AP, Nov. 30, 2002
By Sandra Marquez, Associated Press
SANTA ANA — Roberto Caceres was desperate.
Two years after developing a rash that caused his legs to swell and his skin to peel, the Salvadoran immigrant sought treatment from a woman he believed could use traditional remedies to cure what modern medicine could not.
Caceres, 54, an air-conditioner repairman at an Orange County shopping mall, was on the brink of losing his job because the pills prescribed by doctors failed to cure his affliction, and he found it difficult to work.
As a last resort, family members said, he turned to a Van Nuys faith healer touted by a popular Spanish-language radio host. During Caceres’ second visit on Oct. 28, according to police, the faith healer ordered an assistant to inject him with a mix of vitamins and steroids. He had an immediate reaction and died that day.
Caceres’ death highlights a practice among many immigrants in Southern California who turn to unlicensed practitioners because they often are poor and uninsured, prefer the type of care they had in their homeland or, if they entered the country illegally, fear that mainstream health clinics will check their immigration status.
Two years after the Los Angeles Police Department formed a task force to crack down on the practice, phony doctors and pharmacists continue to proliferate. Arrests at back-room clinics tucked into bridal shops, bakeries and other stores catering to Southern California’s Hispanic, Russian and Asian communities are on the rise, according to the task force.
So far this year, officers have arrested 56 people for illegal pharmaceutical sales.
Detective Al Aldaz of the Los Angeles Police Department’s homicide unit said Chavarria operated a very profitable business, seeing at least 20 customers a day.
“The people she deals with come from deep Mexico or El Salvador in the hills. There is not a lot of medical treatment available,” Aldaz said. “They believe in the supernatural.”
Contacted by telephone at her home, Chavarria refused comment and would not provide the name of her attorney.
Inside the family home in Santa Ana, photographs of a sturdy, silver-haired Caceres smile at visitors from a makeshift altar. Some 200 people packed the home to attend Caceres’ wake, where he was remembered as a simple man who helped raise money to send wheelchairs and an ambulance back to his hometown.
“When I am alone, the memories come back,” Noemi Caceres, 50, said by telephone from El Salvador, where she returned this month to bury her husband and seek comfort from relatives. “Right now, I feel as if he is still in Santa Ana. When I get there, it will be difficult for me.”
Born in the village of Atiquizaya, El Salvador, an area known for its abundant waterfalls and curative thermal waters, Roberto Caceres was a coffee farmer who emigrated to the United States in 1980.
Like so many before him, he came seeking a better life. Specifically, he hoped his eldest son, Luis, then 18, could go to college and avoid being drafted into El Salvador’s violent civil war.
The couple grew into their new role as grandparents and planned to retire with their two sons in Nevada. A daughter lives in Anaheim.
But the life Caceres built was threatened by the skin rash, which four dermatologists had been unable to treat or diagnose.
When he went to work, he was sent home because his constant scratching was considered unsightly. Shortly before contacting Chavarria, Caceres received written notice from his employer that he would lose his job and health coverage in November.
Caceres remembered a faith healer in El Salvador who once cured him of back pain with a steady dose of natural fruit juices and prayer, and he held out hope that he might yet find a cure.
When one of his doctors muttered something about his infection being diabolic, he believed it was time to seek an alternative remedy, Luis Caceres said.
He turned to Chavarria, whose powers as a natural healer had been publicized on a nationally syndicated, Spanish-language radio show. Chavarria charged Caceres $310 on his first visit and advised him to dig a hole “where nobody could see him” and bury himself for two hours a day, police said.
He found a shady spot under a lemon tree in his back yard and followed the unusual prescription, his son said. The cold earth aggravated his condition, however, and in a week he returned to the faith healer for a follow-up consultation.
During Caceres’ second visit, Montes, 28, consulted with Chavarria before giving him two closely timed injections, police said. Investigators believe the shots contained vitamin B-12 and B-Methasone, a steroid used to treat allergies.
Caceres promptly fell to the floor, gasping. He was pronounced dead at Valley Presbyterian Hospital.
Toxicology reports are pending.
With phony medical clinics thriving in immigrant communities throughout Los Angeles, officials have launched a series of Spanish-language television ads to inform people they can turn instead to low-cost medical clinics.
“None of this gets reported unless something drastic happens,” Aldaz said. “They operate in the culture or under the umbrella of the neighborhood where people believe in what they are doing.”
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