Little Bundles of Cash
By Juanita Darling
January 17, 2001
The music of a marimba drifts up from the hotel patio to a landing where middle-aged couples from Cleveland and New York rock baby strollers to the rhythm of the lively old tunes.
Those strollers, which came to Guatemala empty, are occupied by cinnamon-skinned tots who coo and occasionally fuss if a bottle slips to the floor. These families are in the final stage of formation, the last few days of an adoption process that each year places more than 1,000 Guatemalan infants and toddlers with foreign families, more than half of them from the United States.
This scene is the product of a business that the United Nations Children's Fund and some private adoption agencies have said amounts to an adoption mill. "Guatemalan children have a price," concluded a UNICEF study released late last year.
That price usually runs $20,000 or more, according to agencies that advertise Guatemalan adoptions on the Internet. Typically, international adoptions cost between $15,000 and $20,000 because of such expenses as air fare, mandatory donations to orphanages, agency fees and fees to the foreign country. The difference, as one breakdown of costs noted, is that in Guatemala, nearly three-fourths of the money goes to the local lawyers who provide children for foreign families.
Guatemala is one of the few countries in the world that still allow mothers to directly relinquish their newborns to private lawyers who arrange adoptions. Most other nations require courts or government agencies to oversee placement of children.
In Guatemala, mothers can hand over their newborns to lawyers who put the children in foster homes, known as "fattening houses," where they receive top-of-the-line baby formula and attention for the six months or so until their adoptive parents arrive to take them to their new homes. Some attorneys even provide delivery to the parents' home country.
As a result, children have become a major export in Guatemala, making this country of just 12 million people the world's fourth-largest supplier of youngsters for international adoptions, according to an Interpol report released in March 1999. And the business is growing.
The number of international adoptions from Guatemala rose from 731 in 1996 to 1,630 in 1999, according to the attorney general's office. That's an average of four adoptions a day.
The UNICEF study also found that 98% of all children adopted in Guatemala were sent to homes abroad. "Adoptions in Guatemala have [been] transformed into a commercial transaction, with children serving as a commercial object and significant financial profits redounding to the various parties involved," the study said.
'That Is Buying a Child, in My Opinion'
Hemlata Momaya, director of the Chatsworth-based Bal Jagat international adoption agency, said that when she founded the organization in 1983, most of the children she placed were from Central and South America. But lately, she has shied away from Guatemala.
"They get into trouble because the adoptions are handled by private lawyers," she said. "The lawyer makes a lot of money. . . . That is buying a child, in my opinion. This is not a good practice when you are adopting children."
Agencies that coordinate adoptions in Guatemala, such as the Philadelphia-based Adoptions International, argue that such criticisms do not take into account the realities of Third World economies.
Adoptions International's Web page notes the need for "large expenses for foster care, medical care, humanitarian aid, communication, translations, legal expenses and the vast amount of paperwork and travel expenses involved in the process."
Still, there is growing evidence that the profits and demand for babies have become high enough to foster child-trafficking rings headed by some of the 175 lawyers whose sole practice, UNICEF found, is foreign adoptions of Guatemalan children. Most of those rings are believed to rely on pressure and monetary incentive to persuade poor women to give up their children.
Others may use even more sinister tactics. Law enforcement officials believe that demand has become so intense that some traffickers are stealing babies from their mothers.
Mario Orozco, a prosecutor in the highland town of Coatepeque, has brought a case against one such alleged ring, relying on the testimony of four women who say their babies were kidnapped. Some of these mothers also say they were held hostage.
A Fruit Drink, and Her Baby Was Gone
One woman who says she nearly lost a child is Josefa Tema. A wan 42-year-old street vendor, Tema was carrying the youngest of her seven children, 2-month-old Esperanza, on an errand near the Guatemalan-Mexican border when she stopped for a fruit drink a year ago, according to court documents.
After drinking the juice, she said, "I started to feel faint." When she awoke, her child and her own identification papers were gone.
According to the court papers, the woman who had given her the juice told her not to worry, that her daughter was on her way to Guatemala City, where she would be fine.
"I didn't make any deal with you!" Tema recalled shouting at the woman. "However poor a person is, she loves her children."
For days, she said, she told her story to anyone who would listen, until someone mentioned another woman who also claimed to have lost a baby recently. Tema sought out Maria Lopez, and together they went to the police, who sent them to Orozco.
Using information that Lopez and two other mothers supplied, Orozco in April obtained a warrant to search a law office in downtown Guatemala City. From information in the files there, he located two houses where four infants were being kept.
After a police raid on the houses, the women were reunited with their babies.
Orozco filed charges, which are pending, against seven alleged members of the suspected adoption ring. One of the women being charged served six months in prison three years ago for trafficking in infants, according to Orozco and the mothers.
Panic inspired by such cases led to the stoning death of a Japanese tourist last year in one remote Guatemalan hamlet because villagers suspected him of trying to steal a child.
But conversations with child-care workers, mothers and prosecutors indicate that the children adopted in Guatemala usually are not snatched. Rather, they are separated from their mothers by subtle social and economic pressures, combined with a government structure that does more to ease the paperwork for private adoptions than it does to help poor women support their children.
As the Web page of Adoptions International notes, "More than 50% of the children in Guatemala are undernourished, under educated and have little opportunity of moving out of the circle of poverty [that] has characterized their population for generations.
"Now, with the breakdown of many indigenous communities, the breakdown of family life has led to the breakdown in community support systems [that] enabled people living in pre-modern conditions to survive," the agency says. "This is the population who are relinquishing or abandoning their children."
A Housekeeping Job Gone Awry
That description fits 14-year-old Noelia Ceballos almost perfectly, except for one detail: She did not want to give up her baby girl, Lucinda.
With her long, dark hair, richly embroidered blouse and ankle-length wraparound skirt, Ceballos looks as her ancestors have for hundreds of years. She cannot sign her name and, when she speaks, she adapts Spanish pronunciation to the Mayan sounds that are more familiar to her mouth and ear.
In late 1999, Ceballos was five months pregnant, selling tortillas in a village market, when she was offered a housekeeping job. Over her mother's objections, she accepted.
"A lady started coming by the house and talking to me about giving her my baby," she recalled. "I said, 'No, it's my first.' " Then, Maria Lopez, an old friend from her hometown, arrived to work at the house, which was too modest for a family to need two maids. Lopez was also pregnant.
When Ceballos went into labor, their employers took her to the hospital. Suspicious, Lopez notified Ceballos' mother. By the time her mother found her, Ceballos had already delivered her baby and was crying.
Her employers and the female visitor had threatened to kill her, she said, unless she put her thumbprint--a common substitute for a signature among illiterate Guatemalans--on a series of blank documents. Worse, they would not let her see her baby.
Ceballos did not see her baby for three months--not until police using the search warrants obtained by prosecutor Orozco raided the houses where the babies were hidden, awaiting adoption.
"I was so happy because I had not seen her since she was born," Ceballos said, hugging her little girl in the tiny hotel room she shares with Lopez as they await the chance to testify against the people who they say stole their children.
Even after realizing that Ceballos' baby had been taken, Lopez said, she was unable to escape, because her 3-year-old daughter was living at the house, virtually held hostage. The woman she identified as the head of the ring told her, "Give me your baby or you will never see your family again," Lopez said.
She said the ringleaders also threatened to inject the baby with a drug that would make him unable to walk. "Now that I have my son in my arms again," she said, "I'm not going to let anyone take him away from me."
Study Blames Dealers More Than Poverty
The UNICEF report concluded that baby-trafficking bears more responsibility than poverty for Guatemala's high international adoption rate. After all, in 1998, when 1,370 Guatemalan children were adopted by foreigners, there were just 33 international adoptions in a far poorer neighbor, Honduras, and 89 international adoptions in Ecuador, a country similar to Guatemala in population and living standard.
"In Guatemala, however, one finds so-called jaladores who seek out pregnant women and offer them up to [$770] for their child, while arranging for the child's new caretakers and contracting the notaries and agents required to sign the legal documentation at a price of around $2,000," the UNICEF report noted. "Due to the fragility of existing laws in Guatemala, adoptions constitute a business where the economic aspects of supply and demand actively intervene."
More than a dozen Internet pages offer Guatemalan children for adoption, allowing prospective parents to specify age, gender and race--even to pick waiting babies from their pictures.
"It was like going to a pound to find a puppy," Linda Cornett of Tucson recalled of her first experience with these sites.
Cornett--who with her husband, Dale, has adopted four special-needs children in the United States--was even more appalled when she contacted an agency about a child.
"They were asking $18,000 and got the attorney down to $12,000," she said. A day later, the agency notified her that another family was interested in the little boy and that she would "have to decide."
"It was a car salesman game," she said indignantly. After realizing that the Guatemalan adoption would cost nearly $20,000--seven times the total for all four children she adopted in the U.S.--Cornett gave up on the idea of looking for a child abroad.
Some Agencies Won't Deal With Lawyers
Lynn Turnbull of Grants Pass, Ore., was able to adopt a Guatemalan child without confronting such marketing tricks because she contacted an agency that works only with children who have been abandoned, rather than relinquished to private attorneys. Rosalva, now 9, has become the perfect sister for Turnbull's 8-year-old Korean daughter, Kayla.
Rosalva also helps her 13-year-old Ecuadorean brother keep up his Spanish. The drawback is that it took the Turnbull family 15 months from the time they submitted Rosalva's paperwork to the family court to the day they could take her home.
"The abandonment decree takes about a year to get through the courts," Turnbull said.
That's longer than many prospective parents want to wait. "People want babies," said a U.S. State Department official. "By the time they go through two years of court proceedings, the children are no longer babies."
That reality is what keeps Guatemala's market-driven adoption business growing--to the dismay of UNICEF, prosecutor Orozco and mothers who were less lucky than Ceballos and Tema.
Darling was recently on assignment in Guatemala.