exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

Guatemala babies 'sold to highest bidders'

A UN report says that the trafficking of children for adoption is widespread but many reject its claims

Duncan Campbell in Guatemala City

Gabriela de Leon is a self-assured young woman who works for a real estate firm in Mixco, a small town half an hour's drive from the capital of Guatemala. The drive to Mixco takes you past a ramshackle shanty-town that encapsulates the poverty of the country, where the richest 10% of the population have 70 times the annual incomes of the poorest 10%.

Four years ago, Ms de Leon, now 26, was pregnant with her third child. Her husband told her the family could not afford another baby and he did not want to go into debt. An abortion was suggested. When she refused, she recounted over lunch at Campero, the local equivalent of Kentucky Fried Chicken, another plan was put into operation. The child would be sold for adoption to the US for 4,000 quetzales (about £360), and in doing so would become one of the growing number of babies who have helped to make this Central American country of 11m people the fourth largest provider of children for adoption after Russia, China and South Korea.

"He had never been violent before but he threatened to kill the children if I did not agree," said Ms de Leon. "We went to see a lawyer and I was told just to listen and not to talk. He was very aggressive. I was very nervous with all the pressure."

With the cooperation of her husband's family, she was moved out of the city and into a house in a nearby town where she was kept in seclusion until just before the baby was due. She was taken to a gynaecologist who gave her a stronger anaesthetic than she had had for her first two children. When she came round, she said, the baby was gone. This was December 3, 1996. It was not until December 23 1998 that they were reunited.

With the help of several organisations and lawyers, Ms de Leon and her mother fought to find the child and have her returned. Ms de Leon's husband, from whom she is now separated, argued that she had willingly consented to the adoption and had only later changed her mind.

After two years of legal action, she won custody of the child, Melissa. "She was afraid of me at first," she said. "She had never left the house before and she started to cry."

In a cafe in Zone One of Guatemala City, an area so crime-ridden that security guards with shotguns and pistols seem to hover on every street corner,

Gustavo Tobar

sits with a folder of papers. They contain the address in the east of the US where his son is now living with adoptive American parents. He, too, said the child was taken against his will and for money.

Mr Tobar said his son and stepchild were both taken into an institution after a neighbour who looked after them had claimed they were being maltreated. He later discovered that the neighbour had links with a lawyer who assisted in the adoption process. He and his former partner are fighting to regain the children by proving that the adoption was illegal. He believes he has a good chance of success.

"I would love to talk to the children but I am afraid that if I make contact, they [adoptive parents] would move," he said.

Last month, the UN published a report on the sale of children by a special rapporteur, Ofelia Calcetas-Santos. It concluded that legal adoption appears to be the exception rather than the rule in Guatemala. "Since huge profits can be made, the child has become an object of commerce rather than the focus of the law."

Ms Calcetas-Santos suggested that "trafficking of babies and young children for inter-country adoption exists on a large scale. The system lends itself to the nefarious practice of reducing children to commercial objects to be offered to the highest bidders."

The report claimed there are casas de engordeza - "fattening houses" - where babies are kept while the adoption process goes through and suggested that falsification of documentation was common.

This message is simple and shocking. However, the sweeping nature of the UN report has been attacked and Ms Calcetas-Santos herself admits it had to be researched in great haste. Under the surface the story becomes much more complex. It has to do with with the relationship between rich and poor countries, national sentiment and xenophobia, the power of the church, cross-cultural adoption and the ideology of child-rearing. It is a debate that crosses political lines and creates odd allies as two sides, both inside Guatemala and in the countries where adopted Guatemalan children live, fight to have their side told.

The first time that Guatemalan children were adopted by foreigners in substantial numbers was in the early 1980s at the height of the 36-year civil war when thousands of children had been orphaned and displaced as the military carried out a scorched earth policy of wiping out the Mayan villages which had harboured leftwing guerrillas. In 1996, the year of the peace agreement that has brought a degree of normalcy to the country, there were 731 international adoptions. By 1999, the figure had more than doubled to 1,645 and there are likely to be 2,000 this year, according to Unicef.

In contrast, the total of international adoptions in all other Latin American countries combined now runs at fewer than 100 annually.

Business is booming

The reasons for the increase are many but with the acceptance within North America and Europe of abortion, the decreased stigma of single motherhood and the increase in infertility, would-be adoptive parents started looking abroad. Countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Honduras which used to allow international adoptions have all made it much harder, hence the drift to Guatemala where the Roman Catholic church still campaigns vigorously against contraception.

International adoptions in Guatemala are almost all "privatised", which is to say that they are not organised through the government but by foreign adoption agencies dealing with Guatemalan lawyers. Would-be parents, who are mainly from the US but include a number from Britain and elsewhere in Europe, have to be approved by their own social services in the same way as if they were adopting locally.

The total cost of adoption to a would-be parent ranges from around $12,000 (£8,000) to $30,000. Of this, the agency might take a fee of around $3,000, the Guatemalan lawyers between $10,000 and $15,000 and the mother will receive, in some cases, "expenses" of between $500 and $1,000.

The stories of malpractice have already led embassies including those of the US - where 62% of the adoptions take place - Britain and Canada to introduce DNA tests to ensure that the woman signing over the child is the real mother. The British embassy which oversees a much smaller, albeit increasing, number of cases said there have as yet been no failures of the DNA tests. Frank Neville, the press attache at the US embassy, said that from November 1998 to March 2000 there had been 15 cases out of around 2,500 adoption procedures where the children were shown by DNA tests not to be those of the supposed mother.

Casa Alianza, an organisation that rehabilitates street children and has also taken up the cases of parents seeking the return of adopted children, say that they know of at least 27 cases where a child has been taken for adoption against the parent's will. The Casa Alianza lawyer dealing with cases of alleged abduction for adoption, Amalia Eraso, said: "The most common situation is where the mother is pressured by her husband or a lawyer to give up a child for the money."

Elizabeth Gibbons of Unicef believes that such cases are not isolated. Unicef will be bringing out its own report later this year which she indicated will show that there are many abuses of the process. One of the anomalies, she said, was that there are around 20,000 abandoned or orphaned children in orphanages who were not being adopted partly because the gov ernment process is lengthy and complex, and also because most adoptive parents seek babies rather than older children.

"The lawyers claim that mothers come to them but we believe that the lawyers go looking for them," said Ms Gibbons. She said that one lawyer had explained his fee of $6,000 in terms of the costs of nappies, vaccinations, nannies and milk, a rate vastly beyond the likely costs.

"We are concerned for the best interests of the child. At the moment, the adoptions are being carried out for the best interests of the lawyers and the adoptive parents."

But Rachel Garst, a policy analyst and human rights advocate who has been living in Guatemala for more than 15 years and has two adopted Guatemalan children, believes the adopters' side of the story is rarely heard.

"There is a very sensationalist and disturbing debate going on here," said Ms Garst, who is from Iowa. "People believe that gringos are just waltzing in to purchase children - who knows for what evil ends - and that hundreds of children are being stolen for adoption. All this has been inflamed by sensationalist press coverage."

Ms Garst said the likely result was Guatemalan legislation that would obstruct or delay all international adoptions. "If that happens, the real losers will be the children."

The passion that permeates the adoption debate has had some extreme consequences. Here the story must take a detour to Todos Santos Cuchumatan, a village of 2,000 people 200 miles north west of the capital in the western highlands.

Lying in a valley at the end of winding, unpaved road, Todos Santos has been a place on the backpackers' map for more than two decades. More recently, conventional tour parties have started to visit. The village is accustomed to foreigners; signs in English offer weaving lessons, local restaurants cater to vegetarians.

Almost exactly a year ago, a 15-year-old girl was murdered in Huehuetenango, the nearby capital of the region. The girl's body, which had been mutilated and disembowelled, was left in the local cemetery. A rumour that she had been the victim of a foreign satanic sect circulated. At the end of last month, another rumour or bola (literally a ball) was rolling dangerously down the hills of the western highlands: a satanic sect was supposedly having a meeting in the area and was looking for local children to use in a sacrifice. Such was the strength of the rumour that schools closed throughout the area, including Todos Santos, on Friday 28 April.

The following day, a tour party of 23 Japanese arrived in the village in a bus with darkened windows. They started to mingle in the square. One tourist, 40-year-old Tetsuo Yamahiro, patted a child on the head. A local woman screamed that she had seen a knife and that her child was being stolen. Hysteria spread through the crowd of around 500 and people attacked the tourists with stones and machetes. Yamahiro was killed.

The bus driver, Edgar Castellanos, tried to escape and was attacked so violently that, according to Guido Galli, the local UN monitoring representative, his brains had spilled out of his head. Then he was doused in petrol and set on fire. Within 10 minutes the crowd's rage was spent and two dead bodies lay in the street. Nine people, including a local teacher, have been arrested and are being held in Huehuetenango.

"Have any children ever been stolen from here? No," said the village's mayor, Julian Mendoza. "Have there ever been any satanic sects here? No. Have any children from here been taken from here for adoption abroad? No. We were waiting for Satan to arrive and he never did - but what happened? Satan rose up through us."

Rachel Garst believes that what happened in Todos Santos is an extreme product of a debate that has become too anecdotal and rumour-fuelled; some rumours even suggest that children are kidnapped for their body parts. She is critical of the UN report for adding to the fears although it is not suggested in any way that it led to the lynchings. "Trafficking," she believed, was a loaded term which referred merely to the fact that lawyers were charging high but perfectly legal fees.

Abandoned children

Martha Wallace, who runs an adoption agency in Pennsylvania and is the chair of the Guatemalan caucus of the Joint Council on International Children's Services (JCICS), is also critical of the UN report and described some of the conclusions as "outrageous". She said many of the claims made were anecdotal and without any statistical basis. The effect of stopping international adoption in other Latin American countries has meant that "the orphanages are filled and more and more children are abandoned anonymously."

In response to these criticisms, Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, the lawyer who compiled the UN report, said from her home in Manila that because of time and money constraints she had only been able to spend 10 working days in Guatemala for her research and that her task included investigating not only the sale of children but also child prostitution and pornography. She said that for this reason she could give no statistical evidence to back up her suggestion that legal adoptions were "the exception rather than the rule." She said that "many of the adoptions are legal under certain circumstances ... I am not trying to knock down adoptions if all things are observed."

Adriana Portillo was the daughter and sister of guerrillas who were part of the Revolutionary Organisation of the People in Arms. On September 11, 1981 her two daughters, aged 10 and nine, were staying with her father in the 11th Zone of the Guatemalan capital when members of the military broke into the house and took the girls. She has not seen them since. She has since married and settled in Chicago but has returned to Guatemala once more in the search for her missing daughters by helping to set up the organisation Where Are the Children? In June, it will open its office, hoping that the reconciliation process might throw light on the fate of her girls and the countless others who have vanished and who could be long dead or adopted in Guatemala or abroad.

"I would ride the buses all over Guatemala City staring through the windows, just looking for them," said Adriana Portillo. "I went to the orphanages and to the women's prisons asking if anyone had seen them. But we never found them. They were old enough to remember where they came from and I still think that they might have been adopted."

Guatemala has changed since Adriana Portillo's children were seized but clearly mothers are still being forcibly separated from their children to profit from sale of babies for adoption. The sums that lawyers can make from adoptions may act for some as an incentive. Pressure is building on the authorities to impose a cap on legal fees to send a message that large profits should not be made from children.

What no one, including the UN, yet knows is how widespread forced adoption really is. There are many good-hearted people involved on both sides of the debate. Both those who want to protect vulnerable mothers from exploitation, and those who want to take children out of grim institutions and put them into caring homes.

2000 Jun 13