Illicit adoptions inflame a sensitive nerve in Mexico, an impoverished country that cherishes its children.
Returning from a day trip to Mexico early last month, sisters Beatriz and Elizabeth Rodriguez of Austin were intercepted by Mexican immigration agents just before reaching the international bridge.
"They stopped me before I even paid the toll. They said we were all detained," said Beatriz, who was traveling with three small children in a late model car with Texas plates.
Two of the children were Elizabeth's. The third was not.
And, as Mexican authorities soon determined, the 18-month-old blond girl was not related to either Rodriguez and had no documentation to establish her identity or citizenship.
After a lengthy interrogation, the sisters told the Mexican agents they had been paid $1,000 to take the baby, known to them only as "Blanca," to Austin, where they would receive instructions by phone on where to deliver her.
They also said they had taken a dozen or more Mexican infants into the United States before Blanca. Although the sisters later retracted these admissions, portions of their videotaped statements were shown on Mexican national television.
The case hit directly on a sensitive nerve in Mexico, a country of wrenching material poverty, but, in its children, great familial riches.
Once again, the national paranoia about Mexican children being taken north for black market adoptions or worse appeared confirmed. Although some impoverished Mexican mothers gladly sell their children, ostensibly for a better life on the other side, a great many more say their babies are stolen or kidnapped.
"It's crazy right now what they are saying. They say we're with the big Mafia and that we steal kids," Beatriz said in a recent jailhouse interview.
"They asked us, 'Do you know what they use these kids are for? People are selling them over there,'" she said.
Officials of the Federal Preventative Police, known by its Spanish acronym as PFP, say the sisters are part of a people-smuggling ring operating from Oaxaca to the northern border. They say the ring is involved in everything from child pornography to undocumented workers to prostitution. According to the PFP, the March 9 arrests came after a three-month investigation of child smuggling in Piedras Negras in which the Rodriguez sisters were implicated by unnamed sources.
"They said they didn't do anything more than take them across the border," said Claudia Martinez, a PFP spokeswoman in Mexico City. "They said they would deliver the children to a house in Austin, and their job would end. But what happened after they turned over the children?"
Urgency was added to the question by two other recent cases in Piedras Negras, both involving Mexican babies allegedly destined for illegal entry into the United States.
"There are three cases that we know about," said Manuel Bueno, the port director for Mexican immigration at Piedras Negras. "We don't know if it is increasing or not, we've just discovered the situation."
The most recent case involves two American women from Bryan, also sisters, who were arrested March 30 in a city park, accused of being given a baby to take into the United States.
The women say the baby belonged to relatives.
"All this is a misunderstanding. The baby is my husband's cousin's baby," said Trina Tirado, 32, in a recent interview in a Piedras Negras prison.
"I told the man, 'If it is a crime to come to Mexico and see family and hold their baby, I'm not coming to Mexico anymore,'" she said.
In the earlier case, a Mexican man who was detained while trying to bring a baby into the United States was returned to Mexico and then freed.
"What has to be investigated is this last case, to see if they are connected to a smuggling ring, but we don't know that yet," Bueno said.
The Rodriguez sisters already are charged with people smuggling, a federal crime punishable by six to 12 years in prison. Along with Tirado and her sister, they are being held in a federal prison.
Motives don't matter
"We will take into consideration all the information. Their motives for the child don't matter. What we do know is they charged $1,000, and the parents were here in Mexico," said Federico Rodriguez Celis, a federal judge in Piedras Negras who will determine their fate.
The Rodriguez sisters now claim they were pressured by Mexican police into making admissions about smuggling babies into the United States. They deny taking any children before Blanca, whom they say they were trying to reunite with her mother in Austin as a favor to a friend.
"It's true that we said it, but it was for their benefit," Beatriz said. "They told us, 'We don't want you, we want that other lady, and if you help us find her, you can go.'"
Elizabeth said she told police what they wanted to hear because of concern for her two children, who she said were left alone and neglected during the lengthy interrogation.
The women say they were not paid, even though they acknowledge they had $600 in cash with them when police detained them. They scoff at police statements that they are part of a large smuggling organization.
Although arrests in the smuggling ring have been made in other parts of the country, PFP agents are still searching for Guadalupe Salazar, the woman in Piedras Negras whom the Rodriguez sisters say gave them the baby.
Mexican authorities say Salazar ran the baby-smuggling operation there.
After spending six days with a Mexican social agency, the blond baby was turned over to a couple from the interior of Mexico who provided documentation that convinced authorities it was their child.
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Eagle Pass, where 10,000 vehicles and hundreds of pedestrians arrive daily from Mexico, said they routinely encounter people trying to bring small children into the country without adequate documentation.
The Mexican babies are part of the immutable illicit commerce of the international border: Drugs and humans come north, guns and cash go south.
"We've been encountering two or three minors a day, and most of the time they are trying to smuggle them in because of desperate conditions in Mexico," said Roger Morin, the INS' port director in Eagle Pass.
"We're talking about situations where maybe the husband is already in the United States illegally and maybe the wife and children are trying to reunite with him, and of course they don't want to cross the river (with the child) because it is dangerous," he said.
Mexico is repeatedly reminded that its anxiety about its children leaving the country through irregular or illicit adoptions is not unfounded.
In January, the visa section at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City caught an American couple trying to get a 10-day-old infant out of the country after paying $2,500. Also in January, another woman was stopped from getting a visa for an 18-month-old child that she had bought for 10,000 pesos.
Even more disturbing was a well-publicized case last year in New York.
The affair of the "Two Arlenes" confirmed Mexican suspicions that childless, wealthy Americans are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars, and ask few questions to adopt a child.
In May, Arlene Lieberman and Arlene Reingold, neighbors on Long Island who ran a small adoption consulting agency, and Mario Reyes, a lawyer from Douglas, Ariz., were accused by federal authorities of running a baby-smuggling ring from Mexico.
According to authorities, the Long Island women contacted American couples, desperate for a baby, with promises of safe, easy and legal adoption. They say at least 17 Mexican babies were placed in American homes before authorities stepped in.
Some families paid $20,000 or more for adoptions of the children, some of whom had serious health problems, and none of whom had proper documentation.
Reyes, a lawyer with dual Mexican and American citizenship, admitted to paying Mexican mothers for the children, to hiring professional smugglers to bring the babies into the United States and to a variety of document frauds.
A fourth person, Margarita Soto de Smith, a resident of the Mexican border town of Agua Prieta, right across the border from Reyes' home in Douglas, also was arrested by Mexican authorities who alleged she was part of the smuggling ring.
Investigators said she described how Reyes found struggling Mexican mothers willing to part with their newborns for money and promises of a better life. The investigators also say Soto told police she helped house the babies obtained by Reyes and brought them into the United States using false documents while posing as their mother.
In July, both Long Island housewives pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to transport undocumented immigrants. Reyes later pleaded guilty to similar charges and agreed to make restitution to the parents.
The case illustrates the great Mexican paradox. Mexico is a country of nearly 100 million people, a third of whom are under age 15. Many Mexican children live in impoverished households, more than 10,000 children live in orphanages, and more yet are homeless, living on the streets.
Yet because of the lengthy and complicated adoption process, an average of 100 Mexican children are adopted each year by Americans. It is a reflection of what some see as a strong Mexican bias against losing children to foreign cultures.
"The paperwork and red tape is extreme," said Victor Negron, a prominent San Antonio adoption lawyer. "The Mexican authorities make it almost impossible to cross a baby into the United States. There seems to be a cultural bias against allowing babies to come over to the North American side.
"I handle domestic and foreign - China, Thailand, Vietnam, Guatemala, Taiwan, Russia, Korea and Romania - but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of adoptions I've handled that had anything to do with Mexico."
If black market adoptions happen, they occur invisibly, said Negron, who is aware of only one similar situation.
"I had a couple that actually called me in the last year and said they went across the border, and there was a lady with flowers there who had three kids, the youngest was 2 or 3 months," he said.
"They said, 'She handed the baby to us, and we want to adopt it.' I said, 'Excuse me? You crossed the border with the baby? I'm going to send you to a criminal lawyer. You need some federal advice. But when you straighten the mess out, call me if you end up with possession of the baby.'"