Deceit takes babies away in Honduras Adoptions: Poor, illiterate women in Honduras are easy prey for lawyers serving as brokers for U.S. couples seeking to adopt.


July 02, 1998|By Michael Riley | Michael Riley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala -- When she was six months pregnant, Gabriela de Leon's husband told her he couldn't afford -- and didn't want -- another child.

After he beat her and threatened to kill her and her other two children, de Leon agreed to give the newborn to a lawyer specializing in international adoptions.

Her husband received the equivalent of $650 for what was considered by the Guatemalan government a private, legal transaction. Within weeks, de Leon, a 23-year-old school teacher, had left her husband. She is now trying to get her baby back. "This is so painful," she says. "I had no idea how bad this would feel."

De Leon's child was sold on a market where big dollars have made young, healthy infants a commodity. Lawyers brokering babies earn up to $15,000 a year in fees from adopting parents. And, critics and government officials say, the lawyers are filling out more than just legal forms -- they're filling orders to meet booming demand from parents in the United States and Europe.

Much of the activity is legal. It is not against Guatemalan law, for instance, for a mother to receive money for a baby she puts up for adoption. But authorities say that the high demand and big dollars encourage tactics of intimidation and manipulation that often cross the line between facilitating an adoption and coercing one.

"What we're fighting against is children being turned into toys or becoming merchandise," says Carmela Carrup, who heads a section on minors in the Guatemalan attorney general's office.

De Leon's case is atypical in at least one respect: The baby brokers generally target single mothers, usually poor and often ill-informed about their rights.

Maria Cobosh, who is 28, single and unable to sign her name, was pregnant when she was befriended by a woman who would stop by her house to talk. For weeks the subject of adoption never came up. But the woman, it turned out, was employed by a lawyer representing an American couple trying to adopt a Guatemalan child. Cobosh agreed to give up her baby, she says, in part because the attorney promised to pay her hospital bills.

Within a few weeks of the birth, she changed her mind. When she told the lawyer that she wanted her baby back, he demanded that she repay the hospital bill -- the equivalent of more than a year's income for Cobosh. "He told me I'd go to jail. He said I had to go to the [U.S.] embassy and say I was giving

up my baby," she recalls. "I was scared, so I did it.`

Dozens of complaints filed with the Guatemalan attorney general's office, and the testimony of investigators and mothers, detail the brokers' tactics.

The targets are often young women who have moved to bigger cities to find work far from families and systems of support. Agents scour poor neighborhoods seeking prospective donors. Brothel owners sell the babies of prostitutes. Middle- and upper-class housewives hire expectant mothers as servants, than arrange an adoption and pocket a fee.

Four months pregnant, Veronica Godinez Vicente, a 19-year-old who can neither read nor write, was hired to work in a middle-class home as a maid.

Her employer took her for medical checkups, and a week before she was due, drove Godinez to the hospital. When drugs failed to induce labor, her baby was delivered by Caesarean section. "I asked to see my baby, but the doctor told me it wasn't permitted," Godinez says. "He looked at me and said, 'Don't you know what's going on here?' I have never seen my baby."

Scared and threatened with the loss of her job, Godinez put her thumbprint on 12 blank pages that were later filled in with legal documents declaring the baby abandoned. Police later raided the unlicensed nursery operated by the lawyer who filed those papers, but hers wasn't among nine infants found.

The women have the right to stop the adoption at any time, says Bruce Harris, director of the Latin American branch of Covenant House, an advocacy group for children, but often they are illiterate, poor and easily intimidated. "The lawyers say, 'If you start making a problem, I'll put you in jail.' Because they're lawyers, [the women] believe them."

Oddly enough, the bustle in Guatemala's adoption market is partly a result of stronger international efforts to curb abuses.

After the signing of the 1993 Hague convention on international adoptions, dozens of countries passed strict regulatory provisions. Some countries once popular with U.S. and European international adoption agencies have virtually shut down. After Peru, for example, rewrote its adoption code, the flow of babies to the United States dropped from 800 a year to 17.

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