Guatemalan police rescue 46 children from adoption scam

from: AFP

Aug 13, 2007

GUATEMALA CITY (AFP) — Police in Guatemala have rescued dozens of babies destined for the country's booming illegal adoption market, amid new cries for stricter governmental oversight.

Officials said Monday that police rescued 46 children aged between three days and two years old, who were victims of the country's notorious adoption racket.

The children, who did not have proper documentation for adoption, were discovered by police on Saturday during a raid on a clandestine orphanage in the tourist area of Old Guatemala.

Lawyers Vilma Zamora, 34, and Sandra Lopez, 42, were arrested for allegedly working on illegal adoption procedures involving the children.

The children have been transferred to police custody while homes are found for them, said prosecutor general spokesman Carlos Azurdia.

"The juvenile court is aware of the case and some details must be arranged so the children can be transferred to legal homes," Azurdia told AFP.

The children, 23 boys and 23 girls, were found in a home in Antigua, 47 kilometers (29 miles) from Guatemala City.

Guatemala's lax adoption laws have given rise to a thriving international adoption business worth an estimated 200 million dollars a year.

Nearly 4,500 children were adopted in Guatemala last year, up 10 percent from 2005, according to the prosecutor general's office. Ninety-eight percent of children ended up in the hands of foreign -- mainly US -- couples.

The United States however has called on Guatemala to tighten regulations on adoptions, which critics say has crossed a line into outright baby-selling.

The US State Department has called the adoption process in Guatemala rife with "conflicts of interest" and "improper financial gain."

Guatemala is second only to China in the number of adoptions by US parents, and is the northern hemisphere's largest source of children for US parents, but also has the fewest restrictions on adoptions in the region.

Although authorities involved in this weekend's bust found paperwork that indicated family members had given the children up for adoption, the papers had not passed through the juvenile court which "is the correct path for every adoption process," Azurdia said.

The daily newspaper La Prensa, which first reported the scandal, quoted a worker at the orphanage as saying that its owner, the husband of Lopez, lives in the United States.

According to the legal process, a court must determine whether any biological relatives would be willing to take charge of a child before setting the child on a path toward national, or international, adoption.

"That way it is a matter of avoiding having economic interest prevail over the welfare of children," Azurdia said.

One state investigator said people would pay 50,000 dollars to adopt a child from Guatemala, where most people live in poverty.

Last month, angry indigenous residents of the El Paraiso village in northern Guatemala who were convinced of a kidnapping ring in their midst seized 15 captives who they feared were plotting to snatch children for international adoptions.

Several villages in majority indigenous Guatemala have detained people for the same fears.

The vigilante-style justice and isolated attacks have killed at least seven people, injured another dozen, and left at least four police stations burned to the ground.


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