Beyond  /  Book Excerpt

Guatemala’s Baby Brokers: How Thousands of Children Were Stolen For Adoption

Baby brokers often tricked Indigenous Mayan women into giving up newborns; kidnappers took others. International adoption is now seen as a cover for war crimes.

Preat is one of an estimated 40,000 Guatemalan international adoptees who now live in the United States, Canada and Europe. The first wave of adoptions took place from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Sweden and Canada were popular early destinations. These were soon joined by other European countries including France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.

The second wave, which began in the 1980s, sent adoptees to the US. Some Guatemalan adoptees came from orphanages, but many were placed through private adoptions. Agencies in Europe and the US contracted directly with lawyers in Guatemala to find children, match them to families and do all the paperwork without judicial oversight.

This system was expensive: total adoption costs began at the equivalent of $3,500 per child when adoption was first privatised in 1977 and shot up to $45,000 in later years. Despite the cost, private adoptions were more popular than those from orphanages because they were faster and adoptive parents could select the kinds of children they wanted rather than rely on the “supply” of usually older children in orphanages. Jaladoras often had a mandate to find the youngest children possible, or ideally contact pregnant women to sign up babies before birth.

By the mid-2000s, Guatemala had overtaken other “sender” countries, including South Korea and Russia, until it was second only to China for the number of children adopted abroad – in absolute numbers, not adjusted for population. It was also the only country in the world to allow fully privatised adoptions from 1977 to 2008. At the height of the adoption boom, one in 100 children born in Guatemala was placed for adoption with a family abroad. “Some countries export bananas,” one lawyer who arranged private adoptions told the Economist in 2016. “We exported babies.”

Guatemala is often cited as the worst-case scenario for what can go wrong when adoptions are commercialised and children are sent from poorer countries to wealthier ones. Outright kidnappings like Preat’s were rare, but other abuses were common. Some were technically legal: women pressured to give up babies or to sign documents they could not understand, or they were approached when pregnant about whether they wished to relinquish a child. There are also many documented cases of women being paid a small sum for their children – which was illegal. Despite plentiful evidence as early as the 1980s of corruption and abuses within the industry, international adoption did not become illegal in Guatemala until 2008.