Baby-trafficking big business in Brazil
San Diego Union-Tribune, The (CA)
Author: Michael Kepp; Special to the San Diego Union
Dateline: RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil
Childless Israeli couples regarded Arlete Hilu as a heroine for helping them adopt Brazilian babies. But In Brazil, federal police had arrest warrants out for her in three states for baby-trafficking.
When police apprehended the former accountant last December in a southern Brazilian town near the Paraguay border, in her possession were six blank passports, false identification cards, birth certificates, baby clothes and diapers -- essentials for smuggling babies out of the country. In August, she received a four-year prison term for trafficking in minors.
In a far bigger bust in June of 1986, 50 federal policemen raided the home of lawyer Carlos Pereira, a nearby maternity hospital and several clandestine nurseries in the southern town of Itajai, where they found 20 children, almost all newborns.
Police arrested Pereira and six associates for trafficking in minors and temporarily detained 22 child-seeking Israeli couples who claimed they had no idea this adoption arrangement might be illegal.
"The raid did away with one of Brazil's biggest baby farms," said Alcioni de Santana, the former Itajai federal police chief who organized the bust. "But the money-making possibilities are too great to stop others from entering the business."
Contents of a briefcase that another Brazilian lawyer mistakenly left in a Milan, Italy, train station several months ago showed that baby-trafficking is still big business here.
Papers found in the briefcase and turned over to Brazilian authorities showed that Jose Cupertino da Luz Neto arranged Brazilian babies for 29 couples in Italy, France, Sweden and Switzerland. The couples, later questioned, said they paid around $8,000 a child.
In November, police accused Cupertino da Luz Neto of charging exorbitant amounts of money in the otherwise-legal adoption services he performed. The lawyer is free, pending a further police investigation and possible trial.
Despite a 1984 Brazilian law that forbids the arranging of adoptions for profit, the length and difficulty of the legal adoption process has created a demand for lawyers like Pereira and Cupertino da Luz Neto, who not only expedite the paperwork but also can supply the babies.
"We can't allow foreign couples to pay Brazilian lawyers high fees to help them adopt babies in a matter of days when Brazilian couples have to wait years to adopt," said federal police spokesman Paulo Marra.
Southern Brazil has become the center of the baby-trafficking operation because the region has a large population of German descendants, and thus a high percentage of light-skinned, blue-eyed newborns, which both adopting Brazilians and foreigners prefer.
Federal police said that Hilu charged between $7,000 and $9,000 a baby and suspect she arranged the adoptions of more than 1,000 babies in recent years. Lawyer Pereira charged between $5,000 and $8,000 for the 150 adoptions he admitted handling since 1984.
Though most of Hilu's and Pereira's customers were Israelis, European and North American, the couples who flew down to southern Brazil to pick up the babies paid even higher prices, according to federal police.
"American couples paid particularly high prices for their babies, because they have a reputation here for spending more freely in general," said federal policeman Santana.
When Santana's agents raided Pereira's home, they found letters by two lawyers who worked with him in which the phrases "Israeli gold vein" and "cash money, and that's all," were used to describe the baby-trafficking operation in Itajai.
Police said that Hilu had a group of at least 32 people seeking out poor women willing to give their newborns up for a fee, and that Pereira's more sophisticated outfit was twice as big.
Federal policeman Santana said the Itajai lawyer had an army of nurses, physicians, midwives, baby sitters, court and immigration officials, notary publics, drivers and baby procurers on his payroll.
Santana added that the baby procurers, masquerading as social workers, would enter poor shantytowns within a three-state area in southern Brazil, offering expectant mothers free medical care and a small maternity fee of about $75 if they'd sign their babies over to Pereira's group.
Pereira, who is awaiting trial for baby-trafficking, punishable by one to five years in prison, said, "I never sold babies. I just charged for my services."
While police said Pereira's profit was at least $3,000 a baby for the 150 adoptions he arranged since 1984 -- some $450,000 -- the lawyer said his charges, which he would not disclose, were not excessive because most of the fee paid off hospital, doctor bills and other overhead.
He added that "routine legal work and medical care for mother and child was a 24-hour-a-day job no one would do for free."
Part of the charges involved housing foreign couples in an elegant country house outside Itajai, where they could spend the day getting to know newborns brought from nearby maternity centers.
Pereira also drew a distinction between his highly sophisticated operation and that of Hilu's.
"Hilu took from five to seven babies at a time through Brazilian airports and sold them at European and Israeli hotels," said Pereira.
Pereira, by contrast, said, "I am not exporting the future of my country. Many of these children would otherwise die before they are 1 year old. One thousand children die each day in Brazil because they are not taken care of."
On the walls and atop the file cabinets of Pereira's Itajai office are letters from foreign couples attesting to the value of his services.
On a replica of an "Oscar" award statue atop one file cabinet was engraved the words, "A million thanks for lighting up our life" -- Vered and Yaki Michlin, Israel.
Israelis have been the most common customers of Brazilian baby-trafficking rings because the demand for babies there far exceeds the supply, and because Israeli law makes it easy for residents to bring in babies adopted abroad and register them as Israeli citizens.
Israelis reportedly have adopted more than 3,000 children of Brazilian descent.
Itajai federal policeman Santana said that "selling babies must be stopped because a price can't be put on a human life."
Rio de Janeiro federal police spokesman Geovani Azevedo told of isolated cases last year of babies being kidnapped from hospitals by women disguised as nurses, or abducted from day care centers in southern Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Such incidents, he stated, "show that baby-traffickers will go to any length to procure their product."
Brazilian child welfare authorities believe that the wide spectrum of illegal procurement and sale of babies to both Brazilian and foreign couples will continue because of the already complicated and lengthy legal adoption process here.
"The problem with illegally adopting children here is that because it's a profit-motivated business, unregulated by law, there is the tendency to disregard the hygenic and psychological needs of both mother and child," said Sonia Altoe, Rio child psychologist and coordinator of a child welfare research project.
"Do those who arrange adoptions for money worry about quality control, about how many hands the child passes through, or the psychological effect this could have on the baby?"
Even more efficient legal child adoptions will do little to curb one of the biggest social problems in this nation of 141 million people -- the fate of 7 million abandoned children (UNICEF figures), many of them street urchins living off of handouts.
"Few people are interested in adopting a dark-skinned teen-age street kid," said Altoe. " Most adoptive parents, especially foreigners, want fair-skinned newborns, leaving the truly disadvantaged children out in the cold."