exposing the dark side of adoption
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Guatemala's baby business


By Rosie Goldsmith

To understand why international adoption is so controversial and so emotive in Guatemala, it's important to know a few facts about Guatemala itself. This is a very poor, mainly rural country. About two-thirds of the population live in poverty; two-thirds live without electricity, a third without running water.

Guatemala is also predominantly Roman Catholic, which means no contraception and lots of children. In addition, it is only just emerging from a civil war, the longest conflict in the whole sad history of Central America.

Only four years ago the country's military leadership signed a peace accord with the left-wing guerrillas and handed over the reins to a democratic government. In this thirty-six year long war about a quarter of a million people died or "disappeared" and one million - half of them children - were displaced.

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So what does all that have to do with adoption?

Fernando Linares, a lawyer who also organizes adoptions for foreign couples, says it's simple: "there are lots of children here available for adoption, the mothers are often too poor to cope and the adopted child benefits from a loving family and better opportunities in life."

Adoption in Guatemala is mostly private and mostly in the hands of lawyers. They negotiate directly with all parties - the adoptive parents, the birth parents, the orphanages where some children live, the government authorities and the adoption agencies. They can earn anything up from £10,000 per child.

Since Guatemala ended its war and opened up to the rest of the world, international adoption has surged. In 1996, the year of the Peace Accord, there were 731 adoptions; this year there are expected to be at least 2000. Most of the children go to the United States.

Foreign adoption started during the civil war. Elizabeth Gibbons of UNICEF told me: "Many, many orphaned children were sent into adoption by military officers. Originally this was a humanitarian activity but it became obvious that it had the potential for being a lucrative business. And then there is the higher demand in the West, where you have more birth control, more access to abortion - and so you have the problem of a huge demand and a supply must be created."

  Posters now claim "this can't be bought or sold"

This, for organizations like UNICEF, is the main problem with international adoption in Guatemala. A market has been created and because demand is so high and so much money can be made from a private adoption, some women are being paid, or even forced, to give up their babies.

These are some of the allegations: finding the proof was very difficult. Very few people wanted to speak to us or go on the record. Adoption is an emotive issue everywhere, but here people are especially sensitve.

For many couples I met who'd just arrived to pick up their babies, this was the happy end of a long struggle - with infertility, bureaucracy or failed adoptions elsewhere - and they didn't want to risk anything going wrong.

How painful it could be if a journalist were to ask them: Are you sure your baby has not been stolen? Or: How much did you pay for the adoption? Guatemalans too are tired of bad press coverage of their country: during the civil war it was their poor human rights record, and now it is adoption. Mistrust and paranoia shroud this issue and it's easy to understand why.

Only two lawyers out of a long list agreed to talk to me. Fernando Linares, one of them, admitted that there were "irregularities" in the system but that "actual illegalities make up only a fraction of one per cent. And surely we should be happy for the ninety-nine per cent!" He goes on, "Yes, there is a market and it is competitive but if you don't pay the lawyer he won't do a good job."

The second lawyer, Mario Roberto Rios Castillo, told me of some specific cases. "I have heard of birth mothers being paid, even though this is illegal. And here's another story. A woman once came to me offering me her baby and demanding money. She just wanted to sell her baby."

He continues: "I personally have been offered extraordinary amounts of money for babies. I have always said no. But when there are such large offers being made some people get dollar signs in their eyes and they go off to look for a woman to persuade her to give up her child for adoption. And that's bad."

I also managed to speak with some of the mothers. These were cases on the books of Casa Alianza, the main children's charity in Central America, which works with abandoned children on the streets and in orphanages.

The first woman we met was Elivia. When she was pregnant she was kidnapped by a Guatemalan couple and locked up in their house until she gave birth. "I was given drugs to make it quicker and then the baby was pulled out of my stomach. The couple told me I was too poor to be a mother and they were going to put up the baby for adoption." Elivia's baby, Pablo, has now been returned to her, thanks to Casa Alianza.

Then there was Ruth, who walked into the Casa Alianza office in Guatemala City when we were there.

There are twenty-thousand unwanted kids in orphanages in Guatemala, and five thousand children living on the streets of the capital. Ruth is one of them. Hardly more than a child herself, she is now also a mother. Her story does not have a happy ending.

"I was breast-feeding my baby and these men drove up to us with guns. They put a pistol to my boyfriend's head and snatched my baby away. And that's the last I saw of her. How you can take a woman's baby away I don't know. She's probably abroad now."

So at the end of this story I can't tell you we unearthed a set number of illegal adoptions. But I did witness some irregularities and illegalities. Statistics are hard to come by.

The UK, US and Canadian embassies have tightened up controls by carrying out DNA tests on birth mothers and babies and often interview mothers and take photos. There are attempts to regulate the system and to make it more transparent.

And for every sad story there was a happy one. There were some ecstatic adoptive parents and children. Cynthia Westaway and Scott Little are a Canadian couple, both lawyers, both in their 30's. They agreed to talk to me because they feel that adoption needs to be discussed more openly. They were just about to return home with eight month old Tiana.

Cynthia told me: "A lot of people here can't afford to keep their kids. For the moment it's in the best interests of Guatemalan children to be adopted. It's best for my daughter and best for us. This is the only way for us to have a family."

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: after centuries of oppression, the Maya culture is being revived - we talk to a community leader and shaman about how it's coming back to life.

2000 Sep 1