MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- Word got around after Pedro Riveroli, a poor laborer, sold his kidney to a wealthy merchant, and soon he had other offers. He sold his daughter's kidney to an ailing millionaire and his son-in-law's kidney to a retired teacher.
Mr. Riveroli was bargaining away the kidneys of two jobless friends last week when police detained him and 19 others in what may be Latin America's first official crackdown on commerce in human organs.
The case, dramatic evidence of the economic desperation reigning across the continent, has set off a debate over the ethics of organ donations in societies plagued by disparities in wealth.
"I have to make an example of this, or we'll have more unemployed people saying, 'Maybe I'll sell my kidney,' " said Adolfo Ferreira, the magistrate investigating the case. "The economic crisis is carrying people to commit unheard-of crimes."
Mr. Ferreira has indicted eight people -- four kidney donors and four recipients or buyers -- on organ commerce charges, and he is investigating the involvement of two former Uruguayan Cabinet ministers whoappear to have helped arrange one of the organ sales, he said.
Uruguay's state-run Organ Bank, collects kidneys, eyes and other tissues from deceased donors. Uruguayan law permits transplants from living donors only when the recipient is an immediate relative, and there is a 200-person waiting list for kidneys from the bank.
In neighboring Brazil -- though buying organs is illegal, as it is in Uruguay -- donations by non-relatives are not banned. In each of the transactions under court scrutiny, affluent kidney patients in Uruguay, desperate for immediate transplants, bought organs from poor donors with whom they traveled to Sao Paulo, Brazil, for surgery.