News/US: Secret Adoptions a Mexican Problem

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Subject: News/US: Secret Adoptions a Mexican Problem
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Tue Jul 27 1999 - 11:03:57 EDT

By Mark Stevenson
July 24, 1999

AGUA PRIETA, Mexico (AP) -- Many people in this dry border region took the
news of the child-smuggling ring as confirmation of old fears: that
Americans are stealing Mexican children and selling them for adoption in
``El Norte.''

The reality is more mundane, but no less troubling.

The 17 children in the case -- who were given false names, smuggled into
the United States and offered for adoption -- belong to an underclass of
thousands of youngsters in Mexico.

Their parents can't care for them, and yet few will be adopted legally
because of bureaucracy, a cultural stigma against adoption by Mexican
couples and wariness of adoptions by foreigners. Many children in
orphanages will be there until they're old enough to go out on their own.

The case came to light in May with the arrest of two New York women and a
Mexican lawyer who allegedly charged up to $22,000 a child for using
falsified papers to place Mexican children with U.S. couples.

Attorneys for lawyer Mario Reyes Burgueno, who had offices both in Agua
Prieta and just across the border in Arizona, say he believed he was
helping create a future for children whose mothers -- prostitutes or
desperately poor -- couldn't care for them.

He pleaded innocent in June to U.S. charges of alien smuggling, mail fraud
and wire fraud. The women pleaded guilty July 16 in New York to breaking
U.S. immigration laws.

Reyes' arrest revived deep-seated fears among Mexicans that children are
being kidnapped and sold north of the border. Such suspicions led to the
lynching of two Mexican men -- alleged kidnappers -- in southern Mexico
last year.

But as details emerge of the operation that Reyes was involved in, it
becomes increasingly clear the parents weren't unsuspecting, the children
weren't stolen or mistreated, and -- as one local official confirmed -- all
of the youngsters apparently went to good homes in the United States.

While Reyes' profits were excessive in some people's view, he apparently
was just working around an adoption system that has all but ceased to
function in Mexico.

One of the mothers who gave her child to Reyes was Araceli Mendez, a
teen-age single mother from Papantla in the state of Veracruz, 1,060 miles
southeast of Agua Prieta.

Mendez said she was directed to the lawyer's Mexico City offices by a
friend who spotted a newspaper ad offering to take children for adoption.

``I wasn't able to give my daughter the things I wanted her to have ...
like an education,'' Mendez said. ``I was pregnant and alone, and I was
afraid my mother would find out'' about the pregnancy.

For people like Mendez, the social pressure against unwed mothers was too
great, Mexico's legal adoption system was too daunting, and promises of a
better life for their kids from adoption middlemen are too attractive.

Many Mexican children, especially those with poor parents, lack birth
certificates, which are a requirement for any adoption. Custody proceedings
are lengthy and expensive.

Meanwhile, prospective parents are required to take lengthy tests and
classes and usually must hire a lawyer.

And then they face social condemnation if the children don't look like
them. So most Mexicans are interested only in ``children that physically
resemble them,'' said Laura Perez, spokeswoman for Mexico's national child
welfare agency.

To top off the problems, the process by which welfare agencies take formal
custody of children can take years. By the time the legal steps are
completed, children have almost always passed their fifth birthday, which
means Mexican couples don't want them, Perez said.

Enter the Americans. ``Foreigners are much more flexible,'' she said.
``They will take older children or ones who aren't perfect.''

But Mexico places even more legal restrictions on foreign adoptions, and
Perez admits Mexico ``gives preference to adoptions by Mexicans.''

Armando Zozoya, a lawyer representing a Mexican woman arrested in the
adoption ring case, blames that on a cultural factor: Mexico doesn't want
to have an image as an exporter of children.

``It's a misplaced sense of nationalism,'' he said. ``The authorities are
acting, without really saying it, (as though) they don't want children
adopted by foreigners.''

With looser rules, neighboring Guatemala, which has large numbers of street
children and a high poverty rate, has become the fourth-largest source of
children for U.S. adoptions, behind Russia, China and South Korea.

Whatever the reasons, successful legal adoptions by foreigners are a rarity
in Mexico. There were only 206 in 1998.

The same year, Mexican couples adopted 553 children through government
agencies and an unknown number through private agencies, which are allowed
to place children with Mexican couples.

That total was from a population of about 10,000 children living in
registered orphanages, and many times more in unregistered charity homes.
An additional 14,000 live on the streets of Mexican cities, according to a
recent study by Mexican and international child welfare agencies.

The government must approve all adoptions by foreigners, and sets high
standards for documentation. That's why many agencies in Mexico look for
pregnant women who will sign their children away at birth -- or, as Reyes
allegedly did, fake some of the paperwork.

Meanwhile, thousands of children are stuck in places like Casa Elizabeth, a
nonprofit, 55-bed orphanage on the dry plains of Sonora state 30 miles
south of Agua Prieta.

In its 13 years, Casa Elizabeth has placed exactly one child in adoption,
an infant boy who now lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., 320 miles to the north.

``When they come here, this is their home,'' said the orphanage's director,
Gaby Soto. ``We assume they'll stay here until they grow up or leave. We've
had kids go off to university after spending their childhood here.''

It's not an unpleasant place. There are separate wings for boys and girls,
with classrooms and a basketball court, open fields nearby and even a small
flower bed amid the dust.

``People sometimes come looking for kids to adopt. We tell them they have
to go to the federal child welfare agency,'' and they seldom return, Soto

Tere and Carmen, two lively, bright-eyed twin girls who have spent five of
their six years at Casa Elizabeth, may soon overcome the odds and be
adopted by an American couple. ``It looks good,'' Soto said of the
paperwork on the case.

Carmen clung to the leg of a departing journalist. ``Are you going to take
me with you?'' she asked hopefully. Tere also said she wanted to be adopted.

Given all the obstacles to adoptions, Reyes argues he was helping children
like Tere and Carmen.

Prosecutors say he was charging thousands of dollars for that help -- and
violating the law along the way.

They say he had doctors register the babies at birth under the names of
their adoptive parents, or of his employees. They allegedly applied for
false replacement birth certificates and visas for older children.

Mendez said she handed her baby, Estefani, over to Reyes' secretary, who
took the infant to Agua Prieta. There, Estefani was given to a woman who
says Reyes paid her to care for children while they were readied for adoption.

That woman is Margarita Soto, no relation to Gaby Soto, who now sits in a
federal prison in Nogales, 80 miles west of Agua Prieta, charged with child
trafficking and organized crime.

Margarita Soto, herself an adopted child, said she received $42 a week to
take care of six or seven children. She said Reyes sometimes asked her to
sign false registration forms on some children, ``because their mothers
couldn't come to do it.''

But she said she was unaware what she was doing was wrong. ``If I had known
that taking care of children was a crime, I wouldn't have done it,'' she said.

Mendez said she received no money for handing over Estefani days after she
was born in Mexico City last October. Now she wants her daughter back,
saying she can support her now, but Estefani is in limbo, too.

Without a valid birth certificate, Estefani is being held at a government
shelter pending blood tests to support Mendez's claim to her. Mendez saw
her only once -- when she sneaked into the shelter to catch a glimpse of
her daughter.

``I wanted to cry, but they told me not to because I would give myself
away,'' she said. ``The judge doesn't want me to have my daughter. The
people at the shelter call me a bad mother, because I gave away my child.''

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