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.
The government's new focus on pending international adoptions offers little solace to Par. Human rights investigators believe her daughter was adopted by an American family more than a year ago.
Last week, Par and three other mothers of kidnapped children began a hunger strike outside the presidential palace.
Daughter Tracked by Investigators
For days after Par's daughter, Heidy — then 1 year old — went missing, Par visited every police station she could to file a report. Three months later, with pressure from the Sobrevivientes Foundation, police found the kidnapper. Soon after, they believe they found documents that confirm the girl, who turned 3 on May 1, was adopted by an American couple.
Six months ago, Sobrevivientes investigators and a team from the Guatemalan national police department found a passport and adoption documents, issued by the Migration Department, to a girl Heidy's age under a different name.
Investigators recognized the girl in the passport photo. It was Heidy.
The foundation would not reveal the name or location of the American family that they believe adopted Heidy, because the investigation remains active. The Guatemalan government is overseeing the investigation, and Par has given a DNA sample in an effort to confirm her maternity.
Cruz said the case could soon be closed and Par reunited with her daughter. The American couple, like many who adopt from Guatemala, likely believed they were dealing with a reputable agency and had no idea the baby had been kidnapped, according to Cruz.
International Adoptions Dip
On the whole, international adoptions by American parents have been slowly declining over the past four years. There were 23,000 babies adopted from foreign countries in 2004, and just 19,613 in 2007, according to the State Department.
Adoption rates have fallen as traditional source countries, like Cambodia, have banned international adoptions outright, and others, like South Korea, have encouraged domestic adoptions.
But the opposite is true of U.S.-Guatemala adoptions.
With fewer options available to them, Americans have, in the same period, increasingly turned to Guatemala. Orphan visas issued to Guatemalan children rose from 3,262 in 2004 to 4,728 in 2007.
In Guatemala, a national industry has developed around adoption, with specialty lawyers offering their services, and hotels catering to the thousands of American couples who visit for the sole purpose of finding a child.
As a result, the measures kidnappers have taken to get a piece of the action have become increasingly brazen.
'There Was Nothing I Could Do'
"My daughter, Angely Lisset Hernandez Rodriguez, was kidnapped as I was entering my home," said Loida Rodriguez, one of the mothers on hunger strike outside the offices of Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom. "A woman appeared in my backyard and grabbed her out of my arms. There was nothing I could do."
Rodriguez's daughter was taken from her a year ago and would be 3 years old now.
She said police were indifferent to her case and offered virtually no help in finding the kidnappers.
Rodriguez still does not know the fate of her daughter or if she ended up in an orphanage.
Incidents of kidnapping, government officials hope, will decline, now that the country is implementing the Hague Convention on Adoption, an international treaty that sets guidelines for adoptions. Guatemala also passed its own adoption law in January.
"Under the law, adoptions are not supposed to produce a profit for anybody," said Nidia Anguilar Del Cid, an official in the office of the government's human rights ombudsman.
"The money for an adoption is only supposed to go toward legal costs and bureaucratic paperwork, which doesn't cost anywhere near the $50,000 some lawyers have charged."
For the past 28 years, private lawyers have handled the adoptions, but when the ban is lifted sometime next year, the government will play an increased role in ensuring children are properly vetted.
Much like Guatemala, the U.S. only recently ratified the Hague Adoption Convention, despite being a longtime signatory. As a result, Americans will only be permitted to adopt through agencies accredited by a national organization and registered with the State Department. Prior to the U.S. implementing the treaty early this year, there was no national organization which vetted or tracked the agencies, which find Guatemalan orphans for American families.
"The Council on Accreditation has been designated by the Department of State to be the sole national accrediting body for agencies in the U.S. involved with children from countries that are also signatories to Hague. To date, we have accredited 195 adoption service providers and 64 providers are still in the process," said Richard Klarberg, president of the council.
"Before [the council] began accrediting agencies there was no way to know if an agency was legit," he said. Agencies that pair parents with children from countries that have yet to join the convention still do not need accreditation, which means, according to Klarberg, "children from one country are more closely vetted than those from non-signatory countries. There's a double standard."
Despite greater government intervention, for American families looking to adopt and the agencies that represent them, the first line of defense to ensure children have not been kidnapped, are the local orphanages.
Mirna Velazquez is director of the Children's Home, an orphanage that was established in Guatemala City 32 years ago, and which, she says, carefully vets all the children who are brought to its gates.
"We guarantee the origins of all the children we put up for adoption. We will not accept a child bought directly from a mother or relative, but only those placed here by the courts," she said.
Adoptions can go forward legally and in the best interests of the birth mother, child and adoptive parents, said Cruz. But not without cracking down on the black market.
"The dark side of these adoptions is the fact that, a noble process intended to help children and allow couples to achieve their dream, has been denigrated and transformed into a market where children are treated like merchandise and gangsters are made into millionaires. We cannot continue to export our babies like fruits and animals or any other product. This is shameful."