RUMOR AND TRUTH COLLIDE OVER PERUVIAN ADOPTIONS

Date: 1994-04-17

Deseret News, The (Salt Lake City, UT)
Author: William R. Long, Los Angeles Times
Dateline: LIMA, PERU

According to lurid rumors that keep popping up around Latin America, sinister foreigners are buying or stealing babies through bogus adoptions and taking them abroad to use as donors for organ transplants.

Though never proven, such stories sometimes appear in print, raising waves of public panic and occasionally triggering violence. Late last month, for example, Guatemalan villagers severely beat a woman from the United States who was rumored to have snatched a local child - the youngster later turned up.

Naturally, these rumors give international adoption a bad name in this region, as do the bribery and fraud that sometimes accompany the adoption processes - sticky strands in the complex web that has kept James Gagel captive here for more than two years.

Peruvian authorities arrested Gagel, a lawyer from New Jersey, in February 1992 and charged him with child-trafficking. He spent a year in jail and is now barred from leaving the country as he awaits judgment for heading a group that allegedly bought or kidnapped babies for Americans to adopt.

Gagel's Peruvian lawyer argues that there is ``absolutely no factual basis'' for the charges. Gagel says he is the victim of persecution by corrupt, ignorant and xenophobic Peruvians. His trial has been repeatedly postponed by glitches in the judicial proceedings, which he likens to a fictional nightmare.

``I'm in the middle, really, of a Kafka novel,'' he said over breakfast the other day in a hotel cafe.

For many years, North Americans and Europeans have encountered controversy when they adopted babies in Latin American countries.

While bribes often have been useful and sometimes necessary to cut through red tape, reports of corruption have triggered suspicions of baby-buying.

Suspicions have also been fed by the recurring rumors of children being adopted by foreigners who want to exploit them not only for ``spare parts'' but as prostitutes or household servants.

Gagel said a police commander who accused him of child-trafficking claimed that adopted babies were sent to the United States for use in ``scientific experiments.''

In Peru and an increasing number of other countries of the region, sentiment against international adoptions and stricter new regulations are hindering the placement of babies in foreign homes.

``I think you can say that there are fewer possibilities in all of these countries than before,'' said Heino Erichsen, executive director of Los Ninos, an international adoption agency in The Woodlands, Texas.

Gagel came to Peru in 1989 on a Fulbright fellowship to help reform the criminal justice system and stayed on to start an international adoption service with a Peruvian lawyer in 1990.

This was a tricky business in Peru, as in many Latin American countries. Bureaucratic red tape was massive. To get through it often required bribes.

Gagel said the adoptions he handled were done in Peruvian provinces to avoid red tape and corruption in Lima. He denies ever paying bribes. In fact, he said, it was his refusal to pay bribes that led to his troubles.

Gagel said Cmdr. Victor Prado, former head of the police missing-persons bureau in Lima, charged $300 each for police documents, but Gagel refused to pay.

Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay and other Latin American countries have witnessed equally blustery storms of ``baby-buying'' and ``baby-stealing'' scandals.

While such stories have raised public suspicions, clear evidence of corruption has been even more damaging.

In Peru, hardly anyone will deny that bribes have been paid to mothers, judges and other court officials, government attorneys and police.

A Peruvian adoption lawyer who asked that his name be withheld admitted that he has routinely bribed officials as a necessary means of making paperwork move.

He denied paying mothers for babies, but he acknowledged that he often gave women ``gifts'' after they gave up their children.

Last year, the Hague Conference on international law adopted a convention on adoptions that is intended to standardize legal processes from country to country.

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