This priest came up with a daring plan to rescue a vulnerable child from a horrifying death.
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A priest who pretended to be a criminal to rescue a boy from organ trafficking was recently highlighted in an article in the Spanish newspaper El País, a periodical generally not given to praising the Church and the clergy.
The story of Fr. Ignacio María Doñoro de los Ríos, however, is hard to ignore. The 57-year-old former military chaplain was nominated for the Princess of Asturias Award for Concord for working for 25 years on behalf of young people who are victims of extreme poverty and the abomination of human trafficking.
In the 1990s, Fr. Ignacio was part of a special mission of the Spanish National Police in El Salvador. There he witnessed, to his great shock, an unexpected commercial transaction surrounding a “piece of defective merchandise.”
A family in abject poverty with five children was offering to sell their 14-year-old son, Manuel, who was suffering from paralysis, for just $25. With the money from the transaction, the family intended to buy food to feed their remaining four daughters. At the same time, the prospective buyers, by selling Manuel’s organs, intended to make a profit thousands of times greater than the investment made.
Although “defective” as a complete product, he would still yield sufficiently acceptable parts for sale. The boy would be “slaughtered”, dismembered, and packed into separate containers, like an ox or a pig in a slaughterhouse, to supply the demands of the international traffic in human organs.
Everything is shocking in this horrific true story. The misery of a family that reaches the extreme desperation of selling a child; the cataloging of a vulnerable and defenseless child as a defective product; the purchase of a human being by others—who are already consciously predisposed to murder him, butcher him and sell him in pieces within a network of murderers without even elementary moral parameters.
It’s also shocking to know that Manuel’s case is far from being an isolated aberration from two decades ago. Human beings continue to be traded in this way in the 21st century.
A tense rescue in the mountains
When he learned that a paralyzed boy was about to be handed over to an organ trafficker, Fr. Ignacio didn’t hesitate to risk his life to save him.
He went a week without shaving, rented a truck, and dressed in plain clothes. With extraordinary self-control, he drove to the poor family’s home in the remote mountains of Panchimalco, posing as a human trafficking buyer. He offered the family a dollar more than the price agreed upon by the other buyer, took the poor boy, put him in the truck, and drove away.
Manuel had just been rescued from an abominable death.
Fr. Ignacio told El País:
In tenths of a second, I realized that this was a train that would pass only once in my life and you have to take it or leave it. And if you take it, it will take you where you never thought you’d go … I was very aware that that child was going to change my life.
But what about the family that sold their own child? Did they know what he was being bought for? Did they know that it was organ trafficking? The priest simply comments:
One thing you learn over time is that you can’t judge them. That child was going to die and they sold him out of desperation.
Manuel, however, just needed the right help to avoid what seemed like certain death. Father Ignacio got him the treatment he needed, with intensive rehabilitation therapy, to not only survive but recover from his paralysis.
Twenty-five years later, Manuel is alive and grateful for the blessing of life. And Fr. Ignacio, back in his native Spain, was made sure of this when he received a letter from Manuel declaring that the priest had been “the most important person in his life.”
Fr. Ignacio did not stop after Manuel’s rescue, nor did he stop at the borders of his country.
In the Peruvian Amazon, he and a group of local partners founded Nazareth Home, an institution entirely dedicated to caring for orphaned children and the children of desperate families, like Manuel’s in El Salvador. These families find themselves facing an overwhelming battle against poverty and are vulnerable to falling into the most tragic attempts at escape: prostitution, crime or, still today as 25 years ago, the horror of human trafficking, dead or alive.
Fr. Doñoro received the 2021 Solidarity Award earlier this year from Telva magazine. He used the $20,000 prize money to buy farming equipment to plant rice, part of a project to make Nazareth House self-sufficient through agriculture.
On June 30, it was announced that the Princess of Asturias Award for Concord, for which Fr. Doñoro had been nominated, was being awarded to chef and philanthropist José Andrés, about whom we’ve written before, and his NGO, World Central Kitchen.