PARAGUAY'S BOOM TRADE IN BABIES

Date: 1995-10-21

JAN ROCHA
Scripps Howard News Service

Luz Miranda, 17 years old and nearly eight months pregnant, thought she was going for a pre-natal examination arranged by the woman for whom she worked as a maid, but then the nurses tied her down. When she struggled, they hit her.

"I cried for help and told them to stop, but they just carried on. I told them I didn't want them to take my baby, then I felt the excruciating pain of the knife going in."

With only a local anesthetic, in non-sterile surroundings, she had a caesarean section. Once the baby had been removed, Luz was abandoned in the back room of a clandestine nursery in Asuncion.

She was found because of a providential raid by Judge Patricia Blasco, who has been investigating the illegal baby trade. But Luz's wounds had become infected. Doctors at Asuncion's main hospital had to give her massive blood transfusions to save her, and she is scarred for life.

In August, thanks to British Broadcasting Corp. documentary team that went to Paraguay to investigate the baby trade, she was finally reunited with her daughter, who had been prematurely torn from her because an adoption lawyer urgently needed a baby for prospective parents arriving from abroad.

Dionisia Gonzalez is a married woman with five children. Her husband's wages as a building laborer are very low: the family lives in a one-room shack on the outskirts of Asuncion.

One day a woman appeared at her door saying that she was the boss's wife and that Dionisia's husband had suffered a terrible accident and been taken to hospital. She said she'd take Dionisia there and told her to bring her 10- month-old baby, Rodrigo. At the hospital she offered to hold him while Dionisia, distraught, rushed in to look for her injured husband. He wasn't there and when she came out the woman and Rodrigo had disappeared.

Dionisia hunted for him, walking the streets because she had no money for transport, appealing on a radio program where she read out a letter to him: ''Are you all right, Rodrigo? Are you thirsty, hungry? Are you crying? Are you upset because we aren't with you?"

Her agony lasted two months until the same judge who later found Luz organized a raid on a clandestine "guardaria" (nursery) and found 29 babies and small children packed into cots in small dark rooms, waiting to be adopted.

As soon as new parents were found, the infants would be transferred -- by then better-fed and dressed in new clothes -- to a shiny new nursery.

Every year hundreds of childless couples arrive in Paraguay to adopt a baby, 90 percent from the U.S., the rest from Britain, Europe and Israel.

They come in ignorance of the misery behind Paraguay's booming adoption trade. They believe they're involved in a legal process. They've paid up to $25,000 to an adoption agency, had a home study done, been interviewed by social workers.

Many have made financial sacrifices to pay the costs. One couple mortgaged their home and sold their car.

While they wait in Asuncion for the paperwork to go through, which can take months, couples can have their baby staying with them, often in the city's most comfortable hotels.

At the Gran Hotel del Paraguay, once the favorite haunt of travelers and writers, waiters maneuver around high chairs as they serve dinner, while the squawk of parrots in the gardens is almost drowned by baby cries.

Paraguay has no official adoption agency. Instead, a couple may be in the hands of a lawyer who arranges court hearings, translators, babysitters, hotels -- and the baby. In some of the guardarias, each cot has the lawyer's name on it.

The demand caused by falling fertility in industrialized countries has transformed what was once a humanitarian act -- finding new parents for an unwanted or orphaned child -- into a trade dominated by a small group of unscrupulous lawyers.

Paraguay, a Roman Catholic country with strong family values, has very few orphaned or unwanted children, but it does have thousands of poor, often illiterate, women, whose babies can be bought, taken by deceit or even stolen.

Only one-third of babies from such countries are given up voluntarily, believes Dr. Ruben Riquelme, head of the Judicial Investigation Center attached to the law courts, but actually situated in a few rooms in a hospital
morgue. It's also a career dead-end for anyone who takes the job seriously.

At Interpol's request, the center is investigating a baby-smuggling ring which was discovered when Belgian police intercepted a Paraguayan couple at Brussels airport. They were about to hand over a newborn baby to an Israeli couple, and they confessed to taking another five babies into Europe in the previous six months.

The center raided the home of the presumed ringleader and found more than 100 photos of babies and children and a pile of blank birth certificates -- evidence which has mysteriously disappeared inside the labyrinth of the Palace of Justice.

Several of the most notorious adoption lawyers have been charged with baby-stealing and child-trafficking. One, Teresa Cabrall, even spent five months on remand in prison in 1993, but none of the cases has come to trial
because of missing evidence and reluctant witnesses.

The adoption lawyers started a vicious campaign to discredit the judge who tried to stop the trade by raiding clandestine nurseries; she had to abandon the raids.

Victor Llano and Sonia Tellechea, two judges who between them authorize most of the international adoptions, (as many as 16 in one day), were accused by the American Association of Jurists of being "complacent" with the fraudulent and illegal aspects of many adoptions and of ignoring the constitutional rights of children.

Llano's answer to all criticisms is that adoption is better than abortion.

The lawyers who specialize in adoption have found themselves an easy way to make money, taking advantage of foreigners' desperation for a baby and of poor women's vulnerability in a country where social inequality is huge. The lawyers' defense is that they're finding good homes for babies bred by ignorant girls and irresponsible men.

The growing demand has boosted international adoptions in Paraguay from a few 10 years ago, and the price has soared from $200-$300 to more than $600. Besides the formal adoptions, an unknown number of babies are smuggled abroad.

Childless Paraguayan couples say they can't compete with the prices paid by overseas couples. Last month, the Paraguayan Congress, under pressure from human rights campaigners, voted to susped international adoptions for one year while safeguards are introduced.

The lawyers lobbied hard against suspension, but they were also prepared for it. In the days before it became law, they filed scores of new adoption applications, enough to keep them busy for months.

Now it's just a question of finding the babies.

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