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Adoption Scandal: The Lost Children Of Guatemala

In recent years, authorities in Guatemala have tried to crack down on illegal child adoptions by foreigners. Corruption, however, is preventing the impoverished Central American country from eradicating the blight of child trafficking.

A boy in Guatemala (Renata Avila)
A boy in Guatemala (Renata Avila)
Vincent Taillefumier

Maria Leticia Ispaché spent just one night with her son, Christopher, after giving birth in Guatemala City's Roosevelt Hospital. Throughout the night she listened to his small hesitating cries. The next morning, one by one, the women next to her in the maternity ward room were allowed to leave with their newborns. "I was alone with my baby when a nurse arrived," she says. The stranger asked if the baby had already been vaccinated. She took the child and never came back. Leticia Ispaché alerted the hospital, the police and television channels. One year later, she says sadly: "We don't even have pictures to look for him."

Christopher has probably joined the horde of children who are the victims of adoption trafficking in Guatemala. In this country, 400 people under the age of 18 are stolen every year, according to the UN. "These acts are robberies or scams. The attackers take advantage of the poor, the Indians who can barely speak Spanish," says Freddy Coty, a lawyer and a member of a foundation called Sobrevivientes, which has followed several cases.

This practice emerged during Guatemala's drawn out civil war (1960-1996), when procedures were simplified for the numerous children orphaned by army massacres. This practice turned into a real industry following the 1996 peace accords. Over the past decade, an average of 5,000 children per year were adopted by foreigners. Most of those children end up in the United States. Guatemala, with its 14 million inhabitants, had become the world's number one child exporter.

Corruption and complicity

In 2007, Guatemalan authorities for the first time stiffened the country's adoption laws. Corruption, however, remains rampant, meaning children are still being shuttled out of the country under questionable circumstances. The trade is said to bring in $200 million a year.

Other efforts to further regulate adoption of Guatemalan children have been led by concerned interest groups. Sobrevivientes led a hunger strike in 2008 that pushed the government to suspend foreign adoptions altogether. And with the help of a UN judiciary body called the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), authorities are working to dismantle the networks that are thought to falsify at least six out of 10 adoption records. The networks are thought to include an army of scriveners, judges, doctors and directors of orphanages who falsify identities, DNA tests and photos.

"The intermediary American agencies like Celebrate Children International were aware of what was really going on," says Carolina Pimentel, a CICIG lawyer.

Today child trafficking has slowed but not disappeared. The country is considering a reform that would again give adoption agencies access to Guatemala. The reform would only benefit European agencies. In the meantime, individuals and associations are coming up with new tricks for adopting Guatemalan children. Some foreigners register their babies as biological children thanks to the help of crooked civil servants. And certain associations have been accused of sidestepping Guatemala's freeze on foreign adoptions by taking pregnant Guatemalan teenagers to give birth in neighboring El Salvador.

Today, nobody knows what happened to the "hundreds or thousands of children already stolen," says Sobrevivientes head Norma Cruz. Some have been located in the United States despite the use of false papers. Washington, however, turns a deaf ear when it comes to paternity tests.

Some mothers of these lost children say all they want is to know the truth. Freddy Coty recalls the words of one Guatemalan woman. "My daughter might have a better life abroad, but I would like to at least tell her that I didn't abandon her, that I wanted to raise her even if I'm living in poor conditions," she said.

María Leticia Ispaché has little hope of either finding her son Christopher, or of knowing exactly how he was whisked away from her. An investigation into his disappearance has not led anywhere.

Groups like Celebrate Children International, meanwhile, continue to operate – albeit not in Guatemala. Now, people can get in touch with the association to adopt children in Ethiopia.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Renata Avila

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