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Mexico Adoption Bust Reveals Vast Child Trafficking Ring

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A child trafficking ring uncovered by Mexican police in mid-January in Guadalajara, Jalisco, has not only operated since the 1980's, a decade earlier than previously reported, but has also provided hundreds of children to adoptive families in other countries. The story began unraveling on January 9, 2012, after 21-year-old Laura Talamantes Fabiola Carranza was detained by police in Guadalajara. She was accused of allegedly trying to sell her two-year-old son.

This led to the arrest of nine other people who were said to be participating in the same baby trafficking ring. Associated Press writer Olga Rodríguez followed the story closely, reporting on how seven of the children's mothers said they believed they had been allowing their children to be photographed for anti-abortion advertising campaigns. Some of the babies had no birth certificates, Rodríguez reported, and at least one of the mothers was functionally illiterate. Other news reports allege that some birth mothers were paid $188 per week to carry their pregancies to term and then relinquish their children for adoption.

After these particular children had been fraudulently separated from their mothers, they were subsequently offered as adoptable orphans to Irish families. The Irish Times, the Irish Examiner and other publications covered the story extensively, noting that 18 cases of Mexican-Irish adoption are currently under investigation, and that approximately sixty Mexican children have been adopted to Ireland since 2004. Lawyer Carlos Montoya, speaking on behalf of the Irish families ensnared in the scandal, told the Examiner that there were no suspicions of wrongdoing on the part of the adoptive families.

Guadalajara-based attorney Carlos López Valenzuela is one of the people allegedly at the center of the operation. His law firm, López & López Associates, was operated by both López and his son, reported by the Mexican press to be a former state prosecutor. The firm, according to posts signed by Lopez on internet adoption websites and message boards, was "exclusively devoted" to private Mexican adoptions and boasted of "an outstanding track record in delivering healthy children." One of his posts, dated August 2001, claims he "handled over 260 adoptions for Couples of New York area during the past 21 years [sic]," or since 1981.

A History of Child-Buying and Trafficking Allegations

This is not the first time López has been involved in an adoption scandal. In 2003, Lesley Stahl and the CBS TV news magazine 48 Hours produced a story called "Twist of Fate," which followed two Mexican sisters who had been adopted to different American families. The adoption had been arranged by Carlos López. The girls' birth mother claimed she had been "forced to give them up for adoption," alleging that López had refused to return her daughters after she changed her mind. Additionally, she said, records for her daughters had been manufactured. López said he'd done nothing wrong.

In 1990, Belen Zapata of CNN Mexico recently reported, López and three other women were detained on charges of human trafficking stemming from attempts to purchase as-yet unborn children from pregnant women at the Hospital Civil de Guadalajara. At the time, López told authorities he was a representative of the Association of Adoptive Parents of New York.

Indeed, the affiliation between López and American adoptive parents has a long history. As a founding member of the Yahoo email list "Friends and Families of Mexico," a list with a publicly accessible archives dating back to 1999, López posted to a group of almost 200 people with adoption advice, poems about orphans, and business solicitations. His firm was sometimes also referred to as "López Castellanos Asociados." After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, an associate of Lopez posted to the list, asking adoptive parents to email photos to him so that fifty worried Mexican birth mothers would know that their children were all right. The post said that López has been working adoptions for "25 years," which would mean since the mid-1970's.

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Screenshot of Carlos López's now-defunct website www.adoptingmexico.com

American Connections

The Guadalajara-based newspaper Reforma/MURAL reported that an American adoption agency in Colorado was also involved with Mexican-Irish adoptions currently beng inevstigated. Without naming the agency, attorney Carlos Montoya said that it had branches in both Tijuana and Guadalajara, and often worked with López.

The only American business approved by the Mexican government to work adoptions from the state of Jalisco is the California-based Across the World Adoptions. Lesley Sigel, executive director of Across the World, says that they've never completed an adoption for a child from Jalisco. The US Department of State statistics show that just twenty-two Mexican children were adopted by Americans in 2011, a decline of 50 percent from 2010.

No "private" adoptions are supposed to take place from Mexico, which, along with the United States and Ireland, has ratified the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, a treaty that outlines good practices and child welfare protection during international adoption processes. The Mexican government has repeatedly stated that the only way to adopt Mexican children is through a public, state-regulated system.

The federal authority that oversees adoptions, Mexico's Consejo Estatal de Familia, has denied any involvement in the Irish families adoptions, implying that they may have been private.

According to American adoptive parents, Carlos López used to work with American facilitator Ibbie White, who in turn worked with US agencies Universal Family Services (UFS) in California and later, the Denver, Colorado-based Adoption Alliance. The old UFS website shows that Mexican children were placed with families in the US, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Spain, and Switzerland. The services were advertised as "a unique opportunity to adopt a very young infant" from three different Mexican states.

On January 31, 2012, two weeks after the trafficking ring was busted, Adoption Alliance closed their business. Local Colorado media, including the Denver Post, reported the agency was shuttered due to financial woes related to international adoptions. The agency did not return calls or emails for comment.

In Mexico, Juan Manuel Estrada, director of the nonprofit Fundación de Niños Robados (Foundation for Stolen Children, known by the English acronym FIND), told radio reporter Paola Rojas he believed that around a hundred children from Jalisco had been taken from their mothers, advertised on the internet, and placed with foreign families in illegal adoptions facilitated by the Carlos López and his associate lawyers in the neighboring state of Colima, Héctor Manuel Solís Zamora and Luis Humberto Alcántar.

Mexico: Officials Implicated?

As the investigation unfolds in Mexico, it has reached beyond Jalisco and into neighboring Colima, as well as the state of Aguascalientes. Estrada, of Fundación FIND, has publicly accused Mexican government officials of involvement in the illegal adoptions, posting links and commentary on the organization's Facebook page. He has said that the Jalisco children were brought to Colima and Aguascalientes for case processing.

Aside from the nine individuals arrested, Mexican authorities have also stated that three civil organizations are implicated in the trafficking operation, including SOS Bambinos and Asociacion Vida y Familia (known as VIFAC). A feature article in M Semanal by Julio I. Godínez Hernández reports that the young woman originally arrested for trying to sell her two-year-old, Laura Talamantes Fabiola Carranza, had previously given up another baby in adoption to Irish couple Mark Joseph Buckley Williams and Grainne Mary Fitzgerald Doyle. The child's adoption is reported to have been processed by a Colima judge.

Proceso magazine most recently reported that various nonprofit groups, including Carriolas Vacias y la Fundación de Niños Robados (Empty Strollers and Stolen Children Foundation), have alleged government officials under the PAN leadership of former governor Alberto Cárdenas Jiménez have been implicated in child trafficking for adoption in Jalisco since the 1990's. Specifically, Proceso reports, Fundacion FIND claims that both Pedro Ruiz Higuera, the former social attorney general of Jalisco and Claudia Corona, the executive secretary of the Consejo Estatal de Familia (CEF), knew about the illicit adoptions, yet did nothing.

Currently, the confiscated babies are being held in the Casa Hogar Hospicio Cabañas in Jalisco while the organized crime unit of the Mexican attorney general's office, La Subprocuraduría de Investigacion Especializada en Delincuencia Organizada (SIEDO), continues its investigation.

For more on this case, visit Proceso Magazine online (Spanish); check out the articles here and here from M Semanal magazine, (Spanish) as well as Grupo Formula. For more information on corruption and fraud in international adoption around the world, visit the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism's "Fraud and Corruption in International Adoption" page.A version of this piece originally appeared at InsightCrime.