`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."
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.
The public, which sees baby-trafficking as one more offense by the upper class against the poor, has demanded the return of stolen children and has attacked people accused of trafficking children as the suspects were on their way to court. After Godoy received death threats for bringing the issue to public notice, she received a call from a man who said, "If anyone touches you, the children of lawyers involved in child-trafficking will start to disappear."
Children are illegally obtained in a number of ways. A kidnapper may snatch an infant from its mother's arms in public, sometimes as an accomplice distracts her. Several newborns have been stolen from public hospitals. In some cases, a young woman "rents her womb," selling the unborn child to a lawyer who promises delivery expenses.
In other cases, an intermediary persuades a poor mother to give up her children with promises of trips to the United States to visit them. Even without such promises, some mothers, desiring the best for their children, give them up with the hope that they will have a better life with foreign couples who have more financial resources.
With the publicity regarding baby trafficking, however, many mothers regret handing over their children and go in search of them. Rather than locating them in government-regulated orphanages, they find them neglected in poor or working-class fattening houses, or they never find them at all.
"I thought it was logical to give up my children for adoption because I am poor," says Bessy Dalis Donaire, 29, who gave up one child and almost gave up three others before she decided to recover the first. "I imagined them in good conditions, as I was promised. I couldn't give anything to my children, not even schooling, and I wanted something better for them."
If the reports of baby-trafficking are true, Honduras is in violation of the International Rights of the Child Convention. The treaty commits signatories to ensure that children are not separated from their parents involuntarily and requires that adoption proceedings be done in the interests of the child.
Recognizing the problem on a regional level, Central Americans have proposed a resolution to be presented to the United Nations that would, among other things, allow for the transfer of an adopted baby from one country to its country of origin if the adoption is proved illegal.
THE question for American couples is, what can they do to be sure that the children they are adopting were given up by the parents voluntarily?
Godoy says that American couples can judge the legitimacy of an adoption by the lawyer's fee. If the lawyer handling the adoption charges more than $2,000, the couple should beware, she says.
Rivera says that couples also can find out which lawyers are involved in baby-trafficking by consulting adoption agencies and the Human Rights Committee of Honduras.
"An adoptive couple must be prepared that the child they adopt may be emotionally traumatized and that some day they may realize that the child was stolen," Rivera adds.
Rivera is not necessarily against foreigners adopting Honduran children, but she says: "By promoting adoptions by foreigners, the government is saving itself from its responsibility to protect those children and saving itself from resolving some very serious social problems in our country."
Juana Rodriguez's son was stolen May 9, 1992. Affectionately holding the child whom she babysits in exchange for room and board, she says, "Francisco was born a week earlier and weighed more, so he should be just a little bit bigger by now. Also, he was light-skinned and had lots of straight black hair."
"When I found out that Francisco was gone, my head started pounding, my knees went weak, and I laughed and cried from nervousness," she recalls. "Then when I went to complain to the director of the hospital, he tried to calm me down by saying, `Don't worry, you're young. You can have another.' "