A police sting in Gabon brought down a ring of grave robbers suspected of selling human skulls to makers of traditional medicines and amulets, officials said Wednesday.
Eight Gabonese suspects were arrested last week in connection with the sale of nine human skulls and femur bones, said Col. Alphonse Ngo'o, head of judicial police in the Central African nation.
Police started searching for the traffickers after a number of families in the capital, Libreville, complained that their relatives' graves had been dug up or disturbed, Ngo'o said. He declined to say how the eight men were identified.
The alleged ringleader, Jean Martin Moussavou, told local television reporters that the group had been selling skulls to the makers of traditional medicines and fetishes since 2004.
"People placed orders with me. Then I went to get them," Moussavou said in the broadcast interview. He said they would break into cemeteries in the middle of the night to steal the skulls.
The skulls were then ground down into a powder that healers use in various drinks and amulets believed to give the wearer strength or power, he said. Moussavou added that he sold many skulls for use in a common initiation rite, known as Bwiti, in which young men and women drink a potion that is expected to bring on visions.
In Gabon, the knowledge that human bones are used in the potion was nearly as shocking to many as the news of the grave robbing operation.
"I was initiated by Bwiti. I'm scared that I ate a person's body," said Jeanne Mba, a middle-aged housewife in Libreville.
Moussavou said they sold each skull for about 250,000 Central African francs, which is about $620 in U.S. currency.
Capt. Arno Nombo, head of the judicial police's crime unit, said it is not the first time they have seized skulls being sold by grave robbers but is the largest cache found at once.
It is likely that "many, many more skulls have been hidden in their homes," Ngo'o said.
"The small number of skulls we have found must just be the tip of the iceberg," he said.
The eight alleged traffickers were charged with desecrating grave sites and selling human remains, Ngo'o said. They are scheduled to appear in court Thursday. If convicted, they face between two and five years in prison.