News: Baby Smugglers Made False Promises to Poor Mexican Mothers

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Subject: News: Baby Smugglers Made False Promises to Poor Mexican Mothers
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Wed Jun 02 1999 - 08:03:33 EDT

 June 2, 1999, NY Times

                           Baby Smugglers Made False Promises to Poor
                           Mexican Mothers

                           By GINGER THOMPSON

                                                GUA PRIETA, Mexico -- When
Martina Toscano Quiroz gave three
                                                of her seven children up
for adoption, her main goal, she said, was
                                                to give them a chance for a
better life.

                           She is a single mother who earns less than $40 a
week as a cleaning woman in
                           this dusty town on the Arizona-Mexico border.
Her home is a fly-infested shack
                           with dirt floors and walls patched together from
scraps of wood.

                           But, she acknowledged, her decisions were not
entirely noble. The lawyer who
                           took her children to live with middle-class
families in New York made
                           promises so enormous, she said, that it was as
if he had offered her the stars.

                           "He told me he would build me two rooms with new
tin for the roof and
                           strong brick walls," she said. "And he told me
he would build me a bathroom
                           with a toilet and a faucet."

                           Ms. Toscano, 30, never got her new house. She
said the lawyer, Mario Manuel
                           Reyes Burgueño, took her daughters -- ages 8, 4
and 2 -- and then told her he
                           could only give her a few hundred pesos for food.

                           Last week, Reyes and two women on Long Island
were charged with running a
                           cross-border baby-smuggling ring that sold Ms.
Toscano's children and at least
                           14 others to couples in New York for as much as
$22,000 each. The two women,
                           Arlene Lieberman and Arlene Reingold, have
declined to comment, while
                           lawyers and friends of Reyes have suggested that
he was trying to help poor
                           women and their children.

                           In the wake of the arrests, some of the adoptive
parents say they were the
                           unwitting victims of a scheme that lured them
into expensive and illegal
                           agreements and that took advantage of their
desperation to have children.

                           But in this isolated patch of the United States'
border with Mexico, worlds away
                           from the comfortable homes of Long Island, the
view of these adoption
                           agreements is even more complicated and tragic.
Social workers here say they
                           counsel dozens of mothers like Ms. Toscano, who
are in such dire economic
                           and social distress that they broker their
children for money or shelter.

                           Several lawyers around the area, social workers
said, have made offers to buy
                           children from poor mothers. But, the social
workers said, the lawyers usually
                           renege on their part of the deals once the
children have been delivered to
                           families in the United States.

                           "I have had attorneys come here and offer me
$100 for every child I give to
                           them for adoptions," said Eunicia Soto, who runs
an independent orphanage
                           called Rancho Feliz at the eastern edge of Agua
Prieta. "I tell them my children
                           are not tomatoes for sale, and that I never want
to see them on my property

                           But such defiance can only go so far, and
Government officials say that there is
                           so much smuggling of drugs and humans across
this border -- a wide-open
                           space divided, for the most part, by barbed-wire
fencing -- that they cannot stop
                           the trade.

                           Smuggling has long been a pillar of the economy
and culture of Agua Prieta,
                           with a population of 130,000, and Douglas, its
much-smaller sister city in

                           Ten years ago, border patrol agents discovered a
high-tech tunnel, 30 feet
                           beneath the desert floor, that had electric
lighting, concrete reinforcement and
                           hydraulic lifts and had been used to transport
tons of cocaine into the United

                           And in recent years, as the United States
Immigration and Naturalization
                           Service has intensified its patrols in El Paso
to the east and San Diego to the
                           west, a stream of illegal immigrants from Mexico
has been funneled through
                           Douglas into the United States.

                           Officials said that as many as 1,000 illegal
immigrants are apprehended around
                           Douglas each day, more than at any other I.N.S.
station along the 1,900-mile
                           border between the two countries.

                           "This is a real illegal universe," said Keoki
Skinner, a former journalist who
                           runs juice bars on both sides of the border.
"There's so much illegal activity
                           that goes on here that a lot of people seemed
numb to it. But the idea that
                           babies are part of the illegal traffic has
really shocked a lot of people."

                           "It's like, things have gotten really bad if
women are offering to sell their
                           babies," he said.

                           For Martina Toscano, life was beyond bad. Short
and pudgy and with a worn,
                           tan face that makes her look much older than her
age, Ms. Toscano said she
                           moved to Agua Prieta 15 years ago from a small
village some 100 miles away.
                           There was no work in her village, she said, so
she and her brother moved to
                           the border to work in the factories known as
maquiladoras, which are owned
                           by companies in the United States. Within two
months of moving here, she
                           said, she was pregnant with her first child.

                           "I wanted a husband and a family," she said. "I
met a man who offered to
                           marry me and take care of me, so I gave myself
to him."

                           But after the baby was born, the child's father
abandoned Ms. Toscano, and her
                           mother moved to town to help her take care of
the child. But two years later,
                           came another man with promises, and another baby
was born. Then another
                           man and another.

                           After her sixth child was born, Ms. Toscano
said, she met a woman who offered
                           to help place some of the children for adoption
in the United States. Ms.
                           Toscano said she refused. But on the next day, a
tall, broad man knocked on her

                           It was the first time she had met Mario Reyes,
she said. His words, she said, hit
                           her like stones.

                           "He told me, 'Look at how you live,' " she
recalled. "He told me that my
                           children could have better lives in the United
States. He promised that he
                           would find them nice families who would love
them and send them to

                           She said she yelled at Reyes, telling him that
he had no right to judge the way
                           she lived; that she did the best she could to
provide for her children and that
                           they were comfortable in their lopsided shack.

                           "Then he told me that if I gave him my children,
he would help me to live
                           better," she said. "He told me he would build me
two rooms."

                           Reyes took two of Ms. Toscano's children:
8-year-old Flor Azucena and
                           4-year-old Zoitza. He promised that the two
girls would be placed together in
                           the same home, she said, and that their adoptive
parents would send
                           photographs and updates on how the girls were

                           But the girls were separated almost immediately,
she said. Flor Azucena went
                           to the home of John and Rosalie Liberto in
Miller Place, on Long Island.
                           Zoitza's whereabouts remain unknown.

                           A year later, she said, Reyes sent Ms. Toscano's
2-year-old daughter, Gabriela, to
                           live with the Libertos.

                           Mrs. Liberto said in an interview that she and
her husband paid Reyes, Ms.
                           Lieberman and Ms. Reingold more than $50,000, in
what they thought were
                           adoption fees, for Gabriela and Flor Azucena,
whom they called Nicole.

                           "With that money I could have built a mansion
and 10 bathrooms," Ms.
                           Toscano scowled. "But I am still here, living in

                           A year ago, Flor Azucena's American parents
agreed to send her back to Agua
                           Prieta because she missed her mother so badly.

                           Mrs. Liberto cried when she was asked why she
agreed to let Flor Azucena go.
                           The decision, she said, arose from memories of
growing up poor and being sent
                           every year to a summer camp in Pennsylvania.

                           It was the most beautiful place she had ever
seen, Mrs. Liberto said. But after a
                           few days, she recalled, she was crying and
pleading to go home. "A family bond
                           is something you cannot break," she said.

                           "I knew I had to send her to her mother," she
said of Flor Azucena. "After she
                           left, you would have thought there was a death
in the family. It was one of the
                           only times I ever saw my husband cry."

                           Flor Azucena, sitting on the dank double bed she
shares with two of her
                           siblings in Agua Prieta, described her Long
Island parents as kind and loving.
                           But, she said, "I wanted to be with my mother."

                           Showing a visitor pictures, she recalled her
time in the United States.

                           "That is my bedroom," she said, pointing to a
photograph of her sitting on a
                           bed with a fluffy, flowered comforter.

                           "That is me at my aunt's baby shower," she said,
looking at a picture of herself
                           wearing a silvery velvet dress, with a shiny
headband in her hair.

                           "That's my best friend," she said, showing a
photo of herself standing in a tight
                           embrace with a freckle-faced red-headed girl.

                           "That's my mom and dad," she said, stopping the
show for a moment to gaze
                           at a picture of and Mrs. Liberto.

                           Soon to turn 11, Flor Azucena looks almost
nothing like the soft, confident girl
                           in the photos. Her complexion is uneven, her
hair tangled and as she speaks,
                           she stares down.

                           She does not go to school here, she says,
because of fights she has had with
                           other children.

                           So while her mother is at work, she spends her
days watching programs on an
                           old television set and playing on the field of
dust outside her house with her
                           three siblings: 12-year-old Aurelia, who also
does not go to school, 4-year-old
                           Edgar and 1-year-old Ameirani. A 15-year-old
brother lives with Ms. Toscano's
                           mother elsewhere in the city.

                           The family's plight is not uncommon, said Ms.
Soto, of Rancho Feliz. She
                           organizes child-care workshops for single women
in town who do not earn
                           enough money to support their children. Some of
the women, she said, turn to

                           In the most desperate cases, she said, mothers
give up their children for money
                           or other things. One of her clients, she said,
had given away her baby so that
                           she could get electricity installed in her home.

                           "These kinds of things are not common, but they
do happen," Ms. Soto said.
                           "When I work with these mothers, my main message
to them is that they do
                           not have to give their children away in order to
survive. They can make it, if
                           they try. And I tell them that I will help them."

                           That message kept Guadalupe Serrano's family
together. Ms. Serrano, 34, a
                           mother of four, said she was a recovering drug
addict who used to support her
                           habit with prostitution. Two years ago, she
said, she was approached by a
                           lawyer who offered her $10,000 for her toddler.
Ms. Serrano refused to name
                           the lawyer, but she said it was not Reyes.

                           "He told me that she would have a good life and
that people in the United
                           States wanted children so much that they are
willing to pay a lot of money,"
                           Ms. Serrano recalled.

                           Tuesday, Ms. Serrano works at Rancho Feliz and
raises her children in a cottage
                           there. Speaking about her daughter, Olivia, who
is now 4, she said, "I would
                           have given her away." But Ms. Soto would not let
her: "She made me feel
                           ashamed for thinking about it," she said.

                           Ms. Toscano, however, has no regrets about
sending her children to the United
                           States and is happy that Gabriela is in a
beautiful home where she is loved.
                           Although she would like to know what happened to
Zoitza, she regularly gets
                           pictures from the Libertos of Gabriela.

                           "The life they have there is better than what
they could have here," she said.

                           Flor Azucena, staring at the ground, nodded in

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