Author: Pamela Constable, Globe Staff
LIMA -- Is James Patrick Gagel the leader of a white slavery gang who ''kidnapped 5,000 children'' and sold them to American and European couples at enormous profit, as Peruvian prosecutors and tabloid writers insist? Or is the 36-year-old, lawyer from Bergen County in New Jersey, who once volunteered for Mother Teresa and came to Lima to help reform Peru's judicial system, a victim of Peru's corruption and his own efforts to help unite childless families and needy infants? The answer may be as elusive as the antiquated adoption laws, loose legal practices and brazen police tactics that characterize Peruvian justice. But unless his luck turns, Gagel may soon be facing 15 years in a Lima prison. ''The whole thing is outrageous, and I have protested every step of the way,'' he said in a recent interview in the fashionable Miraflores district. ''But here, everything works backwards, and the facts simply don't matter.''
Gagel was arrested in February 1992, charged with kidnapping children to sell abroad, and thrown into prison for nearly a year. The case was seized upon by an impoverished but proud society that is ambivalent about giving up its children for adoption, and the press fed its worst fears. "They kidnapped, robbed and sold 5,000 children, but this powerful chain of traffickers has been provisionally freed," began one newspaper story after Gagel and his staff were released on bail.
Actually, the case against Gagel -- who says he arranged no more than 40 adoptions over two years -- was limited to two incidents, one in which a Peruvian woman asserted he had tricked her into giving up her baby, and another in which a sickly adopted infant died during a bus trip.
The courts eventually confirmed that the contested adoption was legal. Gagel also received support from such influential figures as Mother Teresa and President Alberto Fujimori, who last November said he had "serious doubts" about the case against him. But in March, prosecutors asked for a 15-year sentence on charges that he falsified adoption documents, and Gagel -- a US citizen who is banned from leaving Peru while on trial -- expects a ruling any day.
"I am somewhat optimistic, but the real charge against me is that they don't like what I do," Gagel said, describing how police beat him in handcuffs and tortured his secretary in prison, then how a judge repeatedly denied his requests to see the evidence against him.
The foreign adoption process in Peru is controversial, slow and not clearly defined in the law. Couples must wait during months of cumbersome procedures, and accusations of bribing judges or bureaucrats to speed the process are common.
Unfortunately for Gagel, his arrest came shortly after a series of highly publicized charges of judicial corruption in Peruvian adoptions -- and his cause was further tainted by the widespread belief that babies are sold abroad for organ parts.
According to press reports, several couples who worked with Gagel complained that he took them on dangerous trips into the jungle to fetch babies, that he seemed to cut legal corners, or that they paid more than $5,000 only to have the adoption fall through.
But Gagel said he was honest in his dealings with the system. He said he believes his refusal to succumb to extortion pressure is what landed him in so much hot water. "There was constant harassment from the police demanding payments, but instead of going along with it, I filed complaints, and it made them furious," he said, recalling how one police commander screamed at him during his arrest, "You like to file complaints against the police!"
Gagel also annoyed court officials by filing dozens of petitions from prison, insisting on his full legal rights. He has had several confrontations with a judge who rejected most of his requests.
This year, Fujimori's government has substantially modernized its adoption rules, reducing the chances for confusion and extortion. The changes may have come too late to help Gagel, but they have given him some satisfaction after several years of navigating the adoption labyrinth. "Under the new laws, everything I did has all been formalized and recognized. There will be controls and supervision," he said. And with an estimated 1,200 infants per week dying of malnutrition in Lima alone, Gagel added, adoption remains one of their few hopes for survival.
James P. Gagel, a New Jersey lawyer charged with arranging thousands of illegal adoptions, works on his defense in Lima.