E. Patrick McQuaid and Terrence E. Poppa
After crossing the river, they have the interstate to contend with. I-10, cutting east from Los Angeles and breaking through downtown El Paso, serves more as a barrier than the Rio Grande, but neither hampers the steady flow of traffic that each day makes its way from the congested filth of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, into the sprawling west-Texas city.
Unlike other border cities that sprang up on the US side, El Paso owes its existence to Mexico. For centuries, El Paso del Norte served as a trading post - originally on the south shore of the river - and as a pass from what are now called the Juarez Mountains through the Rocky Mountain foothills. It remains a pass to the north for Mexicans who flock from the depressed interior - en route, they hope, to jobs in Denver or Chicago - and for refugees fleeing civil war in Central America. Especial ly since a powerful earthquake leveled parts of Mexico City, much of the traffic of late has been southbound. Hard on the heels of every good Samaritan and missionary are the carpetbaggers and quick-change artists.
Like Miami, El Paso has become a magnet of international intrigue. Illegals who dare not cross the border alone pay hefty fees to "coyotes" - professional smugglers who abandon their clientele at the first sign of an immigration agent on either side. Recently, customs police caught two El Paso men attempting to smuggle in a horde of antique Mexican coins, but narcotics are more often the currency of the local smuggling trade.
Early in his presidency, Ronald Reagan made a good-will swing through El Paso, promising economic aid. Instead, Attorney General Edwin Meese brought news last spring that the El Paso Intelligence Center, known as EPIC, would be promoted as the central command post of the US Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a large and active office in El Paso, as does the US Drug Enforcement Agency. Treasury officials worry that local banks may serve as conduits for laundered drug money, and every week local headlines boast of another record narcotics bust or of the peso's new, all-time low.
On the other side of the border, Juarez, which was recently christened the "Mexican Food Capital of the World" by local boosters, is typical of impoverished Mexican communities that each year produce thousands of starving children.
Into this world stepped Deborah Rae Tanner, a Mormon housewife from Willcox, Arizona, the mother of four girls, desperate to adopt a baby boy. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Tanner was determined to adopt a Mexican boy. Church doctrine suggests that Mexicans and Native American Indians are direct descendants of the Lost Tribe of Israel. Tanner's only son, Joshua, had died in 1976 from a genetic blood disease that also threatened any future male offspring.
In July 1979, nearly 2 1/2 years after enlisting the aid of a fellow Mormon living in Durango - a mining state directly south of Chihuahua - Tanner adopted two 6-month-old Mexican boys. It was all proper and legal, handled through the family courts in Durango. During the wait, Tanner acquired a wealth of knowledge about Mexican adoption procedures. Adopting a child in the United States could cost six years of persistence, and Tanner began a lucrative business in the delivery of Mexican babies in a tenth of the time. In the end, it cost her three years in prison, handed down by federal courts in Boston and Salt Lake City as a result of mail- and wire-fraud charges.
Paul Boulanger, a single, self-employed Holliston businessman who adopted an 8-year-old American boy, was one of 65 Massachusetts individuals or couples known to have been swindled by Tanner when her promises outran her supply. Boulanger entered the picture in late 1982, when he decided to adopt a second child and a contact in the Boston-area adoption grapevine put him in touch with Tanner.
By return mail, Boulanger received a snapshot and brief description of an 11-year-old Mexican boy who, according to the package, was sleeping in his new pair of tennis shoes "so they won't be stolen." Price for the adoption: $2,200; delivery in three months.
According to Boulanger, Tanner said she would need a $1,800 advance in order to process the boy's release from a Mexican orphanage. Apprehensive about international adoptions and unfamiliar as he was with Tanner's company, Boulanger sent her $350. A photo is all Boulanger ever saw of Inocente Quijada Romero, a timid boy who, like thousands of Mexican children along the US border, tried to make a few extra centavos for his family by selling chewing gum to tourists crossing the international port of entry connecting Agua Prieta, in Sonora state, Mexico, and Douglas, Arizona.
Like his brother and sisters, Inocente was born in a primitive, one-room adobe shack with a dirt floor, no running water, gas, or electricity. Rosa Delia Romero Pacheco had taken Inocente and her three other children away from their father some 10 years earlier. Their father was, she explained recently, a heavy drinker and abusive to his family.
She moved her family into a wooden shack near the dry riverbed that cuts through Agua Prieta and made a living doing laundry for local middle-class families while the children begged or sold trinkets in the streets. Poverty is nothing new to Romero Pacheco. It has
dogged her family for generations. Her 67-year-old mother, Maria, married a copper miner when she was 13. They had 16 children. "I buried 11 of them," says Maria, whose swollen neck reveals an advanced goiter.
In the spring of 1983 Romero Pacheco fell seriously ill and was unable to work. For days she dragged herself from her bed to rummage for food through the trash heaps skirting Agua Prieta. A local baby sitter, who doubled as a Tanner scout, sent news of the woman's plight a hundred miles north to Willcox, Arizona, where Tanner maintained one of several adoption-agency fronts.
It all happened in the space of a few hours, on April 6, 1983. Faint with fever, Romero Pacheco was visited by Tanner, who told her of a temporary foster-care program "on the other side," where her children would be well fed and given a proper education. Later that day she signed her children over to Tanner in the office of Agua Prieta attorney Jorge Lamadrid Peraza. "They were going to die from hunger. I would rather suffer not having them than see them suffering from hunger," Romero Pacheco says, breaking into tears as she shows a tattered photo of the four.
While a sales package was on its way to Boulanger, the children were sent 250 miles east along the border to Ciudad Juarez, where Tanner's associate Bryan Martin Hall and his Mexican sister-in-law maintained what one Mexican agent called a "warehouse" of children. Inocente's brother and two sisters were sent to adoptive parents in Maine, Colorado, and Utah within a few months. About that same time, Boulanger learned that the US Justice Department had launched parallel investigations into T anner's adoption agency. An FBI agent told him that Tanner and Hall were being investigated on suspicion of mail and wire fraud, and an official with the Immigration and Naturalization Service said that Inocente would not be eligible for a visa because h e was not an orphan. Boulanger finally backed out of the adoption in May 1984.
In March 1985, Inocente escaped from the Juarez home where he was being held and was picked up by local police, who say he told them that he had been kidnapped. He was placed in a municipal shelter for abandoned children, and arrangements were made to return the boy to his mother in Agua Prieta. Mexican authorities report that shortly thereafter, Inocente and another boy slipped out of a kitchen window from the shelter. Inocente has not been seen or heard from since.
Rosa Delia Romero Pacheco's youngest boy, Pedro, now lives in Bath, Maine, where his adoptive parents say he remembers little of his native Spanish, much less of his earlier life. Eleven-year-old Manuela, described by her mother as the shyest of the lot, belongs to a chemist and his wife in Salt Lake City, Utah. Romero Pacheco points to the only photo of her 13-year-old daughter, Guadalupe, who has a new home in Manassa, Colorado, and answers to a new name, Jessie Sutherland. But in Agua Prieta , Romero Pacheco says she was tricked into giving up her children, and she wants them back.
"Of course, that's what they all say now," responds Joseph Sutherland, Guadalupe's adoptive father. "Jessie was old enough to remember all of this, and I asked her what her mother said to her. She said her mother told her, 'Adios, I don't want to see you no more. Come back and see me when you're grown.' It was a pretty traumatic thing, but she's adjusted pretty good."
Sutherland and his wife, Madalyn, have three other adopted children in addition to Jessie, as well as eight of their own. "We love kids, plain and simple," Sutherland explains. "Also, we're Mormons, and we especially believe the Spanish people are chosen people. We believe that the Mexican people and also Indian children are chosen people in that they are direct descendants of the House of Israel."
About two years ago, some 70 Mormon families with children adopted through the Tanner network held a get-together to sing Tanner's praises. Sutherland, though a satisfied customer, did have an occasional run-in with Tanner and her assistants. "We love the girls with all our hearts, but we thought we were going through a legitimate person who was doing a legitimate thing," he recalls. Tanner "was telling me so many lies that I went down to where she lived and said, 'Okay, there's this little girl, and I want her.' " Guadalupe, he says, "was staying with a baby sitter in Juarez, and I just finally went down there too and said, 'Hey! I want that little girl!' "
The natural mother of two of the Sutherlands' other adopted Mexican girls is also pressing for their return, but Sutherland is adamant about keeping them and Guadalupe. "You've got to look at it from this point of view: Maybe the mother was hurt, maybe she was wronged, and everything that she said happened is true. Now, who do you look out for? You have to look out for the kids - don't you? What's going to be better for a little girl that left when she was a month old, who hasn't known anybody bu t who she's got right now? Send a 2 1/2-year-old who has never spoken Spanish and a 13- or 14-year-old girl back into old Mexico? What judge in his right mind would do that?"
This past September a couple once honored as the Illinois Adoptive Parents of the Year lost custody of seven of their 16 adopted children after authorities charged they had no documentation to prove the adoptions were legal. Eleven of the children were thought to have been smuggled into the United States from Tijuana. A ledger confiscated by the Chicago INS office indicates that on at least one occasion, the couple paid $10,000 for a Mexican infant.
Unlike the Boulanger case, in most transactions cited by the Justice Department in the Salt Lake City and Boston cases as well as others, Tanner accepted advance payments - mailed or wired to her account in Willcox or to Hall's in El Paso - for children she could not possibly deliver. According to Hall, he was unaware that by the time he became a full partner in the adoptions venture, "the business was $40,000 in the hole" and Tanner's supply could no longer meet the demand. The El Paso FBI off ice had closed its investigation of Hall in February 1983, but the Albuquerque bureau reopened it the following January after new allegations of fraud surfaced in New Mexico. Even while he was the focus of a highly publicized investigation, Hall managed to obtain a $50,000 loan from the US Small Business Administration for the purchase of the Latin Lovers Club, which he converted into a topless bar. (The following May, Hall pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud in both Boston and Salt Lake City in a p lea bargain in which all other charges were dropped. He is now in a federal prison in New Mexico.)
By her own account, Tanner successfully handled arrangements for the adoption of more than 300 Mexican children, with the aid of a stable of baby finders operating primarily in Torreon, a smoky industrial town in the northern state of Coahuila. Even today, long after Tanner and her associates have been put out of business, what remains most striking about the red light district in Torreon is not so much the number of prostitutes roaming the walled, three-block zona de tolerancia on any given night, but the number who are pregnant.
Beginning at least a decade ago, enterprising "baby brokers" latched upon Torreon's unusually high number of prostitutes as a cheap source to supply children for adoption in the United States. More than 700 women are officially registered card carriers, according to city health authorities. Doctors who monitor the well-being of these women say another 3,000 hookers have set up shop illegally elsewhere in Torreon. Conservative estimates place the number of Torreon-area children who have been channeled to adoptive parents in the United States in the past eight years at 250, many the unintentional offspring of these prostitutes.
The zona, an institution throughout Mexico, is an especially active enterprise in the border cities, where the Anglo clientele know it as Boys Town. Also called the zona roja, the districts operate both legally and outside the law in Gomez Palacio and Ciudad Lerdo, next to Torreon, and in the agricultural communities east of the city.
On a recent night in Torreon's noisy, neon-lit zona, more than a dozen pregnant women strolled in and out of a collection of nightclubs. Esperanza Najera Gonzalez, a 32-year-old prostitute working out of the Super Domino Club at the lower end of the Torreon zona, says she gave away four of her children. "Two were left with midwives to pay for their birth." Now pregnant with her fifth child, Najera Gonzalez says, "I am going to keep the next one."
Marie Clementina Falcon Rodriguez, a 31-year-old prostitute who works illegally near Torreon's downtown area, says she surrendered a baby boy for adoption last April. She says her sister, also a prostitute, gave her child away the year before. "I went 12 years without getting pregnant and then - Bam! - there I was, all of a sudden. I couldn't care for him," she says. "Everything is so expensive, and it was better to give the kid up for adoption. That way, he won't lack anything."
Despite industrial growth, Torreon remains small enough that anything out of the ordinary quickly sparks attention. When Dr. Pablo Lopez Lopez, a physician with a moderate income from the municipal Social Security Hospital, suddenly bought an extravagant home in one of Torreon's better neighborhoods, built a marble-lined office downtown, and opened a clinic of his own, his colleagues - and later the police - began to take notice.
Lopez Lopez and his wife, Sonia, acknowledge that they served as baby finders for Tanner from 1977 through the end of 1984, but they say they took on the work out of humanitarian concern. "I did this to help the children, to give them the opportunity to grow up in a family," says Sonia de Lopez Flores. "I never accepted money, only to cover costs."
But Tanner's El Paso associate, Bryan Martin Hall, estimates that the couple amassed half a million dollars in return for their humanitarian concern. Hall says he initially paid them $1,500 for each infant delivered to Juarez attorney Lorenzo Prospero Arzola, who handled court papers on 60 Tanner adoptions out of the Torreon area.
The price quickly jumped to $2,500. "I know, because I sent it to them several times," says Hall, adding that the couple would not relinquish a child until they had the cash up front. The money went by Mexican airlines, "wrapped in newspaper and stuffed into large envelopes."
Chayo, a Juarez prostitute who works the Club Virginia on Calle Mariscal, says women in her line of business often leave their children with baby sitters, private day-care centers, or clinics such as that operated by the Lopez couple in Torreon. The expense of child care begins to mount, she says, "and finally, they just leave the child with the person as a form of payment."
Abortion is illegal in this predominantly Catholic country, so in addition to getting babies from prostitutes, the Lopezes obtained children from unwed mothers and desperately poor families who could not afford to feed another mouth. Eliseo Cabrales Saldana, chief investigator for the Coahuila attorney general's office, says he has not ruled out "that some of these children are stolen." The inspector ordered the Lopez couple arrested for questioning in May, after 30 people interviewed by hi s office identified them as key figures in the local baby-trafficking trade. The state investigation began four months after federal courts in Salt Lake City and Boston were handed indictments on Tanner and her associates, including Prospero Arzola, the Juarez attorney.
The Lopez couple won release on a temporary court order and vanished, according to Cabrales Saldana. In his continuing investigation, the state prosecutor says he has found overwhelming evidence that the baby brokers used "substitute mothers" to obtain fraudulent birth certificates and other legal papers. Under his questioning, four Torreon women recently acknowledged having posed as the mothers of children who were not their own. The women said Sonia Lopez first took them to the civil registry in Gomez Palacio to obtain birth certificates and then to a notary public to sign documents relinquishing their rights to the children. State police are also investigating the possibility that registry clerks were bribed and that a notary public in Ciud ad Lerdo provided notarized adoption consent forms, blank except for the mother's signature. According to Cabrales Saldana, the children and their papers were then packed off to Juarez, some 600 miles northwest, by bus from Torreon. Once at the border, t he children were placed in a "warehouse" while Prospero pushed the paper work through the local courts.
Long before the Coahuila investigation, officials with the US consulate in Monterrey - about 150 miles east of Torreon in the state of Nuevo Leon - began tracking down the biological mothers of several children funneled through the Tanner pipeline to adoptive parents in the United States. In April 1984, they found Magdalena Aguero Ramirez, then 18, living on a collective farm some 30 miles outside Torreon. Though a birth certificate for a child adopted by a Minnesota couple listed her as the mother, she insisted she has never been pregnant, a fact confirmed by family and neighbors. In an interview, Aguero Ramirez says that for two weeks in November 1983 she worked as a maid in the Lopez home. "My signature on the birth certificate was forged ," she says. Investigators are attempting to determine who the real mother is and why Aguero Ramirez's name was substituted, according to Luis Garcia, a US immigration official attached to the Monterrey consulate.
Maria Guadalupe Rodriguez Dominguez says she was surprised to find how simple it was for her to hand away a child for adoption, especially since the child was not her own. At the civil registry in Gomez Palacio, a clerk never questioned Rodriguez Dominguez as she typed in the phony birth date and entered the false name of the mother. In another office a notary public handed her blank adoption-consent forms "and told me where to sign," she recalls. "I didn't get any money for it," she says, explaining that she agreed to help falsify the papers as a favor to Sonia de Lopez Flores in exchange for having helped a friend unload her child a year earlier.
Government sources from both sides of the border and people connected with the underground adoption business say the case is typical of practices used by baby finders. A former administrator with the Mexican health ministry, who requested anonymity, says that corrupt officials in the government of President Jose Lopez Portillo kept the supply of babies flowing through the Tanner pipeline by turning a blind eye as they pocketed hefty kickbacks. These same government officials, godfathers o f what the former administrator calls "the adoption mafia," are today actively involved, he claims, in such illicit affairs as the trafficking of blood, plasma, and human organs for surgical transplant.
Through an unsavory mix of attorneys, physicians, and midwives, Tanner may have tapped into a brokerage network that had been peddling Mexican children for decades, but today officials are not certain whether she or her associates were ever aware of the extent of that existing organization. Baby brokers, says the former ministry official, often advertise their services, including legal adoptions, in the classified sections of Mexican newspapers, but most transactions are handled by word-of-mouth. In several cases children have been obtained through a midwife or physician who tells a mother that her child is stillborn or hideously deformed.
Stud farming is another common practice of the industry, "to assure the pedigree of the child," as the former ministry administrator puts it. A broker matches a young woman with a "stud," and by the time the baby is born, the broker has lined up a client and everyone has been paid off.
Kidnapping, of course, remains the most controversial concern of Mexican authorities in their investigations, but the former government official contends there is little recourse for most parents. Operatives comb the poor neighborhoods of Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Tijuana and simply grab children off the streets. "Those parents don't have the money, power, or influence to try to get their children back. In the Mexican system of justice," the former official says, "poor people are nobodies, and police don't have the time to investigate those kinds of crime."
Perhaps the most widespread route is the avenue of simple, commercial trade. "The mother does not have the money to feed her child, so she can be persuaded to give the child up," the former health ministry official explains. "The gimmick is to tell the mother that the child is going to a healthy American family that will give her child a good life, an education, and so on. Such assurances relieve the burden of guilt mothers would otherwise be feeling.
"It's an over-the-counter transaction. I give you 10,000 pesos, you give me the baby," he says. Hardly equitable, 10,000 pesos is about $20 at today's exchange rate, and a broker can realize as much as $10,000 on the deal.
In the United States, prosecutions in Massachusetts and Utah as well as investigations in 38 other states involving many individuals have been based on mail and wire fraud in addition to conspiracy to defraud. The charges are unrelated to the actual practice of baby trafficking.
"We have come to the absurd extreme in the era we live in of selling people," laments Victor Torres, who is with the Mexican Consulate in Douglas, Arizona. Torres says that an investigation into other adoption rings is now under way in the Mexican states of Durango, Chihuahua, Sonora - which lies immediately south of Arizona - and Baja. Investigations have revealed that in some otherwise-legal adoptions, the actual birth dates of children have been altered, as a marketing ploy to make them "appear younger than they are and more adoptable by American couples," Torres says. Torres also speaks from firsthand knowledge of a practice he calls "warehousing," by which the Tanner ring arranged for the storage of surplus children while adoptions were pending in the United States.
Americans are able to obtain Mexican infants simply by approaching an impoverished mother on an inner-city street, not only in Mexico but in cities along the American side of the border. "She may say no, but you can be sure that within 24 hours a broker has heard about it, knows where the couple is staying, and will make contact," the former Mexican government administrator says with certainty.
Hall, now serving three years at the La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution in Anthony, New Mexico, says, "My hands are clean." Hall also says that the US Justice Department is investigating supposed links between the adoption underground and organized crime.
Special agent Colin Dunnigan of the FBI's Tucson office says an investigation into the trafficking of Mexican babies is continuing, but he would neither confirm nor deny that the investigation was focusing on organized crime.
Mexico now has its own brand of desaparecidos, but there is no official body count like the dispatch issued each week from the US embassy in San Salvador, for instance. The bodies do not materialize in the vacant lots of Mexico City, the garbage heap along the outskirts of Agua Prieta, or the back alleys of Ciudad Juarez. Most are alive and well, praying to a new God in Salt Lake City, playing hockey in the suburbs of Boston. Their welfare is cold comfort to the women who say they were tricked o ut of their children and now scour the streets of Albuquerque or Los Angeles hoping to find them, hoping to take them back home.
In late June of 1985, Tanner was found guilty on 17 counts of mail and wire fraud by a federal grand jury in Salt Lake City. She later pleaded guilty to charges in Boston and was sentenced by both courts to concurrent three-year prison terms. She is now in the Federal Correctional Institute in Fort Worth, Texas. Lorenzo Prospero Arzola, the Juarez attorney also named in the two indictments, has refused to surrender to US authorities and remains at large. Sources report that federal police in Mexico are now engaged in a massive crackdown on baby trafficking. They also report that merchants have moved their base of operation to El Salvador.