exposing the dark side of adoption
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Dave Todd

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

A sordid trade in babies abducted or purchased for resale in North America and Europe is out of control in parts of Latin America.

The export trade is so serious in Guatemala that UNICEF has officially asked the government there to take action, said Agop Kayayan, UNICEF's director for Central America.

Babies kidnapped or purchased for as little as $50 fetch as much as $20,000 on the international market.

Corrupt lawyers, abetted by poorly paid government registry clerks who arrange phony birth certificates and passports, are key figures in the industry. Poor women are paid to pose as the babies' real mothers or guardians.

Baby-brokers in recipient countries - especially the United States, Belgium, West Germany and Israel - are also essential links in the business.

Human rights and child welfare officials interviewed in Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras rate the problem as serious, although they cannot estimate how many babies are involved.

Official statistics may reveal only a fraction of the business. In the first half of 1988, figures show Guatemalan police discovered at least 10 secret creches and rescued 25 babies believed destined for illegal adoption by foreigners. Many of these children had been discovered in shocking physical condition.

In the wretched slums of Guatemala City, the going rate for a baby is less than $100, according to city police.

At the other end of the business, American, European and Israeli couples, desperate to adopt Guatemalan children, are paying as much as $20,000 to buy a child from the baby-trade underground, according to recent court testimony.

In the United States, the federal government has been working with Massachusetts, Minnesota and Florida officials since 1985 to try to halt a baby-export scheme involving children bought and abducted from impoverished women in El Salvador. The trade is apparently brokered through well-connected Salvadoran lawyers.

A driving force behind the baby business is the desperation of foreign foster parents faced with long waits for children to become available through regular channels at home. They are also stymied by horrendously complicated bureaucratic processes. In Guatemala, more than 30 separate approvals are usually required for a foreign adoption.

Government concern is on the rise in Guatemala. On July 19, Interior Minister Roberto Valle Valdizan announced the need for ''a war without quarter'' to halt ''the robbery and trade in Guatemalan babies.''

Valle Valdizan admitted the problem extends to the top, with some Guatemalan government officials involved in the business. But a new determination to address the crisis is reflected by official publicity now accorded police busts of illegal adoption rings.

Occasionally, street justice takes its course. There has been at least one case of a clandestine death squad killing a suspected principal in a baby- export ring in El Salvador. In Guatemala, an accused baby-broker whose name appeared in the local papers was shot dead by neighbors.

In other parts of Latin America, such as Brazil, the sheer volume of undocumented children defies the power of anyone to prevent abuses.

UNICEF's Kayayan says tighter scrutiny of foreign adoptions from certain Latin American countries is essential if child-trading is to be halted. Yet the trade is ultimately driven by demand, he notes.

''Half the problem,'' he said, ''is due to the fact that emotionally desperate people in the receiving countries are paying for these children to be irregularly given for adoption.''

1988 Sep 2