By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Perera, the scorpion trapper, might worry that these advances would put him out of a job — but he doesn't. He has something more important on his mind. "My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer about a year ago," he says, choking up. The elder Perera is undergoing chemo and drinking the venom daily. His son believes the fruits of his labor are helping his father feel stronger and more energetic. "I feel proud that I can be a part of bringing the scorpions to the people who need them."
Perera, González, and their fellow Labiofam employees who supply Valdés' scorpionario aren't the only ones scavenging Cuba's woods for venom producers. Every week, informal hunters make a drop-off on a dusty street at the edge of Jagüey Grande. There's a large scorpion engraved on the door of the home and, to the left, a sign that reads, "Escozul." It lists office hours and instructions for medical consultation in English. There's no doorbell on the steel gate that encloses the porch of the nicest house on the block.
When a guest arrives, a large dog barks and a clear-eyed young woman in her 30s greets us for José Felipe Monzón. "He doesn't talk to the press," the woman says politely. It's expected. He has already turned down interview requests.
So a last card is played: "Do you think maybe his daughter — the one he saved with the scorpion venom years ago — might be willing to chat?"
The woman smiles shyly and apologizes: "Sorry, I don't give interviews either."
The story, though, has been told. The father began bringing back extra venom from Guantánamo. His daughter improved. Neighbors and friends were impressed with the girl's recovery, and Bordier finally taught Monzón the recipe. Monzón soon set up a home office and started calling the medicine "escozul" (a blend of the words escorpión and azul).
"Lines around the block!" says Arturo Fernández, Monzón's next-door neighbor for the past three decades. "Italians, French, Australians, people from everywhere started arriving." Locals too.
But those who don't have the time or money or health to get to the tiny island have few other options. A handful of doctors outside Cuba administer the treatment, including a California oncologist who had an integrative-medicine practice in Tijuana, where he treated several patients from the States. "At first, we witnessed remarkable recoveries," Dr. Santiago Vargas wrote in an email, noting that he discovered escozul in 2005 and that his practice closed in 2011, but he did not indicate a reason. "Still, as we continued to recommend it, we found some inconsistency in the results; apparently it worked best for [gastrointestinal] tract cancers. I was told it worked well for most other forms of cancer; this was not our experience." He obtained the venom from Mexico City, where there's another physician who travels to Cuba every three months and claims to make the venom in collaboration with Bordier's son.
Those who can't travel to see these physicians must place their faith in online third parties. Labiofam has secured homeopathic licenses for Vidatox in 22 countries: China, Albania, and several in Latin America. The company's website lists official distributors for these nations. But because neither the United States nor Canada nor any European state has cleared Vidatox through a rigorous homeopathic standards process, venom seekers must rely on the black market.
"I have organized it for people in Europe, the USA, Vietnam, China, the Arabian States, Africa, Australia," says a German man named Oliver Binnenböse, who for 950 euros (about $1,200) will travel to Cuba and then deliver to you three bottles of Vidatox. He's one of many people who offer these services on cancer-treatment chat forums. With such small quantities, he has never had any problems slipping under customs' radar.
A more troubling black market, however, is emerging. In 2011, Italian police confiscated 236 bottles of Vidatox — more than $50,000 in resale value — being smuggled in from Albania, an easy access point of entry into Europe.
"[The confiscated material] is not a drug," Silvio Garattini, founder and director of the Mario Negri Institute of Pharmacological Research in Milan, said in a statement soon after, but rather "a preparation that has not been approved by any international regulatory agency." The Italian government's Natural Substances and Traditional Medicines Unit of the Italian National Institute of Health thought it wise to weigh in as well: "Despite the potential benefits of the registered drug, clinical trials in accordance with official protocols have not been so far undertaken, and it should be mandatory to achieve an appropriate European evaluation of this product," the 2011 statement read.
Labiofam says it laments the trafficking and is seeking approval in dozens of other countries, but it won't specify which are under way.
A plethora of websites offer to send the original drinkable formula — referred to as escozul, escoazul, or the trademarked Escozine — anywhere in the world. Some sites seem more trustworthy than others, such as LifEscozul, which claims to work in direct coordination with Monzón and Bordier's family. "We service mainly Europe," says LifEscozul's managing director, Ariel Portal, whose agency can either arrange travel to Cuba or deliver copies of the patient's medical history to the producers so they can prepare a personalized treatment for shipment.