Police investigating a Mexican child-selling racket, which has allegedly smuggled some 100 Central Americans to the United States, have rescued half a dozen children from captivity on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Officials said criminals kept the infants from El Salvador in an illicit nursery in "deplorable conditions", little better than kennels, all cramped inside a dismal room in the industrial suburb of Naucalpan, where the youngsters awaited their turn on a flight to the California border. A man and two women have been arrested on suspicion of human trafficking.
United States immigration officials portrayed these smugglers as "coyotes" who profited from reuniting illegal immigrant families with the children they left behind.
But Mexican police suspect something far more sinister, because one suspect, Virginia Barajas, tried to bribe arresting officers, indicating a more lucrative trade in which each child could fetch $10,000 (£7,000). She told them that was how much she could earn by selling one child.
Theories that kidnappers sell these children to rich adoptive parents, to pornographers or paedophiles, or even to blackmarket human organ mills are now under investigation. The smuggling ring has been running since 1998 and is "huge", according to Julio Cardenas, a spokesman for Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency
Suspicions were raised at Tijuana airport, after ground staff noticed that two women booked return tickets to Los Angeles for themselves but bought one-way tickets for another six children in their care.
The children, aged between nine and 11, had agreed to meet relatives in the United States or had volunteered to risk the journey to enjoy a better life. Two toddlers and a baby of six months– all cousins – had earlier been smuggled across the border to be reunited with family members who are naturalised US citizens, according to American law enforcement officials
Virginia Barajas, 43, and her niece Estela Barajas, 27, were detained for questioning by police on Monday. Los Angeles police later arrested two suspected accomplices, Delhi Gutierrez and Martin Barajas, who were scheduled to meet the flight from Mexico, and also recovered five more children.
The younger woman admitted that her husband routinely acquired children in Mexico City from a Guatemalan woman, known to them as "the Traveller", who had smuggled them from elsewhere in Central America. He kept them in their squalid house in Naucalpan until the two women could arrange to take a group to Tijuana, on the Californian border.
Once there, the children would be handed over to an accomplice who would smuggle them across the frontier, either by air or road. Ms Barajas and her aunt were taken into custody in Tijuana and sent back to the Mexican capital for questioning. Police then raided the Barajas house in Naucalpan, where they found the six infants. Her husband, Abel Bartolo Alanis, was arrested on Tuesday. Mexican officials said Virginia Barajas had a criminal record for her role in a 1998 kidnapping and that her niece was a suspect in another abduction.
Trafficking in children has become more profitable than smuggling narcotics, and less troublesome. There is increasing alarm in Mexico over the number of children from poor families being sold into prostitution and pornography in the United States.
A joint report released this week by Unicef and the Mexican government concluded that more than 16,000 children in Mexico worked as prostitutes or were otherwise sexually exploited. Child prostitution and pornography has grown into a lucrative international industry and earns $7bn (£5bn) annually. Mexico City radio and television broadcasters have begun a campaign to raise public awareness of this underage sex trade.
Ana Teresa Aranda, director of Integral Development for the Family, said: "The number of child prostitutes in the world is growing everyday, and Mexico is no exception."
Mexico's centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution maintains that up to 130,000 children have been kidnapped in Mexico over the past five years to be used in the sex trade and drug-trafficking.
Officials said at least 20 of the 100 suspected smuggled children were believed to come from El Salvador. Cesar Martinez, a spokesman for El Salvador's Foreign Ministry, said his government had received very little information on these children, and would investigate the case further. "We recognise that there is a problem with people smugglers who act solely out of greed,'' he said.