In Mexico, Children, and Promises, Unkept

Date: 1999-06-02

When Martina Toscano Quiroz gave three of her seven children up for adoption, her main goal, she said, was to give them a chance for a better life.

She is a single mother who earns less than $40 a week as a cleaning woman in this dusty town on the Arizona-Mexico border. Her home is a fly-infested shack with dirt floors and walls patched together from scraps of wood.

But, she acknowledged, her decisions were not entirely noble. The lawyer who took her children to live with middle-class families in New York made promises so enormous, she said, that it was as if he had offered her the stars.

''He told me he would build me two rooms with new tin for the roof and strong brick walls,'' she said. ''And he told me he would build me a bathroom with a toilet and a faucet.''

Ms. Toscano, 30, never got her new house. She said the lawyer, Mario Manuel Reyes Burgueno, took her daughters -- ages 8, 4 and 2 -- and then told her he could only give her a few hundred pesos for food.

Last week, Mr. Reyes and two women on Long Island were charged with running a cross-border baby-smuggling ring that sold Ms. Toscano's children and at least 14 others to couples in New York for as much as $22,000 each. The two women, Arlene Lieberman and Arlene Reingold, have declined to comment, while lawyers and friends of Mr. Reyes have suggested that he was trying to help poor women and their children.

In the wake of the arrests, some of the adoptive parents say they were the unwitting victims of a scheme that lured them into expensive and illegal agreements and that took advantage of their desperation to have children.

But in this isolated patch of the United States' border with Mexico, worlds away from the comfortable homes of Long Island, the view of these adoption agreements is even more complicated and tragic. Social workers here say they counsel dozens of mothers like Ms. Toscano, who are in such dire economic and social distress that they broker their children for money or shelter.

Several lawyers around the area, social workers said, have made offers to buy children from poor mothers. But, the social workers said, the lawyers usually renege on their part of the deals once the children have been delivered to families in the United States.

''I have had attorneys come here and offer me $100 for every child I give to them for adoptions,'' said Eunicia Soto, who runs an independent orphanage called Rancho Feliz at the eastern edge of Agua Prieta. ''I tell them my children are not tomatoes for sale, and that I never want to see them on my property again.''

But such defiance can only go so far, and Government officials say that there is so much smuggling of drugs and humans across this border -- a wide-open space divided, for the most part, by barbed-wire fencing -- that they cannot stop the trade. Smuggling has long been a pillar of the economy and culture of Agua Prieta, with a population of 130,000, and Douglas, its much-smaller sister city in Arizona. Ten years ago, border patrol agents discovered a high-tech tunnel, 30 feet beneath the desert floor, that had electric lighting, concrete reinforcement and hydraulic lifts and had been used to transport tons of cocaine into the United States.

And in recent years, as the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service has intensified its patrols in El Paso to the east and San Diego to the west, a stream of illegal immigrants from Mexico has been funneled through Douglas into the United States. Officials said that as many as 1,000 illegal immigrants are apprehended around Douglas each day, more than at any other I.N.S. station along the 1,900-mile border between the two countries.

''This is a real illegal universe,'' said Keoki Skinner, a former journalist who runs juice bars on both sides of the border. ''There's so much illegal activity that goes on here that a lot of people seemed numb to it. But the idea that babies are part of the illegal traffic has really shocked a lot of people.''

''It's like, things have gotten really bad if women are offering to sell their babies,'' he said.

For Martina Toscano, life was beyond bad. Short and pudgy and with a worn, tan face that makes her look much older than her age, Ms. Toscano said she moved to Agua Prieta 15 years ago from a small village some 100 miles away. There was no work in her village, she said, so she and her brother moved to the border to work in the factories known as maquiladoras, which are owned by companies in the United States. Within two months of moving here, she said, she was pregnant with her first child.

''I wanted a husband and a family,'' she said. ''I met a man who offered to marry me and take care of me, so I gave myself to him.''

But after the baby was born, the child's father abandoned Ms. Toscano, and her mother moved to town to help her take care of the child. But two years later, came another man with promises, and another baby was born. Then another man and another.

After her sixth child was born, Ms. Toscano said, she met a woman who offered to help place some of the children for adoption in the United States. Ms. Toscano said she refused. But on the next day, a tall, broad man knocked on her door.

It was the first time she had met Mario Reyes, she said. His words, she said, hit her like stones.

''He told me, 'Look at how you live,' '' she recalled. ''He told me that my children could have better lives in the United States. He promised that he would find them nice families who would love them and send them to school.''

She said she yelled at Mr. Reyes, telling him that he had no right to judge the way she lived; that she did the best she could to provide for her children and that they were comfortable in their lopsided shack.

''Then he told me that if I gave him my children, he would help me to live better,'' she said. ''He told me he would build me two rooms.''

Mr. Reyes took two of Ms. Toscano's children: 8-year-old Flor Azucena and 4-year-old Zoitza. He promised that the two girls would be placed together in the same home, she said, and that their adoptive parents would send photographs and updates on how the girls were adjusting.

But the girls were separated almost immediately, she said. Flor Azucena went to the home of John and Rosalie Liberto in Miller Place, on Long Island. Zoitza's whereabouts remain unknown.

A year later, she said, Mr. Reyes sent Ms. Toscano's 2-year-old daughter, Gabriela, to live with the Libertos.

Mrs. Liberto said in an interview that she and her husband paid Mr. Reyes, Ms. Lieberman and Ms. Reingold more than $50,000, in what they thought were adoption fees, for Gabriela and Flor Azucena, whom they called Nicole.

''With that money I could have built a mansion and 10 bathrooms,'' Ms. Toscano scowled. ''But I am still here, living in filth.''

A year ago, Flor Azucena's American parents agreed to send her back to Agua Prieta because she missed her mother so badly.

Mrs. Liberto cried when she was asked why she agreed to let Flor Azucena go. The decision, she said, arose from memories of growing up poor and being sent every year to a summer camp in Pennsylvania. It was the most beautiful place she had ever seen, Mrs. Liberto said. But after a few days, she recalled, she was crying and pleading to go home. ''A family bond is something you cannot break,'' she said.

''I knew I had to send her to her mother,'' she said of Flor Azucena. ''After she left, you would have thought there was a death in the family. It was one of the only times I ever saw my husband cry.''

Flor Azucena, sitting on the dank double bed she shares with two of her siblings in Agua Prieta, described her Long Island parents as kind and loving. But, she said, ''I wanted to be with my mother.''

Showing a visitor pictures, she recalled her time in the United States.

''That is my bedroom,'' she said, pointing to a photograph of her sitting on a bed with a fluffy, flowered comforter.

''That is me at my aunt's baby shower,'' she said, looking at a picture of herself wearing a silvery velvet dress, with a shiny headband in her hair.

''That's my best friend,'' she said, showing a photo of herself standing in a tight embrace with a freckle-faced red-headed girl.

''That's my mom and dad,'' she said, stopping the show for a moment to gaze at a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Liberto.

Soon to turn 11, Flor Azucena looks almost nothing like the soft, confident girl in the photos. Her complexion is uneven, her hair tangled and as she speaks, she stares down.

She does not go to school here, she says, because of fights she has had with other children. So while her mother is at work, she spends her days watching programs on an old television set and playing on the field of dust outside her house with her three siblings: 12-year-old Aurelia, who also does not go to school, 4-year-old Edgar and 1-year-old Ameirani. A 15-year-old brother lives with Ms. Toscano's mother elsewhere in the city.

The family's plight is not uncommon, said Ms. Soto, of Rancho Feliz. She organizes child-care workshops for single women in town who do not earn enough money to support their children. Some of the women, she said, turn to prostitution.

In the most desperate cases, she said, mothers give up their children for money or other things. One of her clients, she said, had given away her baby so that she could get electricity installed in her home.

''These kinds of things are not common, but they do happen,'' Ms. Soto said. ''When I work with these mothers, my main message to them is that they do not have to give their children away in order to survive. They can make it, if they try. And I tell them that I will help them.''

That message kept Guadalupe Serrano's family together. Ms. Serrano, 34, a mother of four, said she was a recovering drug addict who used to support her habit with prostitution. Two years ago, she said, she was approached by a lawyer who offered her $10,000 for her toddler. Ms. Serrano refused to name the lawyer, but she said it was not Mr. Reyes.

''He told me that she would have a good life and that people in the United States wanted children so much that they are willing to pay a lot of money,'' Ms. Serrano recalled.

Today, Ms. Serrano works at Rancho Feliz and raises her children in a cottage there. Speaking about her daughter, Olivia, who is now 4, she said, ''I would have given her away.'' But Ms. Soto would not let her: ''She made me feel ashamed for thinking about it,'' she said.

Ms. Toscano, however, has no regrets about sending her children to the United States and is happy that Gabriela is in a beautiful home where she is loved. Although she would like to know what happened to Zoitza, she regularly gets pictures from the Libertos of Gabriela.

''The life they have there is better than what they could have here,'' she said. Flor Azucena, staring at the ground, nodded in agreement.


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