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In Honduras, a Black Market for Babies

Honduran authorities assert that traffickers, including doctors, nurses, and lawyers, steal children for unwitting American couples

By Lisa SwenarskiSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 1993


`I ALWAYS said that if I had a child, I would never abandon him, even if I had to eat my nails to stay alive," says 17-year-old Juana Rodriguez, whose own mother abandoned her when she was in the first grade. "I wanted to be the mother to my son that my mother never was to me."

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But Juana was able to be that mother for only two days. On the third day after her son Francisco was born, when she went to nurse him in the infant ward of the public hospital, his crib was empty.

Francisco is one of hundreds of Honduran children who have been stolen or obtained in other illegal ways in order to "sell" them for adoption to couples from the United States, according to a Honduran congresswoman, military authorities, and a 200-page study by the Honduran Women's Studies Center.

The demand for adoptable children by couples from industrialized nations has soared at the same time that poverty has intensified in Honduras. The demand has spawned a tragic business involving greedy professionals, wealthy foreign couples willing to pay up to $30,000 for a child, and poor mothers who reluctantly give up their children hoping that adoptive parents can give them a better material life, according to Nora Miselem Rivera, one of the three authors of the study, "Adoption: The Trafficking of M inors in Honduras."

US families have adopted an average of 8,000 foreign children a year for the past five years. Almost 450 Honduran children were taken out of the country by American couples during 1990-1991, according to the US Embassy here. All of these were apparently legal adoptions with all their papers in order. In the case of stolen children, however, documents are falsified and false witnesses are used, according to Ms. Rivera.

"We can only enforce US law and adhere to Honduran government standards," says US Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Adair when asked if the embassy investigates adoption cases. "If something looks falsified, we report it to the Honduran government immediately."

Many of the adopted children are orphans or abandoned, and in some cases they have serious health problems; their lives are literally saved when a foreign couple adopts them. It is difficult to estimate how many adopted children are stolen or given up by their mothers after false promises from a lawyer or an intermediary. Some 800 Honduran children disappear each year just from Tegucigalpa, the capital, for a number of reasons. Some are runaways. But more than 15 cases of stolen children are reported eac h month.

"When the first cases were presented, we thought that this was something that with a few staff we could resolve, but now we realize that this is something in big proportions," says Lt. Col. Manuel de Jesus Luna, the head of the national intelligence agency. "We are worried that those involved are perfecting the process to the point where it will be considered a legal business and children are sold as if they were common goods."

NEWSPAPER headlines here have blared reports of bebetrafik since 1985, when the first "fattening house" was reported. These casas de engorde are private homes where children are kept until adoptive parents are found. Congresswoman Rosario Godoy estimates that there are 22 such houses in the capital alone. Ms. Godoy has been pressuring the government for several years to crack down on baby-trafficking, but the process has been slow because of the powerful people involved in the business. These include law yers, doctors, nurses, and government officials, according to Godoy and others.

In March 1992, the National Congress suspended adoptions until the accusations of baby-trafficking could be investigated. But "children are still being stolen, lawyers are still processing adoptions, and Honduran children are leaving from the airport," Rivera says.

Godoy, who is in the minority in Congress because of her sex, political party, and issue-oriented outspokenness, has recently led raids on several fattening houses. The front pages of local newspapers have printed dramatic photographs of police officers holding infants and other children found in the houses.