you there is no blood. And you look for it anywhere [you can],” says Francisco, another Chihuahua resident. He offered 500 pesos to anyone who would donate blood for his father, who had recently suffered a heart attack. At that time, he did not know it was a crime and says he was motivated by desperation to guarantee his father’s well-being.

“In the hospital, they tell you there is no blood. And you look for it anywhere [you can].” Chihuahua resident

On the Facebook pages Global Press Journal reviewed where people go to obtain blood for either residents of Chihuahua state or those hospitalized there, posts offer rewards ranging from 250 to 1,500 pesos (between about 14 and 88 dollars) for a single unit of blood.

Selling blood

Alondra gives blood in exchange for money. She says she came into this business out of desperation, when she couldn’t find other work. Shortly thereafter, she says, her husband and two children, both adults, joined her.

“We know people need it. So, we help, and they lend a hand,” she says.

In Mexico, the minimum age for donating blood is 18, and among other requirements, donors must be in good health. They must not have had any alcoholic beverages within the last 48 hours, surgeries within the last six months, or tattoos or piercings within the last 12 months. They must not use drugs. They also cannot have epilepsy, tuberculosis, serious heart conditions, or infections like hepatitis B or C, HIV, AIDS, Chagas disease or syphilis, according to specifications from the Ministry of Health.

Alondra says that, because for health reasons it is necessary to wait at least two months between transfusions, she does not consider selling blood to be a form of employment. It is instead extra income that allows her to cover household expenses.

Gilberto Grijalva Saavedra, director of CETS for the state of Chihuahua, the government agency in charge of blood donations, says the institution had no knowledge of these practices. However, he says the sale of blood involves risks for patients, given that those providing the blood might hide their health status to obtain payment.

“Now, instead of going to the blood banks, people are going to social media, and that is not ideal because they are facilitating … those inadvisable practices,” he says.

He thinks that, in many cases, people do not go to CETS because they are unaware they can. But, he points out, it’s a safe option.

Crime and consequences

The Ley General de Salud imposes penalties of between six and 17 years in prison and fines of between 8,000 and 17,000 days’ worth of the minimum salary on those who commercialize organs and tissues, which includes blood. The minimum salary is the lowest amount a person can receive for one working day, and for this year it is set at 248.93 pesos (approximately 15 dollars). Plus, if perpetrators are health care workers or technicians, they will be barred from their position for five to 14 years.

Nevertheless, reports have surfaced of blood being sold inside hospitals. In May 2023, Sandra Chairez, another resident of the state of Chihuahua, was combing through the Facebook pages to find blood donors for her father. She says that, after she shared her information in a post, someone contacted her and introduced himself as a worker at the blood bank in the public hospital where her father was a patient.

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Lilette A. Contreras, GPJ Mexico

A shelf with units of different blood types at the State Blood Transfusion Center in Chihuahua, Mexico.

“He wrote to me on WhatsApp and told me he could do the process for me as if we had already donated to my dad, and that the units would be there immediately after making the payment of 500 pesos,” she says.

Neither the Chihuahua State Attorney General’s Office, the agency responsible for law enforcement at the local level, nor the IMSS, Mexico’s social security system which operates the hospital, provided statements for this article.

Chairez, though, says she visually identified the person and confirmed that he worked at the blood bank. But before she could pay, her father died.

Lilette A. Contreras is a Global Press Journal reporter based in the city of Cuauhtémoc, Mexico.


Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.