Child Abductions: Mexico's Hidden Problem

The government keeps no formal figures, but advocates claim officials downplay the frequency of illegal adoption, kidnapping

IT was a cold spring morning in 1986 when five-year-old Sonia Patricia Pinto Guillen was abducted. As Sonia's mother, Maria Consuelo, fixed breakfast, she could hear her three daughters playing down in the courtyard of the working class apartment complex. Seven-year-old Letecia suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway: ``Mama, a man is going to buy us new dolls.''

Seized with panic, Mrs. Guillen raced to the courtyard. Sonia was gone. For eight years, her wooden chair at the dining-room table sat empty.

But last month, a mother's prayers were answered. Sonia, a teenager now, was found in Guatemala and reunited with her family in Mexico City. ``I never lost hope. I knew she was alive somewhere, so I asked God to take care of her,'' Mrs. Guillen says, wiping away joyous tears.

In contrast to the March 14 kidnapping of Mexican billionaire Alfredo Harp Hel released Tuesday night - which was portrayed as a national calamity with serious political overtones, the disappearance of children seldom reaches a high level of attention.

Child abductions are a problem in Mexico, but how serious a problem is open to dispute. ``Kidnapping children for extortion is relatively uncommon,'' says Morton Palmer of Palmer Associates, a Mexico City-based security firm. ``There were about 10 cases in 1993 ... but kidnapping for illegal adoptions or forced prostitution, especially in the lower socioeconomic classes, is probably more common. I see in the news media about one case a month - which means there's probably many more,'' he says.

No official figures are kept, but private organizations estimate anywhere from 500 to 20,000 children are kidnapped each year.

Mexican government officials say that by far the majority of so-called abductions are simply runaways or children inadvertently lost by unattentive parents. Some children willingly live in the streets or city shelters rather than return home, officials say privately.

``Cases of stolen children are rare. We don't handle many. There was a time about four or five years ago, when we handled more,'' says Jesus Gonzalez Real, the Mexico City Attorney General's chief of investigations. ``When we do have them, we take them very seriously.''

A different view

Parents of missing children claim the police do little or nothing. Sensational articles and the new book ``Spare Parts Children: The Traffic of Minors and Organ Commerce'' by Jose Manuel Martin Medem, a Spanish journalist, reinforce their fears.

On two different occasions in Guatemala in March, American women were brutally attacked by hysterical residents who mistakenly believed the two had kidnapped Guatemalan children. Guatemalan television broadcast interviews of townspeople who claimed to have seen bodies of children with organs missing. No officials or reporters were able to find evidence of the accusations. On May 1, the Guatemalan Congress passed a bill calling for the death penalty for child kidnappers.

``We've investigated this controversy of organ selling over and over again. There's always the possibility something like that could happen,'' says Gil Abeyta, president of Families of Missing Children International, based in Denver, Colorado ``But until I see the evidence, it's merely propaganda which puts more fear in parents that have lost a child,''

In the United States, Mr. Abeyta says, 90 percent of the kidnappings are by parents. In Mexico, only half are by family. The other half, he estimates, are profit motivated. ``A large portion of the abductions in Mexico ... involve selling or illegal adoptions. It used to be that Americans went to Korea or Romania. Now this activity is concentrated in South America.''

Convictions for trafficking

People have been convicted of trafficking in children in a number of cases in Mexico in the last three years. Abeyta's organization, the only US group with links to similar Mexican groups, has recovered 18 Mexican children in the US. It has recovered 42 American children in Mexico. Next month, Abeyta plans to open an office in Guatemala. He also has offices in El Paso and San Diego.

Besides illegal adoption, the other motives for child kidnapping are exploitation, ransom, and revenge. ``It's all based on greed,'' he notes.

Last year, Guadalupe Armenta de Lopez found her 10-year-old grandaughter selling hats in a market in Puebla, about 75 miles east of Mexico City.

In October 1990, when Carolina was abducted, Mrs. Armenta turned first to the police. What she encountered was apathy and inexperience. A month later, with the help of Abeyta in Colorado, she formed the American Foundation of Families of Lost Children in Mexico City.

``We don't have any money, but we have a lot of desire,'' she says.

When a call comes in, often an anonymous tip offering information to the whereabouts of a child, Mexican parents don't often call the police. They check out the information themselves.

``The official government line is: `There are no stolen children,' '' says Lourdes Carrizales, director of the Luis Donaldo Colosio Foundation, an organization of mothers dedicated to looking for lost children. Her six-year-old daughter Dianita disappeared in 1991 on her way to buy tortillas about 100 yards from her home. Mrs. Carrizales says the police told her she was lying. ``They told us Dianita was taken because we had debts or enemies. Then, they said it must be my husband's lover,'' she says. ``They told me I would be sent to jail for lying. A stolen car gets a better response than a stolen child.''

Inaction on the part of Mexican authorities is not universal, mothers interviewed say. There are individuals who have made a difference. For example, Carrizales praises the former Mexico City Attorney General Diego Valades. He set up Mexico's first investigation units specializing in stolen children in 1992.

``It worked great while he was there,'' she says. ``Now that he's gone, nobody listens to us. Calls aren't returned. They never track down leads. None of the 20 children we've found have been with government help.''

``You have to become a detective,'' says Hilda Vasquez Arraiga, whose seven-year-old son Olaf Gustavo dissapeared last August while riding his bike. ``All we get from the police is excuses.''

But Gonzalez Real, the current chief of investigations in the Mexico City Attorney General's office, says he plans to form two more investigative units. ``This is a very important issue for us.''

Mexican police also have captured people trying to embezzle money from the parents. Every mother has a story about crooks who see a missing-child poster and then call to prey on their misfortune.

About a year ago, Rosalia Diaz de Rosa received two or three calls a day from a man saying he knew who had her baby. Ahitob Gerrardo was three months old in 1992 when he was stolen from his crib. Rosalia saw the unknown man jump into a red Volkswagon van. The caller demanded 10,000 pesos (about $3,000) for delivery of the child. Mrs. Diaz called the police. The caller was captured by police at the delivery site, but Diaz's son was not found.

Mothers working in the missing children groups in Mexico offer several suggestions for combating the overall problem.

Carrizales would like to see child theft become a federal crime. This would force state and federal agencies to coordinate better and dedicate more resources to the problem. It is also suggested that it would be useful to have a computer database of missing children accessible to police nationwide. Police officials agree, but point out that government funds are scarce.

The greatest aid in recovering lost children, these mothers say, is publicity. In Sonia's case, the appearance of her photo on the Miami-based Spanish television talk show ``Maria Laria'' in April, led to her freedom.

Sonia was taken to Guatemala by a man who wanted a child and a house servant. ``He bought me new clothes, dolls, and dishes. He didn't hurt me except when he got mad once and burned me,'' Sonia says, speaking barely above a whisper.

She couldn't remember the faces of her real family. But she knew her last name was different. One day, a friend of a friend of her captor became aware of her situation, and went to the Mexican Embassy. The Embassy officials rejected her story as a ploy to emigrate illegally. But when her photo appeared on television in Guatemala, her secret was out. A month later, cheering neighbors filled the parking lot of the apartment complex in Mexico City when she arrived home.

Happy as she is to be reunited with her sisters, it hasn't been an easy journey back home for Sonia. She grew up Guatemalan. ``She has a different vocabulary,'' says her mother, Maria, who has been introducing her daughter to Mexican cooking.

Out of earshot of her mother, Sonia admits with a shy smile: ``Sometimes I have a hankering for pipian,'' a traditional Guatemalan chicken dish with a chocolate spice sauce.

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