Baby Black Market: Pregnant Bulgarians Brought To Italy To Hand Over Newborns

In the Italian city of Caserta, infertile couples bought the babies of Bulgarian women who were specifically brought to Italy when they were eight months pregnant. Three have been arrested, as disturbing details of the special arrangements emerge.

Antonio Salvati

CASERTA - "What stage are we in now?" a lady asks by phone.

"No contractions yet," answers another female voice from the other end of the line. The faint sound of an irritated gesture can be heard, before the lady wonders: "if there's another one available?" This was the kind of routine call at the "baby supermarket," a brutal black market of newborns Italy's carabinieri military police have uncovered in the Caserta region near Naples.

According to the investigation, led by the Public Prosecutor's Office of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, the racket was organized so that young women were recruited in Bulgaria, and babies were sold to childless couples in Italy. Each newborn child cost 20,000 euros, with transport and office registration included. Once a child was born, the new "dad" told the office registry that the baby was indeed his child, the fruit of an extra-marital affair with a Bulgarian lady that his wife has since forgiven.

The three people arrested are a married Bulgarian couple and an Italian man from Caserta.

The investigation started in 2009 when the carabinieri started to examine the list of about 20 children, all born in the region of Campania to Italian fathers and Bulgarian mothers. At their first analysis of the list, investigators noticed that the same mobile number was written down in the "next-of-kin contact" on the birth certificate for two different cases. This was Antonio Maione's number: the 56-year-old is believed to be the "broker" of infertile couples who were desperate for a child. In a phone call recorded by police detectives, he can be heard announcing a birth to a new would-be father: "Come over, he's born. Congratulations, you're a Dad!"

A father of 13

Maione's personal story is strange, as he himself is the father of 13 children from 5 different women. When asked about the reason for such numerous offspring, he reportedly replied that he was an only child himself and he missed company as a kid. Eight cases are currently being screened by investigators, but only in two have they managed to piece the process from the start up to the moment when the child is handed to the Italian buyers.

Stefan and Anna, the Bulgarian couple, had the task of going to their native country and spotting pregnant women who would be ready to give up the baby in exchange for cash.

The chosen girls, who were often eight-months pregnant, were brought to Italy to give birth in a clinic of the Casertano region. They entered the country through Greece, and went back home to Bulgaria once the deal was completed. Getting the girls was an easy job for the Bulgarian couple, so much that in more than one instance, Anna, whose calls have been intercepted, has an argument with Maione, whom she accuses of not working enough.

"I did find the couples," the Italian says, defending himself. "The problem is they don't have the money." In only one case was the payment of the negotiated price recorded, when the couple who "purchased" the child had signed a loan contract for 20,000 euros.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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