BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – They are known in Guatemala as jaladores – people who snatch babies from mothers’ arms in the street and in hospitals or who trick mothers into giving up their children for adoption.
These are just a few ways infants are stolen in Guatemala, where a recent spate of abductions of babies from hospitals has shone the spotlight once more on child trafficking in the Central American country.
Guatemalan authorities and local rights groups say stolen children are being put up for illegal adoption – often sold into child pornography and prostitution where they are at the mercy of child trafficking rings run by organised criminal networks in what is a multi-billion dollar global business.
“We’re investigating 22 cases of stolen babies this year that we believe are largely to do with illegal adoption,” Erick Cardenas, Guatemala’s children’s prosecutor, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Guatemala City.
Jaladores also abduct newborns from hospitals by giving the mother a sleeping pill or arranging for her to be told her baby has died while they steal the child, local press reports say.
A 2010 report by the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) found that hospital staff conspire with criminal gangs to obtain false birth certificates for newborns put up for illegal adoption and women pose as the biological mothers of children and are given fake identity papers by corrupt notaries.
The stealing and disappearance of children appears, in some cases, to be linked to organ trafficking. But it is near impossible to determine the extent of this because there are no official figures on it.
“We have not received any formal complaints about cases of organ trafficking involving children,” Cardenas said. “Despite that, we are investigating to determine if organ trafficking actually went on in specific cases that we know of.”
Rights groups in Guatemala echo these concerns and say the government is doing little to stem the trade.
“We have heard that girls aged 8 to 10 years are in demand for child pornography and organ trafficking,” said Leonel Dubon, who heads Childhood Refuge, a leading non-governmental organisation (NGO) for victims of child trafficking in Guatemala.
“You need sophisticated equipment to keep organs viable, which is not so easy to find in Guatemala. We believe the procedure of cutting out organs is done abroad, after children have been smuggled out of the country across the border. The children are left for dead,” Dubon said in a telephone interview from Guatemala City.
During the 1990s, Guatemala was a hotspot for illegal adoption, with many children ending up in the United States.
Following alleged thefts of babies and cases of falsified birth certificates and DNA test results, a new national adoption agency was created in 2007 and the Guatemalan government suspended international adoptions a year later.
“The agency has helped reduce the number of illegal adoptions,” Cardenas said. “But illegal adoption is still a problem. There are cases where third parties illegally register a child as theirs.”
LAW MAKES A DIFFERENCE
In addition, in 2010 a law known as the Alba-Keneth Alert System was set up, named after two children – Alba Espana and Keneth Lopez – who disappeared in 2007 and 2009 respectively and were later found dead. It aims to get police and judicial authorities to search for missing children within hours of a report.
Guatemala’s attorney general’s office deals with 15 reports of missing children on average every day.
From January to August this year, 4,311 children were reported missing in Guatemala, of which 847 have not returned home.
Still, the Alba-Keneth law is having an impact, rights group say.
“Parents now have a better idea about what they need to do to report a missing child,” said Nery Baten, a lawyer at the Survivors Foundation, a Guatemalan NGO that helps women and children who have been victims of violence and trafficking.
“The judicial, police and immigration authorities are now responding faster and in a more coordinated way.”
But despite such laws, the recent spate of infant snatching and the thousands of children reported missing each year shows that child trafficking in Guatemala continues to thrive.
“Major trafficking in children persists, disguised as international adoptions. At least 70 percent of international adoptions may be linked to crimes or serious irregularities,” said the CICIG 2010 report.
Illegal adoption is just one of the motives for child trafficking in Guatemala.
The country is a “source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour,” according to the U.S. government.
It is a lucrative business for criminal networks.
“The economic rewards involved in child trafficking are really big, comparable with arms and drugs. There’s a lot of money at stake and big profits to be made, which is a huge incentive for organised crime networks,” Baten told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Guatemala City.
Child traffickers prey on poor families in a country where around 60 percent of children live in poverty.
“Criminals know that parents who are poor will have less resources and money to search for their missing children,” Baten said.
Child trafficking in Guatemala is also fuelled by weak governance, high levels of impunity and widespread corruption, rights groups say.
“It’s not only the failure of the police but the immigration authorities too. Police are poorly paid in Guatemala, not much more than the minimum wage, which makes them easy targets to be corrupted by criminals,” Baten said.
Guatemala’s lax and porous borders – the country shares borders with Honduras, Belize, El Salvador and Mexico – also provide a fertile breeding ground for child trafficking.
“There’s still a lack of control in border areas needed to prevent child trafficking,” Cardenas added.
While some traffickers obtain false documents to show they are the parents of children being smuggled out of Guatemala and on to the U.S, other smugglers slip through Guatemala’s borders undetected or officials turn a blind eye, rights group say.
“Along the border, everything and anything goes,” Dubon said. “The levels of corruption among border police are so high that it’s difficult to stop. The authorities haven’t been able to break up trafficking rings.”