Guatemala's child-snatching plague
By Philip Sherwell in Guatemala City, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 2:05am BST 04/09/2007
American couples are flocking to the hotels of Guatemala City, but not to see the country's ancient Mayan remains nor the capital's more limited modern charms. Instead they are flying south in droves in the hope of embracing a bouncing new addition to their families - a baby, priced at about $30,000 (£15,000).
One in 100 Guatemalan children grow up in the US. The Central American country has the highest rate of international adoptions per head of any country in the world, and babies come high on the list of foreign currency earners - just below bananas.
In the capital, city centre hotels resemble giant creches as parents-in-waiting dote on the children who will be theirs when the adoption paperwork is finalised and the American embassy has processed visas. On the flights back to America, a chorus of gurgles and screams fills the air as the new families head home.
"We are so excited to be going home with Eva. We adore her already and she's going to have a great life that she could never have had in an orphanage here," said Trenya Pierce, 34, a nurse from Kentucky, as her husband Mike, 38, an office worker, bounced their new, nine-month-old daughter on his lap and fed her milk from a bottle in the airport's departure lounge.
There is no hiding the devotion and delight of the couples determined to give their new babies only the best. But the little-regulated Guatemalan adoption industry has also become a lucrative business for the country's lawyers and foster parents - and for the real mothers who are paid when they hand over their children.
Last year, Americans adopted 4,135 children from Guatemala - second by nation only to China, from where 6,493 children were adopted by Americans. Britain has already reduced adoptions from Guatemala to a trickle - about 50 a year - because of concerns about procedures.
Now, after coming under fire for its lax regulations, Guatemala is about to implement the international Hague Convention, which lays out rules for international adoptions, despite bitter opposition from the lawyers who have profited from the business.
In far-flung rural areas, meanwhile, so strong is the hysteria about child-stealing gangs that there have been dozens of lynchings of suspected baby thieves - although the victims have often simply been outsiders, not known in the remote villages.
Britain's ambassador, Ian Hughes, told The Sunday Telegraph that the Foreign Office now warns tourists not to approach or take pictures of children without a relative's permission, as foreigners have been caught up in the backlash. In July, two Americans were beaten up after they were seen talking to a boy on a riverbank in Quiche.
The anguish suffered by Ana Escobar, 26, is a painful testimony that reports of baby- snatching are more than myth. Her six-month-old daughter Esther was stolen from her by an armed robber in Guatemala City earlier this year.
She believes she was targeted because she regularly took Esther to her work at a shoe store, where she breast-fed her. The attacker bundled Ms Escobar into a cupboard at gunpoint as she pleaded to keep her baby. "I begged like I have never begged before," she said tearfully, but he barricaded the door and fled with her daughter.
"I'm never going to give up looking for her, but my mother's instinct tells me that she has already been sold for adoption," she said sadly, holding her only photograph of Esther. Ms Escobar was able to identify the gunman from police mugshots, but he has never been arrested and she now fears for her own safety. She is living in hiding with relatives and met The Sunday Telegraph in the anonymous safety of a shopping mall coffee shop.
Just two miles away, the mood at the Marriott Hotel - nicknamed "baby central" by locals - could not have been more different. Dozens of happy American couples ate, played and strolled in the grounds with their new children as the final paperwork was completed.
"We have been told the stories about baby-snatching, but from what we hear, they are often rumours blown out of all proportion," said Taylor Hardy, 39, a bartender, as his wife Andrea, 33, a hearing aid technician, played with 10-month-old Kaylon on the eve of their flight home to Tucson, Arizona. "As far as we know, the birth mother could not afford to keep him and was not compensated to give him up."
American couples who spoke to The Sunday Telegraph said that they did not believe that mothers were in effect selling their children for adoption, or that crime rings were snatching babies.
Aboard an American Airlines flight to Houston, Chuck Pearce, 38, and his wife Amy, 34, took turns to cradle 17-month-old Max. "I can see that the Guatemalan people have their concerns about the process, but my concern is that a crackdown means that other children will not get the same chance as Max," said Mrs Pearce.