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Discovery of Babies sparks Probe

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Discovery of Babies
Sparks Probe

By Tim Rogers
Tico Times Staff

The discovery of nine Guatemalan babies held at an unregistered international adoption agency in La Uruca, San José, has raised new concerns that Costa Rica is being used as a transit country for child-trafficking networks and prompted doubts about the country's legislation regulating international adoptions.

Acting on information from neighbors, police and Child Welfare (PANI) authorities Sunday night raided an apartment used by an unlicensed adoption agency, arrested seven suspects and took into state custody the nine babies.

In a separate police action Tuesday morning - based on a complaint filed the day before - the PANI and the Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ) raided another home in the eastern San José neighborhood of Tres Ríos and took three more Guatemalan children into custody. No one was arrested in the second raid, and authorities said they don't believe there is a connection between the two cases.

The nine children from the Sunday raid - five girls and four boys between the ages of three weeks and 20 months - were taken to the Children's Hospital for observation, and reportedly are in good health, according to PANI Minister Rosalia Gil. The children will remain in state custody while the case is investigated.

One Honduran and five Guatemalans - including the mother of one of the children - were arrested, along with Costa Rican lawyer and banker Carlos Hernán Robles, who was found guilty in June, 2001, on 17 counts of embezzlement in connection with the collapse of the Banco Anglo Costarricense, the country's oldest state bank (TT, June 22, 2001).

Robles, who was out of jail while he appealed the verdict, later worked as an economic advisor for the now-defunct Vault Holding Firm, which was closed by authorities last June after company owner Roy Taylor committed suicide during a police raid to investigate fraud charges (TT, June 27).

The Supreme Court (Sala III) on Monday upheld the 2001 ruling against Robles and six former bank directors and sentenced him to 24 years in prison. The other six directors each received a 12-year sentence (see separate story).

Supreme Court spokeswoman Sandra Castro said the timing of the court ruling to Robles' arrest 24 hours earlier on suspicion of involvement in international trafficking in children was just a coincidence.

Robles' connection to the unlicensed adoption agency is still being investigated, according to authorities. What is known is that Robles on July 24 formally requested of the PANI's National Council of Adop-tions a Costa Rican operating license for the Florida-based International Adoption Resource, Inc., according to PANI Minister Gil.

The International Adoption Resource on its Web site boasts eight international offices, including Guatemala and its newest affiliate in Costa Rica. Gil, however, said Tuesday that the office here was never granted permission to operate due to "suspicion of irregularities," and was therefore "illegal."

But a PANI document handed out during Gil's press conference did not appear to support the Minister's comments. According to the PANI press release, the adoption agency's application was still being processed by the National Adoption Council, which requested additional documentation on Sept. 12. The release makes no mention of supposed irregularities and does not say the application had been rejected.

Following his arrest Sunday, Robles reportedly told the daily Al Día that he thought the agency had been properly registered.

The Tico Times was unable to contact the International Adoption Resource this week. Phones were answered by an automated system that said all adoption agents were busy, and to please leave a message. The company did not return phone or e-mail messages and Tico Times consultations with The Miami Herald and The Orlando Sun Sentinel revealed no further clues.

Gil said the discovery of the unregistered agency fuels "strong suspicions" held by the PANI that international child-trafficking networks are operating in Costa Rica. However, she shied from calling the agency a trafficking network until more details of the investigation come to light.

The Minister said the PANI became aware of the situation Sept. 12, when neighbors filed a complaint with the Child Welfare Agency alleging strange comings and goings and noises of crying babies from inside the rented apartment used by the alleged adoption agency. The PANI notified the Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ), which already had a parallel investigation of the agency, and the raid occurred almost immediately afterwards, Gil said.

The Minister said she has been in contact with Guatemalan authorities, and is asking Immigration to determine how the children entered the country.

Gil told The Tico Times yesterday that PANI authorities have the names of the children - one of whom was born in Costa Rica to a Guatemalan mother - but is not sure if the names provided on the documents are real or invented.

The incident has resulted in confusion regarding Costa Rica's legislation to regulate international adoptions.

Costa Rica ratified the Hague Convention On Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption Oct. 30, 1995, according to the Hague Conference on Private International Law. Although Costa Rica is a non-member state of the Hague Conference, it ratified the Convention, which entered into force here Feb. 1, 1996 and designated the PANI's National Adoption Council as the government's "Central Authority" charged with regulating international adoptions.

According to the Convention, each signatory's Central Authority regulates all international adoptions of minors, and is allowed to authorize such adoptions only in "exceptional situations" - when the child cannot be adopted by a family in his or her country of origin.

The PANI claims Costa Rica's adherence to the Convention is protected by Article 7 of the Constitution, which says international agreements ratified by the Legislative Assembly take precedence over national laws.

Since being formed at the beginning of 1996, the National Adoption Council has accredited in Costa Rica 12 international adoption agencies from Spain, the United States and Germany, Gil said.

In August 2002, the PANI and the Legislative Assembly attempted to close a legal loophole allowing direct international adoptions, or mothers who authorize the adoption of their child without going through a registered agency. Law 8297 was approved by Congress, modifying the Family Code to make direct adoptions illegal.

However, in July, 2003, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) overturned the reform, due to procedural irregularities in the passage of the bill, according to PANI.

Regional child advocacy group Casa Alianza blasted the decision for leaving a "legal void" in Costa Rica's adoption policy that could set the stage for the "commercialization of children" by impoverished parents who sell their kids for up to $20,000 to North American or European couples.
Casa Alianza director Bruce Harris noted that the Sala ruling was creating the exact situation the reform measure sought to avoid.

The PANI, however, insists that despite the Sala ruling, the National Adoption Council is still charged with all oversight of international adoptions, as provided by the Hague Convention.

To strengthen its legal claim, the PANI has proposed another bill to the Legislative Assembly that has the same goals as last year's overturned reform measure. Gil said this week that she was meeting with lawmakers in an attempt to speed the bill's approval through Congress.

2003 Sep 26