Guatemala starts crackdown on illegal baby trade

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The Independent US

Esperanza Tema had almost given up hope: her only daughter, whom she had never seen, had gone missing from the Guatemalan clinic where she was born six months ago.

But Baby Esperanza turned up last weekend when police, investigating a gang that sells newborn infants to adoptive parents in France and Spain, raided four houses in Guatemala City and found a kidnapped baby in each. Prosecutors in Guatemala City are cracking down on the lucrative international baby trade, which accounts for 95 per cent of adoptions in this poor Central American country.

Pressure to act grew after the release of a United Nations report last week which described how "baby farms" provide infants for Western couples willing to pay $25,000 (£15,600) for a healthy child.

Ms Tema, nuzzling her daughter and blinking back tears, said she was made to sip a bitter liquid during labour. "They gave me a drink that must have been alcoholic." It knocked her out for hours. When she woke, her baby had gone. She agreed to show police residences she had visited with Lucinda Bautiza, an educated woman accused of tricking her into signing away her power of attorney and they recovered her daughter.

Another woman, Maria Lopez, was reunited with her stolen baby, Jose, on the same night. Ms Bautiza was taken in for questioning while search orders for the offices of two lawyers were prepared, though no arrests have been made.

Meanwhile, thousands of genuine orphans languish in under-funded government homes until they are too old for any chance of life outside the institutions. It can take up to seven years to process papers for local adoptions without resorting to criminal short-cuts. Government figures confirmed that 1,332 Guatemalan babies were placed with foreigners in 1998. Lawyers, eager to earn 50 times the typical fee for a private adoption in Guatemala, tend to expedite the sale of babies abroad.

Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, a UN childcare official who visited Guatemala City, said poor women were often "contracted" to produce babies and give them away. Pregnant prostitutes or indigent single mothers were frequently threatened or tricked into handing over their children, she said. If they changed their minds, like the mothers of Esperanza and Jose, their babies were stolen from them.

Outraged that the collusion of attorneys and criminals reduced children to "commercial objects to be offered to the highest bidders", Ms Calcetas-Santos urged Guatemala to pass long-delayed laws regulating adoption and to ensure private adoptions were eliminated. Her report concluded that attempts should be made to place babies with Guatemalan parents and that international adoptions should only be a last resort.

Leonel Lopez Rodas, president of the Guatemalan Congress, admitted to Ms Calcetas-Santos that he knew of widespread baby-selling in his country. He assured her he was pushing for an adoption Bill to become law.

The Guatemala City prosecutor, Candito Breman, said he believed those caring for the four kidnapped babies had been tipped off about the raid. Minutes before police arrived they fled, leaving the infants unattended. The babies appeared healthy and all had been lodged in well-to-do homes.

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