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Tijuana doctor charged in cosmetic-surgery death of Southern California woman

Nearly two years since a Long Beach mother died during a cosmetic surgery in Tijuana, prosecutors in Baja California have charged the doctor who performed the procedure with negligent manslaughter, with a judge ruling Friday there is enough evidence to move forward with the case.

The doctor is accused in Baja California state court of manslaughter due to malpractice and negligence in the January 2021 death of 38-year-old Keuana Weaver, a mother of two. He is also charged with a crime related to performing a function he is not authorized to perform.

Under the Mexican rules of allowing media access to criminal court proceedings, the doctor must be referred to publicly by his first name only. In previous coverage of the death, the Union-Tribune has identified the doctor by his full name, Jesús Manuel Báez López.

The doctor appeared Wednesday via video in a Tijuana courtroom for an initial hearing akin to an arraignment, according to the Tijuana news outlet Punto Norte. On Friday, he testified via video during a day-long hearing at which prosecutors presented preliminary evidence to the judge.

At the end of Friday’s hearing, the judge ruled there was sufficient initial evidence to charge the doctor. His defense attorney, who also appeared via video, could not be reached after the hearing.

Weaver’s family said she died Jan. 29, 2021, on the operating table at the cosmetic surgery clinic Art Siluette Aesthetic Surgery while undergoing liposuction and a tummy tuck. Báez was listed as the clinic’s director.

“I’m glad that something’s being done, I hope they follow through with it,” Renee Weaver, Keuana’s mother, said over the phone Thursday on the day she learned about the criminal charge. She said the doctor had “tried to cover up” her daughter’s death.

“It was wrong. He should pay for it,” Renee Weaver said. “But I can’t really celebrate yet. When they say he’s going to jail — then I’ll celebrate.”

Testifying Friday, the doctor did not dispute that Weaver died at his clinic, saying that he tried unsuccessfully to revive her. He said he doesn’t “wish anyone to go through a time like this,” adding, “Ever since I trained as a doctor, I always wanted to help people, not cause them any harm.”

But he said Weaver knew the risks associated with the procedures.

An attorney assigned by the court to represent the victim’s interests argued that the document explaining the risks was in Spanish — which was not Weaver’s primary language. Prosecutors also argued Weaver’s signature was missing from some key documents.

The prosecutors blamed Weaver’s death on the doctor’s poor performance and also argued he was not certified to perform the procedures he was doing. The doctor insisted he has the expertise and knowledge to perform the surgeries.

A Union-Tribune investigation last year found Báez had earned a two-year master’s degree in aesthetic surgery — another surgeon said that refers to minor procedures like Botox injections — but appeared to lack credentials as a certified plastic surgeon. Prosecutors argued Friday that the university may not be properly accredited.

Though Weaver’s death was the most severe case — prompting the FBI to open an investigation — there were also two other women who told the Union-Tribune they suffered from apparent botched surgeries at Báez’s clinic that day.

Weaver’s friend, Kanisha Davis, said she and Weaver had gone to the clinic together for the same liposuction and tummy tuck procedures. Davis’ husband took her home to California after they learned of Weaver’s death, she said, and soon Davis began bleeding internally and projectile vomiting.

She said she eventually required an ambulance ride to an emergency room and a two-week hospitalization. “If I hadn’t gone into the hospital when I did, I would have died,” Davis told the Union-Tribune last year, saying hospital staff told her she was hemorrhaging inside and had a hematoma, or an internal pooling of blood.

Esmeralda Iniguez told the Union-Tribune last year that she had undergone surgery the same day as Weaver and Davis at the same clinic. A few days later, while in septic shock, she had to be rushed across the border to an emergency room in Chula Vista.

“He tightened my abdominal muscles too much, squishing all my organs together and cutting off blood supply to my kidneys, causing something called Abdominal Compartment Syndrome,” Iniguez said in April 2021.

U.S. residents often seek low-cost medical care, including cosmetic procedures, in Tijuana. But doctors caution that bargain shopping for such surgeries can be risky. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning after 11 Americans who had weight-loss procedures in the border city returned home with antibiotic-resistant infections.

Officials in Mexico and Baja California have built up the state’s “medical tourism” industry in recent years, even opening in 2011 a special medical lane that allowed U.S. patients of registered Mexican doctors to mostly avoid the notoriously long waits at the San Ysidro vehicle border-crossing.

Baja California’s Secretary of Sustainable Economy and Tourism estimates the industry has tripled in recent years, from 800,000 medical tourists documented in 2014 to 2.4 million in 2018, generating annual revenues of more than $1.7 billion. That includes the spill-over effect of spending on luxury hotels and restaurants, where patients stay and eat before and after their procedures.

The FBI’s Los Angeles field office, which opened an investigation into Weaver’s death last year, did not respond Friday to questions about whether the agency was involved in helping bring the criminal charge against the doctor. The agency declined to comment last year when the Union-Tribune reported it was investigating Weaver’s death.

Bella Allen runs a Facebook group called “Botched Plastic Surgery in Mexico—Exposed,” which as its name suggests seeks to shed light on cosmetic surgeries gone wrong and the doctors who performed them, as well as connect people to safe and trusted surgeons.

Allen said Báez stood out as a particularly dangerous surgeon, so much so that she created a separate group, “Botched by Baez in Tijuana,” where those experiences could be centralized.

“I’m so happy,” Allen said Thursday upon learning that the doctor was facing a criminal charge. She said it was past time for a Tijuana plastic surgeon to face criminal charges for shoddy and dangerous work.

“It starts with this. He should go down for all the doctors.”

Allen has read the stories of, or communicated with, dozens of women who claim Báez has injured or disfigured them. She said based on the stories of those women and research she and others have done, Báez appears to have regularly taken on riskier clients and promised unrealistic results to clients with a higher Body Mass Index. And she said that he often “does great work” — at least on the surface.

She likened his work to a plumber who comes to a home and stops a spurting leak from a pipe at a low price. The homeowner is thrilled with the result and the cost — until much later, when they find out it was fixed with duct tape and has been slowly leaking out of sight for years.

“You have no idea what he did behind that wall,” Allen said, finishing off the analogy. “Just because you look great, you have no idea how botched you are on the inside.”

Since 2014, state law in Baja California has stipulated that only certified plastic surgeons can perform liposuction and other cosmetic procedures such as tummy tucks and “mommy makeovers.”

On a now-defunct website, Báez did not list qualifications as a plastic surgeon. Nor did he list among his credentials having any specialty training as a surgeon that is legally necessary to practice plastic surgery. He did cite a master’s degree in “aesthetic surgery,” which typically refers to Botox and other minor treatments.

Mexico’s National Register of Professions shows Báez obtained a bachelor’s degree in 2007 as a general physician from the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, and in 2012 earned a two-year master’s degree in aesthetic surgery from the Institute of Higher Studies in Medicine.

A cosmetic surgery clinic that Báez previously operated — Clínica Santa Fe Medical Group — was among 10 in Tijuana that were shut down in April 2015 by Mexico’s Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risks for “failing to meet the minimum requirements to operate legally.”

A spokesperson from that commission declined to comment Friday about the criminal charges, citing the active investigation.

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