The cost of beauty: What to know before paying for cosmetic surgery in Tijuana

Americans crossing the border for surgical savings may end up paying a different kind of price

The Mexican border is just 20 miles from downtown San Diego. Americans seeking cosmetic or plastic surgery can find doctors performing procedures on either side of the fence. Jeff Woodman, the CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, says there are vast differences in how patients are treated and how surgical clinics and physicians are regulated.

“There's a perception that in Mexico and in other countries, the quality of health care is poorer,” Woodman said. “I would tend to say that overall, there's less regulation in Mexico.”

His group publishes guides and research designed to help patients understand international medical tourism. It estimates that 1.2 million Americans travel to Mexico for health care. It says of those, about 200,000 cross the border for cosmetic procedures. And one of the biggest reasons is the monetary savings.

“Anyone who travels to Mexico for cosmetic surgery or dental care or any other kind of surgery can generally expect to save 50 to 70% over what they would pay in the United States,” Woodman told us. “The United States is considered by many to be the top health care provider in the world. It's debatable whether that continues to be true, but what is true is it’s extraordinarily expensive.”

Woodman says there’s no guarantee of safety when a person goes under the knife, no matter which side of the border the surgery takes place on.

California mother dies on the operating table

Keuana Weaver's mother, Yolanda, shared these pictures of her daughter.
Yolanda Weaver
Keuana Weaver's mother, Yolanda, shared these pictures of her daughter.

The allure of surgical savings attracted Keuana Weaver to Tijuana two years ago. The 38-year-old mother died on the operating table while getting liposuction, a tummy tuck, and a Brazilian butt lift. According to multiple media reports, Keuana died from cardiac arrest from a blood clot after fat was injected into her bloodstream.

Her mother, Yolanda Weaver, told us she had no idea Keuana was even in Mexico until Keuana’s friend called her from the clinic to give her the heartbreaking news.

“When I got there, we couldn’t find her,” Yolanda told us.

It just breaks your heart. Why baby? You was beautiful. You didn’t need that. God made you the way you were.

Yolanda Weaver

Yolanda recalls visiting the clinic where her daughter died but says the man who operated on Keuana, Dr. Jesús Manuel Báez López, refused to meet her. Yolanda does not speak Spanish and says it took days to find her daughter’s body.

“You know the conditions I had to leave my baby in,” Yolanda said. “That wasn’t fit for a dog. It was that horrible. I’ve never had to go to a morgue before. And I pray to God I never have to again. Because that image of my daughter laying up there I will never forget.”

That image motivated Yolanda to report what happened to the prosecutor’s office in Baja California.

“The thing of it is, my daughter didn’t die on the table,” Yolanda said. “She was killed. It’s a difference.”  

No prison time for Tijuana doctor

Prosecutors charged Báez with homicide, medical negligence and performing surgeries he wasn’t trained to perform. But he won’t spend a day in jail. That’s because Mexican law allows some criminal defendants to avoid prosecution without admitting guilt if they agree to a settlement with their victims or victims’ families. Our team was in court when Báez agreed to pay 3.3 million pesos, or roughly $194,000 U.S. dollars to Keuana’s husband.

Yolanda says if it was up to her, she wouldn’t have taken a dime until Báez was behind bars.

“That’s what really makes me angry,” Yolanda said. “He just disregarded her like she didn’t mean nothing. Well, I feel the same way about him. I want his family to feel the way that my family feels. Some hurt. Disappointment. Because that’s what I’m feeling and that’s what I feel every day that my daughter is not here.”

Báez never stopped practicing and currently works at several clinics in Tijuana. We called his office for a comment, but a receptionist said Báez was in surgery. We tried several more times but never heard back.

Keuana left behind two children, her youngest just 1y ear old at the time of her death.

“It just breaks your heart,” Yolanda told us. “Why, baby? You was beautiful. You didn’t need that. God made you the way you were.”

Yolanda is now raising her eldest granddaughter. She says the money from the settlement went to the father of Keuana’s youngest child, who Yolanda says is raising that child. She says she no longer has contact with him, and we were unable to reach him for comment.

Surgical clinics often operate differently in Mexico

Dr. Hector Salazar is a board-certified plastic surgeon in La Jolla. He says he constantly sees patients with complications from work done across the border. 

“It’s a completely different world,” Salazar told us.

He says most of those patients told him they met their surgeon in Tijuana for the first time on the same day the surgeon cut them open. He said that’s a practice he doesn’t endorse because it puts patient safety at risk.

“It tends to happen because of the nature of how things are structured,” Salazar said. “You start cutting corners, and that’s not good.”

Salazar also warns patients about the risks of bundling surgical procedures together. While it cuts down the number of trips to a foreign country, he says the longer a patient is in the operating room, the higher the risk.

“The risk of complications after six hours of undergoing a surgery, it goes really, really high,” Salazar told us.

He says a third serious medical concern is often by the time patients experience complications they’re already back in the United States, far from the person best equipped to treat them.

“Nobody knows what happened internally during your operation better than your own surgeon,” Salazar said. “You’re talking about your life. This is not going to the outlet store and not to the boutique to purchase a sweater.”

Tijuana stepping up enforcement and regulatory transparency

Erwin Jorge Areizaga Uribe is the Baja California commissioner for COEPRIS, the Mexican agency responsible for regulating medical clinics.

In Tijuana, Uribe says doctors operate on more than a thousand medical tourists every day. He says his inspectors are working to keep pace.

COEPRIS says during the first four months of this year, it inspected 191 plastic and cosmetic surgery medical offices in Tijuana. Of those, it suspended 25. That’s a major increase compared to all of last year, where there were 119 inspections and nine suspensions.

Uribe says 96% of suspended clinics reopen and says deaths are rare. Just days after prosecutors announced the Báez settlement, regulators announced plans to roll out a new online registry of verified medical clinics. They’ve yet to publish that site.

Researching doctors and clinics

NBC 7's Sergio Flores breaks down all the tools you can use to vet doctors in Tijuana before agreeing to cosmetic surgery.

Many American patients have positive outcomes from medical tourism. Charity Stallman traveled from Missouri to Tijuana twice for a number of procedures. The first time, she had breast augmentation with a breast lift and an arm lift. We spoke with her when she returned for a thigh lift, tummy tuck and Brazilian butt lift. She says she wanted the surgeries after having weight loss surgery in the United States.

“I've been wanting to do it for several years, and after losing 120 pounds, wanted to change and feel better about the way I look,” Stallman told us. “It's worth the pain. Pain is beauty.”

Stallman said she was initially nervous and spent a lot of time researching doctors and clinics.

“It’s definitely scary, especially when you have children and family at home,” Stallman said. “You think about the what ifs and if something goes wrong.”

For that research, experts like Woodman suggest seeking out people who went across the border for surgery to see what their experiences were like. He also suggests checking out social media groups to learn about specific doctors and to ask any safety questions you may not have even considered.

Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a few doctors in Mexico, you’ll want to make sure they are properly trained and qualified to perform the procedures you're having. To do that, you’ll need the surgeon’s plastic surgery certification number. They’re not obligated to have one, but it’s an indicator they’re willing to be voluntarily checked by the Mexican federal government.

This screenshot, from September, shows the CMCPER website that consumers can use to verify physician licenses.
This screenshot, from September, shows the CMCPER website that consumers can use to verify physician licenses.

Enter that number into the CMCPER Online Directory. This is the certification counsel for plastic, cosmetic and aesthetic surgery. You’ll see a picture of the doctor, their specialties, location and a contact number. You can even type in the city name, like Tijuana, to see a list of certified doctors in that area.

This screenshot, from September, shows the CONACAM website that consumers can use to verify physician licenses.
This screenshot, from September, shows the CONACAM website that consumers can use to verify physician licenses.

Next, you’ll want to enter that same plastic surgery certification number on the CONACEM website. This is the official federal agency that handles certification in all medical fields. Do a side-by-side comparison of the two to see if the information matches.

Also, be wary about any reviews you read on a doctor’s website, as they may not be legitimate.

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