exposing the dark side of adoption
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Buy Buy Baby: 'Children available: newborns, healthy, male and female'

International adoption of Guatemalan children has become an £18m industry. But, as demand outstrips supply, there is growing evidence that babies are being bought from mothers - or even stolen. Matthew Chapman reports

Elivia Cano's hands are trembling and the dark patches beneath her eyes betray a string of sleepless nights as she recalls the moment her baby son was taken away from her and sold to a foreign couple. The memories of those few hours - of going into labour and then, still woozy from the medication, watching her newborn child being carried off - have left her with deep psychological scars.

"If anyone even raises their voice now I tremble all over," says Cano, as she wipes away a few tears beginning to trickle down her cheeks. "I was treated like rubbish, an insignificant person."

Cano's child was one of 1,300 Guatemalan infants put up for international adoption last year. While many of these adoptions are perfectly legitimate, there is increasing evidence to suggest that a significant number have been bought illegally from poor mothers or simply stolen.

Cano, a mother of two from a poor area of central Guatemala, was kidnapped by her employer, a lawyer, and held on a remote farm until she gave birth. Throughout her ordeal, her elder son was held as ransom in case she refused to hand the baby over, and within minutes of the delivery she was told to choose between her children. A few hours later, the lawyer handed the child over to a Spanish couple, who were charged the bargain price of £8,000. The average cost for an adoption in the country, according to the Guatemalan attorney general's office, is nearer £13,000.

Guatemala has traditionally relied on its coffee and beef exports to bring in foreign currency. Over the past few years, however, hundreds of lawyers, politicians and middlemen have turned their hands to the more lucrative adoption business: last year, adoptions were worth an estimated £18m to the country.

Because of its relaxed rules on adoption, Guatemala has proved to be popular with British couples, and over the past three years around 130 of the country's children have ended up in this country. Nearly £1m a year is being paid by Britons in adoption fees to adoption agencies and lawyers in Guatemala.

The quickest way for most would-be parents to find out what children are available in Guatemala is by logging on to the internet. The language of the showroom pervades every adoption site. "Children Available: newborns, healthy, male female," reads the strapline below a picture of a cutely dressed Mayan Indian girl standing in front of a Christmas tree. Another site for an American agency offers its "Child of the Month - available immediately", while others use the phrase "soon to be available", telling you the baby is still in its natural mother's womb.

According to Unicef, Guatemala handles more adoptions than any other country in Latin America, and the demand is such that there is now a shortage of very young children available for adoption, the most sought-after age.

"These adoption agencies need a constant supply of babies and there are just not enough healthy, legally available infants around," says Bruce Harris, a Briton who has spent the past three years tracking the growth in international adoptions. Casa Alianza, the New York-based charity he heads in Central America, has been gathering evidence on what it describes as a "boom business".

"We have many documented cases of mothers who are searching for their babies, mothers who were drugged and given a caesarean section and had their babies taken out of their womb," he says.

Particular targets for Harris are the lawyers who control the industry, and, indeed, the country's legal system. Most private orphanages are either controlled by a lawyer or have a lawyer on the board of management. They are needed at every stage in the adoption process in Guatemala, either to have a child declared abandoned - at which point there is no need to get the natural mother's consent for an adoption - or to ensure the necessary legal consent from a birth mother who is handing her child over for adoption.

Perhaps the best indication of the real power of the lawyers has been Guatemala's inability to pass a juvenile code, which has been bogged down in parliament since 1996. The code includes a direction to judges that, when considering adoption cases, they should proceed from a basic point of principle that the interests of the child are best served by keeping it with its own family and in its own country. The most influential opponent of the code, which has ensured that it has got nowhere in four years, is the institute for the rights of the family, an organisation named without a hint of irony and consisting almost entirely of lawyers in the adoption business.

"This is why their credibility for us is very suspect," says Deborah Cobar, head of the adoptions investigation department of the attorney general's office in Guatemala. It is Cobar's job to investigate any irregularities in those 1,300 international adoptions, and she has just three investigators. "The problem for us is they are very powerful, they have lots of money and they know very many people in power at all levels, even in the government and the congress. It makes it very difficult for people like us to compete with them. [But] this has to stop. We cannot keep selling our children like this, we are not like some factory for producing children."

For children headed to the UK, it is the British embassy in Guatemala that provides the final checks in the system. The birth mother undergoes a DNA test and an interview to check that the child being given up is really her own and that she is not under pressure to put it up for adoption. "Most of the time they are happy to give up their child because they think they will get a better standard of living in the UK," said Julie Johnson, vice consul at the embassy in Guatemala City.

Cash payments to the natural mother are illegal, although I was assured by the owner of one orphanage that this was standard practice; Cobar says most women are paid just $100 (£70). As a matter of course, the embassy asks the mothers if they have been paid, and they appear to expect the question. "I tend to find they have been very well coached," says Johnson.

The embassy's safeguards leave Harris and many Guatemalans profoundly unhappy. Although a number of mothers freely give up their babies for adoption, some are being offered up to £800 for their babies, a huge sum for many Guatemalans.

In Harris's view, the fact that they are being told their child will have a better life in the west subjects them to intolerable pressures. "Sometimes, in our western way of thinking and western arrogance, we think that a baby with a pair of Nikes and nice T-shirt and fancy toys is better off than with their own mother in a situation of poverty," says Harris. "If we truly want to help then we should help the birth mother take care of her own child."

British advocates of international adoption are sceptical about claims that there is a serious problem of child trafficking from Guatemala, pointing out that some 300 Guatemalan-born children living in the UK have all been through a rigorous set of procedures in both countries. "The mother's consent has to be gained several times during these processes," says Liv O'Hanlon, of the London based adoption forum. "I've never, in nine years of involvement in adoption, met a couple who wanted or was willing or in any way intended to bring in children illegally." O'Hanlon also points out that the department of health even recommends two Guatamala-based adoption agencies as well as individual lawyers to prospective British adopters.

Elivia Cano recovered her child with the help of the Guatemalan authorities just a few months ago. As she stands to leave the legal rights office where we met, she tries out a few words of English. "I am trying to improve myself," she says and breaks into a smile. Before she sets off on a four-hour road journey to her home town in the centre of the country, she wants to tell me about her older son, Carlos. "He is so pleased to have his little brother back. He says to me, 'He is my doll, he is my brother, he is mine and belongs to no one else.' Our family is complete now."

• Matthew Chapman's documentary Buy Buy Baby will be broadcast on Radio 5 Live at 12 noon on Sunday August 29.
1999 Aug 27