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Quest for Beauty Leads Mexican Women to Ruin

Ex-stripper allegedly operated as a plastic surgeon. Awaiting trial, she is being sued by 141 people who say she gave them toxic injections.

November 03, 2002|Alicia Calderon | Associated Press Writer

GUADALAJARA — The schoolteacher says she wanted smaller breasts and was overjoyed when a highly recommended plastic surgeon told her that instead of surgery, a few injections would slim her down.

Nearly 1 1/2 years later, Veronica Gonzalez, 32, has lost her job and her friends -- and may have to spend the rest of her life using a walker. Doctors plan to remove her breasts, gluteal muscles and calves because of damage from industrial silicone allegedly injected into her body.

It is just one of dozens of cases involving a woman in Guadalajara who prosecutors allege operated as a plastic surgeon with a fake license. The woman, Miriam Yukie Gaona, has been dubbed the "Beautykiller."

"I bought a funeral package and made out my will," Gonzalez said of her initial reaction to her health problems. "She didn't just mutilate my body. She mutilated my soul."

But after buying rat poison and locking herself in her apartment, Gonzalez saw a report on television about Gaona and decided to fight back. Now she heads an association of people who contend that Gaona victimized them.

Gaona, who has been jailed since August awaiting dozens of trials, denies the rapidly mounting charges against her. Her lawyer, Jose Julian Jordan, says she isn't giving interviews, and he describes the cases against her as a political conspiracy.

"It's unfair to call her 'Beautykiller,' " he added. "She hasn't killed anyone, and none of these women was a beauty."

So far, 141 people -- almost all women -- have filed lawsuits against Gaona in one of the largest medical malpractice cases ever brought in Mexico. Health officials estimate that Gaona treated between 1,500 and 2,700 people, offering cut-rate prices in a country obsessed with TV's idealized standards of beauty but most too poor to afford surgery.

Gaona, a former stripper, allegedly began working as a plastic surgeon in 1998 and, through word of mouth, she soon became the rage of Guadalajara, a metropolis of 4 million people 280 miles west of Mexico City.

Women traveled from as far away as California and Texas to see la doctora, who, patients say, prominently displayed a supposed license on her clinic wall. Former patients also show Gaona business cards bearing a curvaceous silhouette and the title "plastic surgeon."

From society women to poor homemakers, patients reportedly lined up around the block at Gaona's three clinics. They say she injected them with what they were told were citrus blends to burn fat or bovine collagen to increase size.

Gaona -- who used her exaggerated lips and sculpted body as an example of her skill -- allegedly injected as many as 300 women a day, charging as little as 50 pesos, about $5, to poor clients and as much as $150 to rich ones for each injection.

Prosecutors say Gaona apparently never used citrus or collagen injections. Instead, they charge, she filled her syringes with a mix of industrial silicone -- normally used for sealing car parts and appliances -- soy oil and a gelatin-like substance.

The mix apparently was highly toxic. Dozens of women report lumps in their breasts, hardening of their muscles and blackening of their skin. Many have had mastectomies. Others face amputations of their legs. Some have attempted suicide, and many have been spurned by their husbands, their employers and their friends.

One woman filed suit in 2001. But after Gaona's practice became the focus of news reports this year, 140 more filed suit.

So far, 346 people -- as young as 14 and as old as 60 -- have been treated at state hospitals to repair damage they say was caused by Gaona. Victims say hundreds more have quietly had reconstructive surgery in private clinics, too ashamed to come forward. They predict that other cases will emerge in the coming years when people's symptoms become more severe.

"We get groups of 5, 10 women at a time coming in. It's a lot of people," said the lead prosecutor, Salvador Lopez Jimenez. "In order not to ignore other cases, we had to build a team to work exclusively on this one."

His office, which has nine people on the case full-time, charges Gaona with causing injuries and impersonating a professional -- violations that carry such light sentences there isn't a mandatory jail term. Federal prosecutors have also charged her with administering illegal drugs for the psychotropic pills that she allegedly prescribed for weight loss.

Gaona's lawyer calls the case "a mass psychosis." Jordan has alternately described the motivation for her prosecution as a personal vendetta by a former colleague from a strip club or as a move by someone -- he won't say who -- seeking political gain.

"If I denounce the person who is behind this, tomorrow I won't be here," Jordan said, raising his eyebrows.

He says Gaona denies ever injecting anything into anyone -- although he also says she could be lying about that -- and he contends that she never claimed to be a doctor. Gaona simply distributed homeopathic pills for weight loss, he says.

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