THE BUSINESS OF SELLING BABIES?

Date: 2000-06-04

Miami Herald, The (FL)
GUATEMALA LEADS LATIN AMERICA IN THE NUMBER OF ILLEGAL ADOPTIONS
Author: SARA OLKON, soldon@herald.com
Dateline: GUATEMALA CITY

Angela Gabriela De Leon is one of the lucky ones.

In January 1997, the Guatemalan cleaning woman, still heavily medicated after giving birth by Caesarian surgery, was coerced - by no less than her husband - into signing away her baby to a lawyer who arranges international adoptions. De Leon managed to get her daughter back after a two-year court battle. Her victory in Guatemala was rare - most women in her situation, often illiterate and poor, either assume nothing can be done or don't know how to fight the system.

Child robbery is extraordinarily commonplace here.

This impoverished republic is the fourth-largest exporter of children in the world, a ranking sustained by often ruthless means. According to a recent UN investigation, the majority of international adoptions out of Guatemala are illegal.

In a damning March 31 report to the United Nations' Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, a special UN investigator, said Guatemalan babies have been reduced to ``objects of trade and commerce.''

Her findings: High-ranking lawyers, doctors and judges in Guatemala are involved in all aspects, from falsifying birth records to tricking or drugging illiterate birth mothers into signing over their babies.

They are motivated by the lucrative profits that flow out of the baby trade.

Adoptive American parents typically pay about $15,000, said Mario Taracena Diaz-Sol, a Guatemala City attorney and advocate for international adoption law reform. He says about $13,000 goes to the lawyer brokering the deal. Another $1,000 is a ``finder's fee,'' paid to women who convince expectant mothers to give up their babies. The remaining $1,000 is split between medical costs and a payment to the mother before she gives birth, assuming the woman has consented.

``We are concerned about fraud in the adoption process,'' said Frank Neville, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. ``When we are aware of suspicious information, we communicate that to the Guatemalan authorities. We definitely would be in favor of any legal or regulatory changes in the Guatemalan side that would make the process more transparent and would help eliminate fraud.''

BABIES IN DEMAND

While not all foreign adoptions out of Guatemala are tainted, babies are in unquestionably high demand. Between last October and March, 662 adoptees came to the United States from Guatemala - a rate of nearly four adoptions per day.

This is partly due to Catholic Guatemala's high birth and infant-mortality rates, extreme poverty and relatively liberal adoption laws. But exacerbating the demand for Guatemalan babies are adoption-reform laws enacted by neighboring Latin countries trying to clean up their own child-trafficking scandals.

``At this moment, Guatemala is the easiest in the world,'' said Beatriz Urquidi, a case manager with World Child International of Silver Springs, Md., a nonprofit adoption agency that places children from Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Far East.

Compared to other parts of Latin America, Guatemala's adoption rate - 1,002 adoptions in 1999 alone - are off the charts.

Colombia, the only other Latin country to make the State Department's top 10 list for U.S. adoptions, pales in comparison to Guatemala, approving 231 adoptions in 1999.

Neighboring Honduras allowed a total of only 225 adoptions between 1994 and 1999 - an average of 45 per year; in Ecuador, only 89 adoptions took place from 1998 to 1999.

STATE INTERVENTION

The difference? Proper state intervention and judicial oversight, said Elizabeth Gibbons, a UNICEF representative in Guatemala City.

``It's a $20 million business now [in Guatemala],'' said Bruce Harris, the regional director of Latin American programs for Casa Alianza, an affiliate of the New York-based Covenant House, a private organization that works with street children.

Harris says older children, who legitimately need adoption, are languishing in Guatemala's orphanages.

``Parents want brand-new babies,'' he said. ``A demand is created.''

Meeting that demand is a relatively simple process.

Diaz-Sol says victimized mothers are often scared teenagers from rural areas who come to Guatemala City to work, get pregnant - abortion is illegal in Guatemala and sex education often nonexistent - and feel they can't return home with an illegitimate child; or they are prostitutes or struggling mothers already caring for several kids.

``Most of the mothers give up their children for economic reasons,'' said Diaz-Sol. ``But that's not to say that there aren't people trying to profit from their tragedy.''

The birth mother, or sometimes the father, signs a consent release. The attorney - often the same person representing the adoptive and the biological parents - secures all paperwork. In general, the only Guatemalan governmental role is a review of the documents by the solicitor general's office and a court-ordered social worker's report on the biological parent and adoptive parents.

`RUBBER-STAMPED'

``The majority are rubber-stamped,'' Harris said.

For babies bound to the United States, the U.S. Embassy requires a paper declaring the child was abandoned. Further, a DNA test of the mother and the baby is required to ensure that the birth mother is the same person listed on the birth certificate.

But advocates for adoption reform say DNA testing has only made black-market operators more careful. Instead of simply kidnapping children, operators threaten and coerce mothers into signing away their babies.

Indeed, despite the safeguards, the U.S. State Department implores parents wanting to adopt from Guatemala to ``thoroughly investigate the background of the prospective adoptive child to ensure that they are not unknowingly accessories to any wrongdoing.''

Such research might have prevented an adoption that has caused Gustavo Amilcar Tobar Fajardo and Flor de Maria Ramirez heartache.

Tobar, a 30-year-old pilot, and his ex-wife Ramirez were separated when their child was taken. At the time, their son Osmin was 6; Ramirez also had a infant named Jefy, who was fathered by another man. Troubles began when Ramirez, an accountant who had custody of the boys, began leaving the children with an unscrupulous nanny.

PROMISE OF CASH

Tobar said the woman - motivated by the promise of cash from a lawyer - called the children's division of the attorney general's office to report abuse. It was unclear whether a formal investigation by a social worker was ever conducted.

Tobar said he was never contacted by authorities and - because he was not on good terms with his ex-wife - did not know what was happening until it was too late. Despite Ramirez's efforts to prove her fitness as a mother, a juvenile judge declared the boys abandoned.

``In Guatemala, the system is not that sophisticated,'' said Harris of Casa Alianza, who alleges that the judge ruled as she did because she is friendly with a lawyer who arranges international adoptions. The judge could not be reached for comment. Regardless of the judge's motivation, the brothers were adopted by two American couples about eight months later.

Legal documents list Osmin's adoptive parents as Richard Anthony and Kathleen Mary Borz of Bethel Park, Pa. When contacted by a reporter last month, Kathleen Borz declined to discuss the matter.

A PUBLIC FACE
Tobar, however, working with lawyers from Casa Alianza, has become a public face for adoption-law reform.

``Foreigners come and pick out children like in a supermarket,'' he said. ``As God is my witness, I will fight. Osmin is a person. Not a dog. I don't know if he is eating. I don't know if they treat him well.''

Though he acknowledges his sons may have more material advantages in the United States, Tobar says, ``He can have all the gold in the world, but what does that mean? That will never match the love of his parents.''

Tobar and Ramirez are trying to annul the adoptions of both his son, Osmin, and Osmin's half-brother, Jefy, who is with another family in Pennsylvania.

In De Leon's case, her estranged husband was party to the adoption plot because he did not want any more children - they already had two boys - and he was promised 4,000 Quetzals - about $520. Her ex-husband could not be reached for comment.

``I didn't know what to do, but I began to fight back,'' said De Leon, 26, who works for a family in a well-to-do suburb outside Guatemala City.

SPEAKING OUT

With help from her mother, De Leon spoke up. She took her case to a Guatemalan agency that investigates human rights abuses and Casa Alianza. Emboldened, De Leon held court with the local press.

After two years of legal battles - during which time baby Melissa lived in an adoption center - De Leon regained custody.

``It hurts to know that we've lost that time together, but I'm so happy that she's back with me,'' said De Leon.

De Leon's victory is unusual. UN investigator Calcetas-Santos said women who try to get their babies back are threatened. In most cases, the women assume they are powerless because they have accepted - and spent - the money paid to them.

A sense of paranoia over foreigners' designs on Guatemalan children has led to other, unintended tragedies.

MOB ATTACKS TOURIST

In late April, a Japanese tourist shopping in a northeastern Mayan village was presumed to be a kidnapper - or even worse, a satanic ghoul in search of a fresh baby heart.

A mob of 500 Guatemalans converged with sticks and stones. Someone smashed a rock over the tourist's head and killed him.

In 1994, a journalist from Alaska was attacked and beaten into a coma by a mob who mistakenly believed she was trying to steal a baby.

Child advocates want to see the government enact adoption reforms, first by bringing in some form of judicial oversight; second, by forming a regulatory agency to oversee the adoption process.

Change is slow in coming. A child-protection law has been suspended indefinitely by Congress. Under the legislation, convicted child traffickers could face six years in prison. According to Calcetas-Santos, the code was blocked by the adoption industry, which feared it would hurt profits. The key participants in the process - doctors, judges and lawyers - are members of Guatemala's ruling class.

``In Guatemala you go to jail longer for stealing a car than a baby,'' Harris said.

Meanwhile, in April, authorities raided four houses in and around Guatemala City in April and recovered four kidnapped babies. One of the babies was returned to a mother who said she was drugged during her delivery and woke up to find her daughter missing. No arrests were made.

Diaz-Sol said corruption of the system hurts even legitimate efforts to connect truly needy children with caring adoptive parents.

``By destroying adoptions, they are destroying what is the most beautiful option.''

HAGUE CONVENTION ON INTERCOUNTRY ADOPTION

Many of Guatemala's neighboring countries have been working toward adoption reforms recommended under an international treaty called the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. The treaty has been ratified by Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

The reforms include these provisions:

* An adoption will only take place if the country of origin has established that the child is adoptable, than an intercountry adoption is in the child's best interests, and that both parents have consented.

* Foreign adoptions will be encouraged only when adoptive families cannot be found in the child's own country.

* Minimum, uniform standards will be created to govern intercountry adoptions.

* A central authority in each country will be established to ensure a single authoritative source of information and point of contact.

Caption:
ANGUISHED DAD: Gustavo Amilcar Tobar's son was declared abandoned and was adopted by an American couple. Tobar is trying to get the adoption annuled. `Foreigners come and pick out children like in a supermarket,' he says. `As God is my witness, I will fight.'

`NOT FOR SALE': The poster above, showing a bar code on the baby's forehead, is part of a children's advocacy group campaign to end child trafficking in Guatemala. It says, `Not for purchase, not for sale.' At right, Angela Gabriela De Leon holds her daughter, Melissa, who was taken from her and then returned after a two-year legal battle.
color photo: Angela Gabriela De Leon holds her daughter Melissa

(a); photo: Gustavo Amilcar Tobar's son was declared abandoned and was adopted by an American couple (a), Angela Gabriela de Leon with her daughter

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