Every year, thousands of people from the United States visit the Central American nation of Guatemala, not just for tourism, but to adopt babies. Last year, more than 4,000 Guatemalan children were adopted by US citizens. But critics say the demand for young Guatemalan children has created an illicit market in which babies are bought and sold and, in some cases, even stolen from their birth mothers. VOA's Greg Flakus has more from Guatemala City.
In some Guatemala City hotels, there are special play rooms for babies and the parents who are staying there while finalizing the adoption process. Acquiring a baby here usually costs around $30,000, although the US embassy has evidence of local lawyers milking adopting parents for as much as $70,000. Since the adoption process in Guatemala is so lacking in controls, stories of abuse are abundant.
But most couples coming here from the United States say they have had few problems. They see themselves as fortunate, in that they can easily adopt a baby here, and as altruistic, in that they believe they are rescuing these children from what would be a life of poverty.
Scott and Theresa Ellinger came here from Ohio to pick up the little girl they have named Enya, after the Irish singer. They carried out most of the adoption procedure through an agency in the United States and only came here for a short stay to finalize the adoption and obtain the U.S. visa needed to bring the baby back.
Scott Ellinger says he has no doubt they are doing something good for this child.
"We are helping to take her to a better country and give her a better life," he said.
But not all babies put up for adoption come from dire poverty and human rights groups argue that foreigners wishing to adopt tend to ignore some of the children in most need of adoption, mostly older children who have been abused or neglected. Most people coming here to adopt want a baby who will grow up knowing only with its adoptive parents.
The high demand for babies has produced a dark side to the adoption scene in Guatemala. One person who has seen that side is Marisol Lopez Donillas, a 20-year- old unwed mother, who says she almost lost her child, Jesus, to unscrupulous baby traffickers.
She says when she was alone and pregnant, a woman approached her offering 17,000 Quetzales, about $2,200, for her baby. But she later relented and sought help at Casa Alianza, a human rights organization that has been complaining about abuses in Guatemala's adoption system for over a decade.
Marisol says foreigners coming here to adopt should reconsider. She says this is not a game, that a baby is born to its mother and someone else should not come and take it away as if it were an animal.
In the colonial city of Antigua, authorities recently intervened at a nursery with 46 children, and put them under government care. Supporters of the adoption system say that, in most cases, mothers give up their babies voluntarily, but human rights groups say there are many cases of baby-selling and even kidnapping.
Child snatching stories are rampant in Guatemala's indigenous Mayan communities. The fear is so widespread that there have been cases of rural people attacking tourists who take photos of children or who attempt to talk to children.
In spite of all the stories of black market babies and kidnappings, people coming here to adopt believe they are doing the right thing. Theresa Ellinger says she is certain the agency she worked with is not involved in any corrupt activity.
"Yes, there may be cases where that happens, but when you work with an accredited, licensed, reputable agency in the United States, that is just not something you worry about," she said.
One reason the Ellingers are confident is that the United States now requires DNA testing of each child as part of the visa approval process.
At the U.S. embassy, Consul General John Lowell says those tests have helped prevent baby switching and other schemes, but people seeking to adopt still need to be careful. "Because this is a system with no regulation, no oversight whatsoever, when things go wrong, there is really nothing in place to help," he said.
But things may be about to change, as both Guatemala and the United States plan to commit to the Hague Convention, an international agreement that sets standards for adoption programs. Lowell says U.S. compliance with the convention, sometime early next year, will put pressure on Guatemala to reform.
"If Guatemala does not ratify and implement the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption, we will be forced to end adoptions from Guatemala," he said.
Some of the people seeking babies here in Guatemala say they came here partly because of its relative proximity to the United States. A flight from Houston or Miami is less than three hours. But, they say, if they were wanting to adopt another child and Guatemala were no longer an option, they would travel much farther away, to Russia or China, where similar conditions exist for adopting babies and very young children.