New Internationalist

Endpiece

Issue 245

new internationalist
issue 245 - July 1993

E N D P I E C E
Stealing children
Northern couples who ‘legally’ adopt children from Honduras
may never imagine that the children have been stolen from their mothers.
Mary Durran exposes the evil intricacies of a heartbreaking racket.

Childless couples in the US have for many years looked to Central America for healthy, attractive babies for adoption. Many babies have come from Honduras, where Liberal Deputy Rosario Godoy estimates as many as 90 per cent of adoptions are illegal. According to Ms Godoy, the lucrative baby trade netted over two million dollars during the last nine months of 1991. Civil servants, court officials and over 60 lawyers are implicated in the racket.

The lawyers, who earn about $12,000 in legal fees per child, operate through a network of intermediaries, normally poor women living in urban areas. These women are paid about $100 for each baby they find. Sometimes babies and children are literally snatched from their parents and the woman is paid to pose as the mother. Using a false birth certificate, obtained from corrupt civil servants in the National Registry offices, the ‘mother’ gives up the baby for adoption. In some cases, women are recruited to ‘breeding houses’ and paid to produce babies specially for adoption.

In a slum area of Comayagua, Honduras, a wobbly wooden plank placed over a stinking open sewer separates Juana’s home from the main dirt track. Flies buzz around in the afternoon heat, and stray dogs doze outside the door of her tumble-down shack. Juana is a forceful, robust woman who at 38 has already given birth to nine children. She is also a typical victim of the unscrupulous lawyers who operate the illegal and semi-legal trade.

‘First they took away my eight-day-old baby girl,’ she said. ‘I’d left her with a neighbour while I went to work and when I came back, they had taken her away.’ According to Juana, her baby girl, Margarita, was stolen by agents of Tegucigalpa lawyer Gustavo Mazanares – whose name is repeatedly linked to the illegal adoption racket.

‘Then Maria Elena, the intermediary, tried to persuade me to give up my eight-year-old son, Yoyito, and my 13-year-old daughter, Rosa Graciela, to the orphanage run by the National Welfare Board. She said they’d be given a good education and everything else they needed.’

Desperately poor, Juana felt under great pressure. But she wasn’t sure about this...

‘Six months after they stole my baby girl, my son Yoyito was playing in the park. His friends say they came and took him away.’

His older sister Rosa Graciela was taken away in a similar fashion. Juana thought the children had been taken to a state orphanage in Tegucigalpa and took a job nearby as a maid so that she could visit them. She discovered that they were actually being kept in ‘fattening houses’ run by associates of Gustavo Manzanares and in two years she got to see the children only once.

‘When I saw reports in newspapers that Gustavo Manzanares was being accused of offering jobs to pregnant women and then stealing their babies, I decided I wanted my children back.’

Rosario Godoy helped Juana recover the two elder children. Rosa Graciela brought back with her photographs of two elderly North American women who wished to adopt her. The women had already adopted two East Asian teenage girls, raising the suspicion that Rosa Graciela might really have been wanted for prostitution.

But Juana was unable to recover her baby girl, who was adopted by a North American couple. ‘I don’t even know where she is now. The last time I saw her was almost three years ago.’

Juana and her children are not unique. A great many poor Honduran families are being broken up and exploited in this way. Take the case of Maria Dolores, who agreed to give up for adoption her four-year-old son Nelson and then found adoption lawyers accompanying her to the hospital when she went into labour so that they could get the baby too. She told them that she wanted to keep her baby, and named him ‘Hugo’. But somehow the baby got transferred to another hospital and she was told to go home; the baby would stay there.

Maria Dolores went to Rosario Godoy who put pressure on Manzanares to give back the baby and accompanied her to court to stop the adoption of Nelson. During the court case the lawyer’s intermediary got very angry, says Maria Dolores. ‘She said they would have to return $20,000 to each of the couples who were to adopt the baby and Nelson. When I got Hugo back he was bleeding from his nappy. He died eight days later.’

According to Rosario Godoy: ‘Those who are involved in the racket are taking advantage of poor women who are often left by irresponsible fathers to shoulder the economic burden of bringing up children alone.’

Godoy has introduced legislation to reform the adoption laws, but with such a wide range of people implicated there is fierce opposition. Meanwhile she continues trying to help mothers get their children back, with some success. Young Mauricio, aged seven was given up for adoption in the US and sent to a fattening house.

‘A man called Don Will looked after me,’ he relates. ‘He was kind but sometimes he came home drunk. Then one day a gringo came to see me. He had colour drawings all the way up his arms and neck. He gave me a toy car and a colouring book and asked me if I’d like him to be my Daddy. I said, No, I’d only go to the US with a couple.’

Mauricio’s mother changed her mind about having him adopted after she had spoken to women who had had children adopted and who, contrary to what they had been led to believe, had been unable to see their children since.

Mauricio says the lawyer’s intermediary got very angry with him once she realized the adoption wasn’t going to go through – and she took away the toy car and the colouring book the gringo had given him.

Mary Durran is a freelance journalist based in El Salvador.

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