Vietnamese authorities believe that hundreds of people sold kidneys to the country’s biggest organ trading syndicate, with criminals preying mostly on the rural poor and disadvantaged ethnic minority groups.

Police in Ho Chi Minh City closed down the racket on January 31 and arrested five people believe to be involved, VN Express reported: alleged ringleader Ton Nu Thi Huyen, 44, Hoang Duc Tung, 28, Huynh Linh Tam, 27, Pham Quang Canh, 23, and Nguyen Minh Tam, 20.

Phan Manh Truong, deputy head of the Crime Department at the Ministry of Public Security, said the people behind the operation had either sold kidneys themselves, or had bought them.

“We were quite shocked by the large number of victims, who came from many cities and provinces,” Truong said. The ring also had links abroad.

Investigators believe the racket began after Huyen tried to sell one of her own kidneys in May 2017 to pay off a debt, and realised its potential. Possible sellers were approached by brokers through social media.

Kidney sellers were given VND200 million (US$8,600), while buyers would be charged about VND500 million ($21,500) for a transplant.  Brokers earned $860 to $1,100 for each successful referral.

Organizers booked the hundreds of sellers into hospitals in Vietnam and other Asian countries for surgery. Most had little education and were easily convinced that removing a kidney would not affect their health. Police located 11 would-be sellers abroad and brought them to Vietnam.

The trading of body parts is illegal in Vietnam and can lead to a term of life imprisonment. But many are prepared to take the risk because there is a dire shortage of legitimate organ donors, partly because of a belief that people need to keep their body intact for the afterlife.

There are long queues for heart, kidney, liver and lung transplants.