CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO and EL PASO, TEXAS – Twice a week in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Araceli Duran closes the small store she operates from her home and heads to what she considers “her other job.”
“The economy is really bad,” she said. “One job is not enough to feed a family.” For Duran a single mother of four, her other “job” is not in Ciudad Juarez, but over the U.S.-Mexican border in El Paso, Texas.
After a three-hour journey by foot and bus, she arrives at the Talecris Plasma Center in El Paso, Texas where she and thousands of others, including Americans, legally sell the plasma in their blood.
Plasma is the protein-packed liquid portion of the blood, it is mostly water, but also contains proteins that protect the body from infection and clot blood to control bleeding. Plasma is used in medical therapies to treat life-threatening conditions such as hemophilia, immune deficiencies and other blood disorders.
Due to its medicinal benefits, there is big business in both buying and selling plasma.
"It helps paying bills,” said Texas- born David Salas as he recently left a plasma center in El Paso. He said he has been earning $220 a month for the past year selling his blood. And there are big companies buying it.
Big blood business
Grifols, a Spanish blood products firm, is the third-biggest supplier of plasma products in the world and has over 147 centers across the U.S. Earlier this year, Grifols expanded its reach with the purchase of Talecris, a network of 69 plasma collection centers across the U.S. Almost 40 of Grifol’s plasma centers are in states bordering Mexico; including four in El Paso that are run by Talecris, just blocks from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
At a diner near one of those centers, ads in a local flyer promise $130 to potential donors and extended hours of operation to help lure potential clients to sell their plasma.
Business is booming, according to a Talecris patient coordinator who did not want to be identified. Wearing a blue Talecris uniform, she said plasma bank handles around 1,500 donors per week and that “30 to 40 percent [of the donors] come from Mexico.” She added that their goal is to have up to 1,800 donors per week.
Grifols spokeswoman Dr. Marilyn Rosa-Bray said that safety for the donors and the plasma are one of the companies’ top concerns. “It is a priority for us to make sure that the donor is healthy, that the donor is safe when they go through the process because its part of the circle to make sure that the product is safe,” said Rosa-Bray. She added that the donated plasma undergoes rigorous testing to insure it’s safety.
After hours of waiting in line at the border, Duran, who has a visitor’s visa to legally enter the U.S. for the next eight years, finally made it to the plasma bank. Like hundreds of others, she spent 90 minutes hooked to a plasma machine while she donated and then returned home to Mexico when she was done.
“I can’t get used to this ...If I had a job I would not do it,” said Duran. “But we have no other choice.” She has been making around $65 a week for the past two years.
She said she donates her plasma twice a week – the maximum permitted by U.S. law. “I feel fine, I even gained some weight since they tell you to eat more,” she said.
Duran’s take home pay of $65 a week for two donations is the average pay – although rates vary depending on the center. And some centers, like Talecris, offer “bonuses” for new donors, as well as old donors who recruit new donors.
Outside another plasma center in El Paso, Lluvia Soto counted her money.
“This means, I will be able to buy food for my children in Juarez,” she said, adding that she makes more money donating plasma here than working full-time as a teacher back home in Mexico.
Although the practice of buying and selling human plasma is legal and regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the plasma for money business is stirring controversy on both sides of the border.
“What I am concerned about is the donors’ losing their own body defenses, they might be losing coagulation factor,” said Dora Meraz, Professor of Clinical Chemistry at the University of Texas in El Paso. She was referring to the fact that plasma helps form blood clots – which are critical to prevent excessive bleeding. She added that she was concerned about possible side effects on individuals if they do not eat or drink enough fluids after donating their plasma.
“It is a violation of human rights, it may be legal, but it is immoral,” said Elizabeth Flores, an attorney for the Diocese of Juarez in Mexico who runs La Pastoral Obrera, a church funded social assistance agency. She believes people should have the right to work to provide for one’s family, without being reduced to selling their blood to eat. But because of the violence of the drug war in Mexico and the damage it has done to the local economy, “people have no choice,” Flores said.
Ciudad Juarez has been labeled one of the most dangerous cities in the world with one murder almost every two hours Since Mexican Pres. Felipe Calderon declared war against the drug cartels, the Mexican-U.S. border has become their battle ground. The Mexican government estimates that 35,000 people have been killed in the drug war, but others believe the number is higher.
And the once-thriving industrial city of Ciudad Juarez has taken a major economic hit as a result of both the U.S. recession and violence of the war on drugs – city officials estimate that it has lost as many as 120,000 jobs as factories and businesses have moved away.
“People should not have to survive by donating their plasma” says Flores.
As Duran made the dangerous trip back home she told us that just the night before a shootout between rival drug gangs left six people dead just blocks from her house. “I am always afraid to step out,” she said.
But what probably she doesn’t know is that 3,000 miles away in Miami, Florida someone appreciates her effort.
Bob Campbell is a spokesperson for the Alpha 1 Foundation , a plasma-patient advocacy group that receives charitable contributions from Grifols. He suffers from genetic emphysema and says that weekly plasma therapies have stopped the degeneration of his lungs.
“I tell [the donors] I appreciate it. I know it’s time-consuming, I know they need the money. And it is not just ‘like taking the bus,’” said Campbell referring to the dangerous journey these donors must undertake to reach donation centers in the U.S.
“I appreciate the fact that plasma supply is available and it would not be unless people would be willing to donate,” said Campbell.