Child-snatchers send in the clowns

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THE PLOT WAS so sinister it would take Alfred Hitchcock to do it justice. A jolly, red-nosed clown makes a mother laugh before snatching her baby from under her nose. The child then becomes part of an international trade in children, writes Phil Davison.

A manhunt is on in Honduras after 10 infants were abducted in the past week by "a man in a clown suit". The man or men were thought to be part of a gang that sells babies to desperate, childless North American or European couples.

The pattern was the same: a clown with a jolly smile, bright nose, and gigantic shoes would approach a mother outside a shop or school. Last week - with its high point the traditional Day of the Dead, on which people dress up for parades - was the perfect opportunity.

Victims said the clown would make comical gestures as a distraction before snatching his prey and racing off in a dark pick-up truck. No trace has been found of the 10 abducted children, aged from a few months to six years old. The clown scam, now probably impossible to repeat as the manhunt intensifies, was just the latest in a series of tricks used by Honduran gangs.

Police say an average of one child a day was stolen in October and that the total for the past two years was around 300. Child rights activists in the Central American country say doctors, nurses, and cleaners at state hospitals have been involved in the child-snatching, swayed by huge sums of money.

"There are some very big fish involved in this," said Rosario Godoy, who runs the Office for the Protection of Minors in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. The roba-chicos, child-robbers, charged North Americans or Europeans $5,000 to $30,000, (pounds 3,200 to pounds 19,000), she said. Blue-eyed babies, rare in Honduras, fetched the highest prices.

At least 25 children, including newborn babies and children visiting their mothers, had been kidnapped from Honduran hospitals this year, she said; they were sometimes smuggled out in laundry sacks.

Local lawyers working for childless North Americans or Europeans also paid poor Honduran peasant women hundreds of dollars to become pregnant by their own men, then give up the baby, Mrs Godoy added.