Mexican social services official accused of trafficking babies to US for adoption

A fugitive family-welfare official, a lawyer and a doctor are among those implicated in selling children for up to £5,800 each to couples on both sides of the border. One mother tells Duncan Tucker her story

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Maria Garcia has not seen her daughter since Mexico’s social services took her away more than three years ago. The same social services branch has now been implicated in a baby-trafficking scandal. And Ms Garcia fears her child could have been sold to another family. “I don’t know if they sold her or what happened,” she told The Independent. “I just want my daughter back.”

Authorities in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, which borders Arizona in the United States, announced this week that they have recovered three babies from a child-trafficking ring but are still searching for the culprits and at least nine more missing children. The case has led several mothers to come forward and complain that local officials unfairly stripped them of their children. 

The prime suspect is Vladimir Arzate, the 30-year-old deputy legal director at the local branch of Mexico’s family welfare agency, the DIF. Now a fugitive, Mr Arzate stands accused of stealing 12 babies from vulnerable young mothers over several years and selling them for adoption for £3,100 to £5,800 each.

Mexican police are also searching for his alleged accomplice, José Hernández, a 38-year-old lawyer. An unnamed doctor accused of selling false birth certificates bearing the buyers’ names for £580 apiece is also being sought.

The Sonora authorities have faced strong criticism over their handling of the case. Rosi Orozco, the president of Mexico’s United Anti-Human-Trafficking Commission, said local investigators had ignored warnings from the US government that human-traffickers were selling children to couples on both sides of the border. 

“The US consulate in Sonora warned them in March but they didn’t do or say anything until now. This is grave. It’s very suspicious,” she told The Independent.

In a televised statement, Sonora’s chief prosecutor, Carlos Navarro, claimed the investigation predated that warning. He also admitted his office had questioned the prime suspects but let them go because of a legal technicality, despite the pair “partially confessing” to involvement.

Juan Manuel Estrada, the head of the Find Foundation dedicated to locating missing people, attacked the decision not to charge them as a “flagrant violation of the law”. Another eight suspects accused of buying babies were arrested on Tuesday, only to be released without charge the next day. Their lawyer, Blake Urrutia, told a Mexican radio station they were  innocent victims who should not be subjected to a witch-hunt. “At no point did they think they were acquiring a baby illegally,” he said. “They were blinded by their desire to give these children a home.”

The DIF announced last year that almost 70,000 children are victims of human-trafficking in Mexico. Many are sold into sexual slavery on either side of the border and the majority come from underprivileged backgrounds. Ms Garcia, a 24-year-old agricultural worker who came to Sonora from neighbouring Sinaloa state, said the DIF took away her daughter, America Milagro, just two days after she was born because of a dispute over the child’s birth certificate.

“When I was pregnant I wanted to give her up for adoption because I was a single mum, I had two other daughters and I found it very difficult to work while trying to do my best for my two girls,” Ms Garcia said. She decided to give the child to a trusted friend, whom she named as the mother on the birth  certificate.

“But once I held her in my arms I changed my mind,” she said. “I immediately regretted it so we went to social services and asked them to change the birth certificate to my name. They told me they couldn’t help me and that the baby had to stay with them.”

At first, Ms Garcia was allowed to visit her daughter at a government-run children’s shelter, but after eight months she was forbidden from seeing her because she was not deemed the legal mother. “I offered to do a DNA test and psychological exams to prove that I was her mother but they said no,” added Ms Garcia. Three years on, she has no idea of her daughter’s location.

Silvia Campos is another young single mother who feels she was unjustly separated from her baby, although he was not among those that were sold. Aged 21, she moved from the southern state of Puebla to take up work as a day labourer in Sonora. Toiling in the fields for just £30 a week, she had no alternative but to bring four-month-old Ángel Jesús to work with her.

In mid-June he suffered dehydration from the 40-degree heat so she took him to a hospital in a nearby town, although she could not come back until finishing work the following week. Upon returning, she found that DIF officials had given her son up for adoption without her consent.

“They told me I couldn’t have him back because of the state he was in when I brought him in, and because I didn’t have air conditioning at home,” Ms Campos said. “I was crying when they told me.”

After two months apart, she was finally allowed to see her son at weekly parenting classes. Now they are due to be permanently reunited. Ms Orozco of the anti-human-trafficking commission said these cases were typical in that the victims were agricultural migrant workers with no one to support or protect them: “These people often don’t even have the resources to return home or make phone calls. We’re talking about extreme poverty. They’re the ones who are abused, taken advantage of and have their children taken away.”

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