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Cheap cosmetic surgery in Mexico comes with risks beyond the operating table

“Is that a risk that you’re willing to take to save just a couple thousand dollars?” said one cosmetic surgeon in South Texas.
A Red Cross worker closes the door of an ambulance carrying two Americans found alive after their abduction in Mexico last week, on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, in Matamoros, Mexico.
A Red Cross worker closes the door Tuesday of an ambulance in Matamoros, Mexico, carrying two Americans found alive after their abduction last week.AP

At a fraction of the cost and just across the border, cosmetic surgery in Mexico has lured many U.S. citizens who might otherwise not be able to afford such procedures.

But in their pursuit of discounted flat stomachs, sculpted noses and wrinkle-free skin, patients often overlook, or are unaware of, the dangers they face — including risks before they even get to the operating table.

Reality television shows like “Botched” have shown the unsightly results of aesthetic procedures gone awry, including those done for cheap in countries with more lax medical regulations. Now, the violent kidnapping of four Americans that ended with two dead is highlighting other potential perils of medical tourism. 

The group was abducted Friday in Matamoros in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. The city, on the other side of the border from Brownsville, Texas, is one of the most crime-riddled areas of Mexico, where drug cartels and turf wars pose persistent threats.

It is not clear if the Americans, who had gone to Mexico so one of them could have a cosmetic medical procedure, were aware of the area’s notoriety. The U.S. State Department has said U.S. citizens should not travel there, citing violence, including kidnapping and armed robbery.

But the four were hardly the only ones to go there. Jasmine Wilson, 28, who traveled to Matamoros from Washington, D.C., in October 2022, said she had no idea that traveling to the Mexican city was risky, but said she had extensively researched the safety record of her surgeon there, who she came across via social media. His Facebook page, with over 30,000 followers, showcased before-and-after patient transformation photos and glowing reviews about his safety protocols.

“We literally had no problems,” she said.

While lower cost attracts many Americans to Mexico, it isn’t the only reason they come, said Dr. Nain Maldonado, a cosmetic surgeon who runs a private practice at a top clinic in Cancun. Many are frustrated with other aspects of the U.S. health care system, including difficulties getting appointments and feeling like their time with doctors is rushed once they do get in to see them.

“When I talk with my patients coming from the States, they are surprised how the doctors are coming to see them, talking with them, even during the appointments after the surgery or the next day,” he said. “I think it is easier to talk with your doctor here in Mexico.”

The amount of Americans who come to him for cosmetic procedures has grown so much in recent years that Americans and Canadians together now comprise 40% to 50% of his clientele, he said.

Maldonado said his patients also feel they get better results in Mexico than they would at home. 

But not everyone who goes to Mexico comes out of surgery happy. 

Before leaving for their operations, patients are often “creating this grandeur in their head of what they’re going to get,” said Dr. Filberto Rodriguez, a cosmetic surgeon who has practiced for over a decade in South Texas. He said he has nearly 30 patients a month who seek care from him after they have complaints about or complications from procedures in Mexico. 

He said he has noticed that the dream of affordable, accessible surgery can cause patients to downplay warnings about the areas they are traveling to and the deadly complications their procedures can carry.

“Is that a risk that you’re willing to take to save just a couple thousand dollars? I know people say you sound like such a snob when you say, ‘Oh my God, it’s only a couple thousand dollars you’re saving,’” he said. “It’s your life.”

Mexico welcomes many medical tourists not just for cosmetic surgery, but for other health care needs, including dental and pharmaceutical treatments, according to David Vequist IV, founder and director of the Center for Medical Tourism Research at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. In addition to the lower price, they go because they have a belief that they’re getting comparable or better care than they would at home.

“People tend to travel for what they perceive to be value. In other words, it’s not just the price, but it’s the price plus what they consider to be an acceptable level of quality,” Vequist said.

Estimates of how many medical tourists travel to Mexico vary. Patients Beyond Borders, an international health care travel publishing and consulting firm, said that pre-pandemic, some 1.2 million American citizens traveled to Mexico in 2019 for elective medical treatment — mostly cosmetic, complex dentistry and bariatric treatments.

And many times, these surgeries are successful, said ​​Dr. Alex Sobel, president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery. 

“We tend to hear and see about the bad outcomes,” he said. But “cosmetic surgery is a tremendously international community, with great surgeons and researchers all over.” 

The discounts overseas can be significant: Sobel said he has heard of procedures costing up to 80% less in Mexico.

That is because surgeons have lower costs overall in Mexico, savings they pass on to patients, Vequist said. That includes everything from lower costs for property and pharmaceutical drugs to lower salaries for medical staff, such as nurses and anesthesiology providers. 

Rodriguez said it’s also due in part to the exchange rate and not having as stringent regulations to adhere to as surgeons in the U.S.

Ransoms and other risks 

But the safety of the medical practices are separate from the safety of the areas Americans journey through to get them. The State Department has warned that in the Mexican state where Matamoros is, criminals target passengers in cars and buses and demand ransoms

Wilson, who had three procedures there in October, said she didn’t feel endangered. She attributed her sense of security to a spot she had booked at a post-surgical recovery center in Harlingen, Texas, which facilitated transportation to and from her operation.

A mother of four, she said she was pleased with the seamless cosmetic enhancements she received to address loose skin around her stomach area caused by diastasis recti, a condition that involves the separation of the abdominal muscles during pregnancy.

Wilson was shocked by the recent kidnappings. Nonetheless, she said she would not hesitate to undergo procedures again in Matamoros, as long as she used the same transportation method.

Dr. Jennyfer Cocco, a plastic surgeon in Dallas, said there is nothing wrong with seeking the best price “as long as you know what you are getting into.” 

She said there are surgeons in Mexico who are certified according to American standards and certifications can be checked on the American Society for Plastic Surgeons’ website. 

“My advice would be any American that travels internationally needs to look at the State Department warnings about what areas are safe and what types of issues are going on,” Vequist said. “Right now unfortunately in Mexico, there are several regions, states and cities that have State Department warnings.”

CORRECTION (March 9, 2023, 8:52 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of an international health care travel publishing and consulting firm. It is Patients Beyond Borders, not Patients Without Borders.