U.S. Adoptions Fueled by Guatemalan Kidnappings

Two years ago, Raquel Par boarded a bus in her hometown of Tecpan, Guatemala, with her baby daughter for the 90-minute ride to the country's capital.

When she arrived in Guatemala City, however, she was alone.

"I took a bus that left me at Bolivar Avenue, where I had to wait to catch another one. In the meantime, I met a woman that was also waiting for the bus and she began chatting with me and my little girl. After a few minutes, she began to talk about God, and I trusted her. She offered to buy me a drink, and when I accepted, she went to a nearby store. She came back a few minutes later with a soda in a plastic bag and I drank it. Soon, I started to feel dizzy," Par told ABCNEWS.com.

"When I regained consciousness, my little girl was gone."

Children are big business in Guatemala, where international adoption is estimated to be a $100 million industry, making orphans the country's second-most lucrative export after bananas.

With tens of thousands of dollars to be made on the sale of each child, and with little government regulation, a fertile black market has developed to sell children all over the world, especially the United States.

Children are routinely kidnapped and parents regularly coerced to sell their children, say government officials and human rights activists.

One in every 100 Guatemalan children is adopted by an American family, the highest per capita adoption rate in the world, and 95 percent of all Guatemalan children who are adopted go to the U.S. The U.S. State Department says approximately 29,400 Guatemalan children have been adopted by Americans since 1990, and local sources peg the average cost at $30,000 per child.

"The agencies deceive Americans looking to adopt. They guarantee them a healthy baby and then ask for money to help the mother, money for the lawyer, money for the bureaucracy. It can cost $50,000 for a couple to adopt. The main winners are the lawyers and the gangs that kidnap children. It's a real mafia," said Norma Cruz, director of the women's rights group Sobrevivientes (Survivors) Foundation, which has brought 15 members of kidnapping gangs to the police in the past six months.

American families adopted 4,728 Guatemalan children last year, according to the State Department, second only to the number of orphans coming from China.

Guatemalan Government Steps In

In January, the Guatemalan government implemented a new law and temporarily suspended adoptions following the high-profile raid of the Casa Quivira orphanage last August. In the raid, 46 children intended for American families were seized by Guatemalan government officials, and at least five women were found who had been issued false identities to obscure their true relationship to the children they delivered to the orphanage.

Neither the U.S. State Department nor Guatemalan officials would estimate the number of kidnapped children who end up adopted by American families, but Cruz estimates it could be as many as 50 percent of all U.S. adoptions of Guatemalan children.

Last week the Guatemalan government said it would investigate and put on hold each of the 2,286 pending international adoptions, of which nearly half are missing proper documents or include other irregularities, according to Associated Press interviews with the Guatemalan attorney general.

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