Beyond  /  Book Review

Searching for Guatemala’s Stolen Children

Journalist Rachel Nolan investigates tens of thousands of forced adoptions and the U.S. policy that enabled them.

At first, international adoptions in Guatemala went through state-run orphanages; then, after a massive earthquake in 1976 spurred coverage of an “orphan crisis,” Guatemala became the only country in the world to privatize adoptions, meaning lawyers could find children and match them with a prospective family, for a fee, with no judicial oversight. “This created an unregulated market for children based on foreign demand, and a strong and growing profit motive in Guatemala,” Nolan writes. “Some countries export bananas,” one lawyer said. “We exported babies.” Another likened the children to avocados.

The private system did not just place children who were already in state care. Prospective families often stated preferences of age or race, noted in adoption files. Lawyers, well-heeled, politically connected, and non-Indigenous, worked with jaladoras, or baby-brokers, to obtain children through a variety of legal or illegal means, including kidnapping. The jaladoras, usually women, carried photo albums showing the unimaginable luxuries of adoptive families’ homes, and would sometimes approach pregnant women on the bus or in the street to try to convince them that their child would be better off abroad.

Nolan is highly sensitive to the fact that the process tends to obscure the birth mother’s intentions. Adoption files and social workers’ or lawyers’ recollections make assumptions based on class and race, and can’t be read as a true reflection of the mother’s feelings. “In the best case,” Nolan writes, “jaladoras offered a way out for women with unwanted pregnancies.” But most of the birth mothers were Indigenous Maya, did not speak Spanish, and signed their children over with a thumbprint because they couldn’t write. Many of them were domestic workers, and the pregnancies often resulted from rape. They were almost all desperately poor: One woman told a journalist she got $40 and bus fare from a jaladora. The adoptive parents paid $25,000 for the private adoption. What does consent mean, Nolan asks, “under conditions of grinding poverty?”

The woman in the files wasn’t always the real birth mother, given rampant fraud and falsification of documents. Informal arrangements where children were placed with relatives or neighbors for a while were common in Guatemala, and the birth mothers may not have understood that with an international adoption, they wouldn’t get their child back. Nolan finds countless examples where the coercion of a birth mother is fairly explicit, or where a parent’s objections to the adoption were simply overruled by the social worker. “Even if she is her mother, she hasn’t known how to be a mother or love her. Even today she asks for her back, but without showing that missing her little girl has her depressed,” one social worker wrote. Another file stated the mother “appeared very TEARFUL, VERY TORMENTED, ASHAMED, but she recognizes that her decision will FAVOR HER CHILDREN.”