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Women Dying In Colombia After 'Garage Clinic' Cosmetic Surgeries


For decades, cosmetic surgery has been a booming business across Latin America. In Colombia alone, there were almost 400,000 body beautification operations in 2015. For many women, though, these surgeries are financially out of reach. So some end up going to what's known in Colombia as clinicas de garage or garage clinics run often by unlicensed and untrained practitioners.

NPR's Spanish language podcast Radio Ambulante has investigated the story of one woman who died after a botched operation. Joining me to talk about the issue is Camila Segura. She's the senior editor of Radio Ambulante. And welcome to the show.

CAMILA SEGURA, BYLINE: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So give me some figures. How many women die each year from these kinds of operations - these backroom surgeries in Colombia? And is this a big problem?

SEGURA: It is. The latest data that we have is from 2016, where there were 30 cases officially registered.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of people who died?

SEGURA: Yeah. And 24 women and six men.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do we know how many unlicensed operations there are in Colombia?

SEGURA: Yeah. I mean, because it's the black market, we obviously don't have a clear number. But there is this congressman in Medellin who says that he believes that at least 20 percent or 30 percent of the establishments do not have the proper licenses.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you had an investigation into one woman's death. Let's listen to a recording of Ximena Lopez who was speaking before her death about how sick she was feeling after one of her operations.


XIMENA LOPEZ: Necesito que vengas. La verdad no me siento bien. Necesito tener una solucion a esto. Necesito que vengas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Briefly, what is Ximena's story?

SEGURA: OK, well, this is the story of this girl, 21-year-old Ximena, in Medellin, who wanted to have a butt job. And one of her roommates had had that procedure at this, you know, spa. And she went there and had the procedure and within hours was not able to breathe correctly.

So she exchanged all these whatsapp messages. What we just heard was a Whatsapp voicemail that she left for the doctor. He used to say, you know, it's OK, don't worry. Just take it easy. Get some rest. This is going to pass. And she had the operation on Thursday, and she died Wednesday. We later discovered that he was a chef.


SEGURA: Yes. He cooked. He has selfies in his Facebook page holding up, you know, the latest dish that he had made.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'd like to step back a little bit and understand where some of the drive for body beautification surgeries in Colombia comes from. You know, plastic surgery is huge in Latin America generally. I reported on its impact in Brazil when I was a correspondent there.

And, you know, you have two daughters. You are a Colombian woman. What are the societal pressures in your view that make women want to do this - to go to these extremes?

SEGURA: Well, I think this is a global phenomenon. But I don't think that we - I can't deny that in Colombia we have, like, a big obsession with beauty, you know? We have all sorts of pageants. You know, we have el Reinado Del Cafe, el Reinado Del Arroz, you know, which is like the coffee pageant, then the rice pageant. And the national beauty pageant is a huge deal, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So on the one side, you have a permissive attitude towards cosmetic surgeries. But this clandestine, very dangerous system is in place where people are having sort of bootleg surgeries. What is the government doing to crackdown?

SEGURA: In terms of legislation, there has been almost nothing done. There's a lot of corruption because there's a lot of money that can be made. The surgeries are very cheap. But, you know, they're not doing it properly. So they inject - I don't know - cooking oil to augment the butt. You know, they pay $1, and then they charge 1,000.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Ximena, the woman that you profiled, died. Her supposed surgeon is still walking free and possibly doing these surgeries still. What has been the reaction to her death among her family and the people that knew her and more broadly?

SEGURA: Will they sued the guy. And they're in the process of waiting for a trial. These type of deaths are considered manslaughter. So it's really as if they didn't intend to, you know, kill someone as you will consider like a traffic accident.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Camila Segura is the senior editor of NPR's Spanish language podcast Radio Ambulante. Camila, thank you so much.

SEGURA: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To listen to Ximena Lopez's on NPR One, go to And on tomorrow's Morning Edition, how doctors here in the U.S. are changing the way they think about what they prescribe like fresh food. Tune in tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.