We learned the men had been burned to death while planning Christmas vacation. It was 2013, I was living in Madagascar, and my friends and I were sitting around discussing what part of the island to travel to for the holiday. This lynching, shocking and unusual in Madagascar, was relevant because the men had spent the last minutes of their lives on the white sand beaches of Nosy Be, one of the destinations we were considering. Nosy Be is a small island off the northwest coast of Madagascar and is the stuff of postcards. White sand beaches, perfect weather, chameleons and lemurs. The year after this incident, Nosy Be was the location for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. But back to the men, one French and one Italian, beaten in the streets, marched to the beach, tortured and forced to “confess” before being shoved inside of tires and set on fire. The reason for all of this leaked out over days and months in rumors, newspaper articles, Facebook posts, cellphone footage and, finally, bootleg DVDs of the footage, sold in markets across the island. The story that emerged looked like this: days before the burning a local Malagasy boy went missing in Hell-Ville, Nosy Be’s largest city. The boy washed ashore days later, apparently missing, at least, his genitals. According to a growing and increasingly volatile mob, these vazaha, as foreigners are called in Malagasy, were suspected from the beginning and, according to rumors, human organs were found in coolers by police during a search of the men’s boat. The mob eventually stormed the police station and carried these men off to their grisly end. Later, a third man, the uncle of the dead boy, was also lynched for his alleged involvement. The reason these men died in agony can be traced to conspiracy theories I’ve heard variations of all over the world. This idea of a global conspiracy that exists to kidnap, murder and harvest the organs of an underclass. It’s been documented in nations across the globe, from Brazil to Mozambique, from South Africa to Poland. It is the subject of a few UN reports as well as movies in, at least, India, the USA, Canada, France, South Korea, Japan and England. I’m calling this theory the Global Organ Harvesting Conspiracy (GOHC). Why is this particular urban legend so widespread? Where did it come from?
A major lineage traces to the Cold War. The USSR and USA engaged in numerous campaigns of disinformation directed at one another and this might have been one that stuck around. Russian propaganda is very much in the news right now but it is by no means a new phenomena. During the Cold War both Russia and America had a powerful interest in promoting themselves and denigrating the other side. And it didn’t all need to be bullshit; one needn’t retreat to fantasy to portray the USA as a racist empire or the USSR as repressive. The most successful of this stuff highlights and exacerbates preexisting fissures and fault-lines. In fact, Russian propaganda pointing out the hypocrisies of Jim Crow in the “Land of the Free” was a big factor in Presidential support for civil rights measures. Some of the most famous Soviet art features the Scottsboro boys, Nixon, as VP, had “Little Rock! Little Rock!” screamed at him on a trip to Latin America and no less than John Dulles said that, “this situation [referring to the Soviets airing footage of Arkansas whites violently resisting integration] is ruining our foreign policy.” “А у вас негров линчуют” which means, “and you lynch Negros” became so well-known as a catchphrase and Russian retort to hypocritical American complaints (on, say, Hungary), it became a cliché. Or, to take a much more recent example, the Mueller report recently confirmed that the first actual IRL rally that the GRU, through the Internet Research Group, was able to pull off, in America, was a Confederate rally. Later they set up fake BLM groups, in order to agitate the underlying, and preexisting, animosity.
To take another example, the most well documented instance of a USSR-manufactured idea outliving the Cold War, is the theory that the US government is responsible for HIV. Typically, the conspiracy goes, the virus was concocted at Fort Detrick in Maryland and spread throughout the world to target blacks and gays as part of an ongoing extermination campaign. The KGB for the campaign to spread this rumor was known as Operation Denver. Nowadays, Denver influenced or adjacent beliefs aren’t all that fringe, there are politicians in South Africa who are on the record supporting some version of this, and it’s featured in Kanye West songs. To quote a 2006 NCBI study “over a quarter of African Americans and over a fifth of Latinos with slightly lower rates in whites (a fifth) and Asians less than one in ten,” believe that the origins of HIV are part of a “genocidal conspiracy” (this study also mentions that 55% of Latino men and 50% of black men, in this study, believe that the US government is hiding an HIV vaccine, a non-USSR addition/twist on this story).
I don’t personally believe this theory but it is interesting and telling that it caught on. Again, there were hundreds of these false information campaigns. The KGB cultivated contacts and papers around the world that would disseminate these stories in an “organic” fashion (the HIV rumor has been traced back to an original article in an Indian paper) and they did this constantly. When you consider the cost of arming communist rebels or propping up a faltering socialist state, this was really cost effective to weaken America. But why would this one, in particular, catch on? We don’t hear much about the US involvement in Jonestown, or alternate theories as to who shot down Malaysian Air Flight 17, to take other theories pushed this same way. It’s obviously reflecting something back that we feel is important.
I think the answer is tied to the ways this conspiracy summarizes and clarifies the actual situation as well as the way the conspiracy highlights a more subtle current of history. As when you look at the history, the United States has most certainly been caught medically meddling and worse with people it considered disposable. Tuskegee, Holmesburg, MKULTRA, Operation Top Hat, the list goes on. It would be silly to say that the idea of the American Government acting unethically, in a medical/public health sense, is outside the realm of possibility. For reference, revelations about Tuskegee were barely a decade old when these HIV stories started and Fort Detrick really does deal in infectious diseases and was the center of the US bioweapons program as well as the birthplace of the MKULTRA suite of “experiments.”
Likewise, the HIV crisis really was a biblical plague and the government’s slow response, an indicator of their deep and obvious homophobia and racism, led to unimaginably high death rates in certain (the infamous 3 H designation: Homosexual, Haitian, Heroin) communities. The conspiracy’s utility comes in when we notice how it allows us to feel that rage at so many needlessly dead by rhetorically transforming the totally-out-in-the-open, murderous inaction into a secret, genocidal action. It’s always psychologically easier to blame action over inaction (I chalk this up to humans’ well-known propensity to freeze up, but who knows) so this sharpening of the narrative, a sort of collective dysphemism, gives what is a messy, sad and awful history a utility, clarity and clear villain that makes the HIV conspiracy so resilient and explains its longevity. If we look for the same utility and clarity, we can see what the GOHC points to.
It might be useful to define terms and zero in on exactly what I’m talking about. The Global Organ Harvesting Conspiracy, like any folktale or urban legend or rumor has numerous sources and precedents. As I stated above, I do think it’s possible to trace a pretty direct line, a main thread if you will, to KGB propaganda. In 1987 Pravda, the leading Soviet newspaper, carried a story on their front page which recounted, and embellished, a Honduran story about kids who vanished, then turning up murdered with organs missing. The paper heavily implied that Americans were behind these gruesome killings. It was certainly true these rumors predated the KGB involvement, they were “reporting” on “real” rumors, but by publishing it as news the USSR began its worldwide spread. It took only until 1994 for foreigners to be attacked by mobs. In Guatemala, an Alaskan woman was put in a coma, two were killed by mobs, and Peace Corps members were evacuated due to numerous attacks connected with the belief that foreigners (specifically Americans) were stealing children to sell their organs. And while it appears that the USSR was the first to use this particular line of attack, allegations of this sort are so animating that the US couldn’t help but get in on the action. As recently as 2022 the Washington Post reported that sock-puppet social media accounts linked to the Pentagon were pushing the idea that Iran was harvesting organs from Afghan refugees.
However, this rumor predates the reporting and explosion in popularity, and the general concept clearly taps into something older. Hoaxes like Jewish blood libel and the 80s Satanic panic share elements in common, creepy, occult cabals that abduct and murder the innocent. There is definitely a version of the GOHC where the killer is a witch or Satanist who needs the organs for dark rites or to sell to other sorcerers, perhaps internationally. Anecdotally, this was the most common explanation I heard, from Malagasy people, about what the Nosy Be lynching victims were up to. Another popular variation says the motivation is illicit organ transplants to aid the rich in living longer.
The West Memphis 3 (a classic 80s Satanic panic case) also approaches embodying this archetype but, in some ways, inverts the dynamic. In the “classic” versions the killer is acting on behalf of a hated elite. It’s the rich and powerful who are ordering these killings and buying these livers. The illuminati, Reptilians, Jews, rich Satanists, etc. With the West Memphis 3 you have a shadowy cabal of evil Satanic killers made up of weirdo teen outcasts, and it was the town elites who were after blood. The WM3 case also shares a much more specific and grotesque resonance with the Nosy Be case, in both instances the bodies of the victim(s) were found without genitals. In both cases, understandably, this was taken as a sign that something deeply fucked up had gone down. However, it is apparently the case that dead bodies get their (external) genitals eaten routinely and quickly (first things animals, aquatic and terrestrial, go for, apparently) if they’re just left in the woods/floating. It’s interesting that two places so apart in time/space/culture drew the same conclusion about an upsetting but explicable phenomena but chose to blame people at the opposite end of the power spectrum.
But when we try to think about what the GOHC is reflecting, anchored in, or based on, I think we need to consider what type of place Nosy Be is. As stated above, in many ways it is a paradise. It’s always warm and beautiful, there really are white sand beaches and crystal blue waters, there’s all sorts of amazing flora and fauna. Also it’s cheap. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Over 90% of the people live on less than $2 a day. This means that many of the tourists spent a lifetime of money, in Malagasy terms, on the flight over. Nosy Be compounds this by being one of 2 places in Madagascar where you can fly directly from Europe. The other is Antananarivo, the capital, a wonderful city but very in-your-face in terms of the economic realities of Madagascar. Nosy Be allows you to bypass all that, you can go straight from Paris or Rome to the beach. Nosy Be is the nexus between sizable populations with vast wealth disparities. And wealth, as we all know, doesn’t stay wealth, it transforms into power and permission.
Across the Global South there is a pervasive feeling that citizens of the North who visit are above consequences. Not just the soldiers and diplomats, that’s been the case forever, but everyone. If they choose to behave in a non-monstrous way, well, that’s simply their druthers, it is not because they fear consequences. This attitude is very common; you see it all over the place if you spend time in these areas. It’s easy to bribe cops, it’s easy to give money to bars or restaurants to bend the rules, it’s easier to get into a club, it’s easier to settle a disagreement with money. After all, in a place like Madagascar, to a foreigner it’s basically Monopoly money anyway. The only country in the Global South that I know about that doesn’t suffer from some version of this is North Korea, who are very clear and consistent in the rules and consequences for Western visitors. The exception that proves the rule, if you will.
Either way, this situation takes its darkest form in places where climate, economic reality, the legacy of colonialism and the physical beauty of the environment arrange themselves to form a hub of global sex tourism. Nosy Be exists somewhat in the French imagination the way Thailand or the Philippines does for Americans/Britain. A beautiful tropical paradise that is also well known as a place with a lot of prostitutes. A lot of young prostitutes. Child sex trafficking and child abuse, obviously, exists all over the world, but these hotspots allow every Western retiree to be Jeffrey Epstein. The disparity of wealth and thus power is so great, and international travel so commonplace, that the average Westerner is now able to afford to dip in and out of consequences. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these organ trafficking stories also show up with high frequency in places like Thailand and the Philippines, other sites of these zones.
Central America, where GOHC likely began, has a similar problem with sex tourists and exploitation. However, there’s an extra element that I believe is being sublimated: human rights abuses in adoptions, as reported by Rachel Nolan about Guatemala. She recounts social workers being helicoptered into “the sites of massacres to pick up the children. These children were then held in… orphanages and put up for adoption, often with incomplete information about the identities of their birth parents or their places of origin.” And again we see the intrusion of Westerns, whose power and influence allows them to skirt the rules and act without consequence: “But the vast majority of adoptees did not pass through the state orphanages. Using an infrastructure of lawyers, middlemen, and connections with foreign adoption agencies that was created during the chaos of war, the private sector built a thriving commercial market for adoptions…Through FOIA requests, Siegal McIntyre found that in 1987 [American] embassy officials learned of a private nursery in Guatemala City where children were sold to American couples for $10,000 each. According to the embassy documents, the women who ran the nursery allegedly traveled to the country’s rural interior to ‘steal children.’”
Nolan herself goes on to link these circumstances with the violence in ’94. But despite the geographic and temporal differences I think people in both Guatemala City and Nosy Be were experiencing the same thing. Westerns were coming into the country and treating the bodies of local children in any way they choose. Either as sex objects or by physically removing them, the Westerners were making it clear through their actions that viewed these spaces and locations as places beyond consequences, as zones of total permission. Faced with these facts and feelings people who find themselves living permanently in these zones have used the same metaphor, GOHC, to clarify and reflect these feelings.
Here’s where things get really weird. It would be interesting enough that various countries across the world, all with a similar economic position, i.e. poverty and as sites of exploitation, reached for the same explanatory metaphor. But now there’s a twist, a first-world iteration of this same set of fears, sublimated into a very similar (if anything, more bizarre) metaphorical apparatus: QAnon. Q changes rapidly, by the time you read this, the cartography of Q could be totally different. If I had to guess, I could see Q evolving into a new religious form (it’s already making incredible inroads amongst white evangelicals) joining that pantheon of great American folk religions that includes Mormonism, Scientology, the Nation of Islam, etc. Or, I can see it just becoming the platform and base of the Republican Party. Or, this is America after all, both. Or it could just die out, who knows?
Regardless of its ultimate fate, the basic premise is this: within our government, behind the scenes, there is a battle raging. On one side you have heroic patriots, including DJT, and on the other, a shadowy cabal of Satanic child murders. We know about this because one of these patriots, who has Q-level security clearance (get it? He’s got Q-level clearance and is anonymous), leaves cryptic posts on internet message boards (4chan then 8chan) which true believers can decipher and thus inform themselves about this secret war. Beyond this barebones explanation, Q has as many versions and offshoots. Some of these versions involve JFK Jr., Satanic performance art, 5G stuff, secret tunnels under major cities to move child-slaves, etc. In many ways, its omnivorousness, its ability to fold in all sorts of conspiracy sub-groups, from anti-vaxxers, Christian millenarians, 9/11 truthers, Alex Jones/Bill Cooper types, etc. accounts for some of its incredible success. And it has been incredibly successful. It’s somewhat difficult to get figures for the number of people who believe in Q, or some part of Q, but so far its adherents have engaged in terrorism at the Hoover Dam, led an armed assault into a pizza restaurant, been involved in a handful of kidnappings, carried out a number of murder-suicides, killed a mob boss, and violently stormed the capitol. Q has also inspired Michael Flynn and his family to swear a Q oath on video. Law enforcement guarding the former vice president have been filmed wearing patches touting their allegiance. Trump, for his part, basically pretends to not know what it is beyond a vague sense that he likes it because it likes him. But it’s not the diversity of beliefs within Q, nor its real world impact (though, both of these facts are fascinating) that interest me here, it’s the fact that the basic narrative is so powerful it can hold together such a diverse, nutball coalition and inspire so much intensity and real-world action. The narrative clearly hits a nerve. And it’s the same narrative that animates the GOHC in the 3rd world. Specifically, that the wicked rich are stealing and killing children. The Q version typically focuses on sexual exploitation and/or Satanic murder not organ theft (though the “adrenochrome” variations of the Q myth are almost exactly inline with GOHC) the gist, the emotional engine if you will, is the same.
Not unlike the GOHC and the Guatemalan adoption story (and, evidence would suggest to me, the Falun Gong) Q seems to have “real world” or “factual” equivalents. There’s the Dutroux affair and Sachsensumpf, to take two European examples. However, the most obvious of these, and an almost exact contemporary of Q’s, is one that I’ve already briefly touched on, Jeffrey Epstein. While some of the galaxy-brained, “Q is a psyop” people claim that Q was created to distract from Epstein and to make those, true, allegations seem as ridiculous and unbelievable as the most far-out Q stuff, it seems more likely to me that, as insane and dark as the Epstein story is, the catharsis people are looking for, when they digest the state of the world, more generally, requires an even more outrageous and lurid set of facts. Which is impressive, if you think about it. The “real” Epstein story involves former presidents, A-list celebrities, British royals, famous professors, Victoria’s Secret, a child-sex island, a plane known as the “Lolita Express,” the first suicide in over a decade in a hyper-secure federal prison (that was holding both El Chapo and 6ix9ine at the same time), and yet still managed to not be wild and depraved enough to convey the horror people feel when they look at the state of the world. People are able to look at Epstein and say, “It’s worse than that.” Fundamentally, both the GOHC and Q are about a fear that we can’t keep our children safe, because there exists a class of people who, due to Satanic powers or Satanic levels of wealth, are beyond accountability and have cruel designs on the young. They both posit that the world is cruel and exploitative and run by evil-doers and that nothing we do on the levels we have access to will change how these people operate. It’s not hard to see why people across the world, in both 1st and 3rd world nations, would seek to clarify and sharpen this sense of exploitation and dread, especially dread about the sort of world their children will live in, by placing it into a lurid but neat metaphorical framework.
https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/10/russia-facebook-race/542796/ – An overview of Russian disinformation in the USA
https://medium.com/war-is-boring/russia-tried-to-use-martin-luther-king-jr-s-assassination-to-start-a-race-war-9eeab04f1b82 – An article about Russia attempting to influence US race relations around the assassination of MLK
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/09/14/is-russian-meddling-as-dangerous-as-we-think – A New Yorker story about Russian propaganda efforts in the USA
https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/operation-denver-kgb-and-stasi-disinformation-regarding-aids – A (right-wing) think tank paper about Operation Denver
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1405237/ – A paper about the prevalence of HIV conspiracy beliefs
https://gimletmedia.com/shows/reply-all/llhe5nm – A podcast about the origins of QAnon, including a, to me, convincing theory about who controls the Q account.
The Sword And The Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive And The Secret History Of The KGB by Christopher Andrew, Vasili Mitrokhin, V. M. Basic Books, Sep 23, 1999 – I’d recommend this somewhat tedious book if you want a total overview of Russian/Soviet “active measures” in the USA and around the world.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/09/19/pentagon-psychological-operations-facebook-twitter/ – the first story about the Pentagon’s psyop to tie Iran to organ harvesting
Organ Theft, Guatemalan Adoption
http://pascalfroissart.online.fr/3-cache/1994-leventhal.pdf – A UN Report about the GOHC
http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/28480/ – An academic paper exploring the nexus between neoliberalism and GOHC in Mozambique
http://pascalfroissart.free.fr/3-cache/1996-scheperhughes.pdf – GOHC in Brazil
https://harpers.org/archive/2019/04/destined-for-export-guatemalan-adoptions/ – A piece about exploitation in Guatemalan adoption
https://www.nytimes.com/1994/04/05/world/foreigners-attacked-in-guatemala.html – one of the early stories about the consequences of GOHC in Guatemala
https://www.jstor.org/stable/1500384 – An academic paper about organ theft narratives
— Walker Thomas is from North Carolina and currently lives in Tokyo. You can see more of his bullshit at walkerzone.org