Mexico authorities unravel child trafficking ring

AP News
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Posted: Jan 23, 2012 9:32 PM
Mexico authorities unravel child trafficking ring

The Irish couples ensnared in an apparent illegal adoption ring in western Mexico thought they were involved in a legal process and are devastated by allegations organizers were trafficking in children, the families said Monday.

"All the families have valid declarations to adopt from Mexico as issued by the Adoption Authority of Ireland," they said in a statement, which was read over the phone to The Associated Press by their lawyer in Mexico, Carlos Montoya.

Prosecutors in Mexico contend the traffickers tricked destitute young Mexican women trying to earn more for their children and childless Irish couples desperate to become parents.

For 15-year-old Karla Zepeda, the story began in August when a woman came to her dusty neighborhood of cinderblock homes and dirt roads looking for babies to photograph for an anti-abortion ad campaign.

Zepeda told the AP that the woman, Guadalupe Bosquez, asked to use her 9-month-old daughter Camila in a two-week photo shoot for $755 ($10,000 pesos), a small fortune for a teen mother who earns $180 a month at a sandwich stand and shares a cramped, one-story house with her disabled mother, stepfather, and three brothers.

Bosquez later returned with another woman, Silvia Soto, and gave her half the money as they picked the child up. She got the rest two weeks later when they brought Camila home.

"They showed me a poster that showed my girl with other babies and said 'No To Abortion, Yes To Life,'" said Zepeda, a petite teenager cleaning her house to loud norteno music. "I thought it was legal because everything seemed very normal."

Before long, the message spread to her neighbors. Seven other women, most between the ages of 15 and 22, agreed to let their babies be part of the ad campaign. Some already had several children. Some were single mothers. Two of them didn't know how to read or write. Five of them told they AP that they did not even have birth certificates for their babies when they came across Bosquez and Soto.

One said she needed money to pay for her child's medical care. All deny agreeing to give their children up for adoption.

But instead of just posing for photographs, Jalisco state investigators say Camila and other babies were left for weeks at a time in the care of Irish couples who had come to Mexico thinking they were adopting the children.

Camila and nine other children have been turned over to state officials who suspect they were being groomed for illegal adoptions. And authorities hint that far more children could be involved: Lead investigator Blanca Barron told reporters the ring may have been operating for 20 years, though she gave no details. Prosecutors also say four of the children show signs of sexual abuse, though they didn't say how or by whom.

Nine people have been detained, including Bosquez and Soto, but no one has yet been charged.

At least 15 Irish citizens have been questioned, the Jalisco state attorney general's office said, but officials have not released their names and their lawyer says all have returned to Ireland after spending weeks or months in Ajijic, a town of cobblestone streets and gated communities 37 miles (60 kilometers) away, trying to meet requirements for adopting a child. None was detained.

In their statement, the Irish couples said they would not comment further because of the ongoing investigation.

The Mexican mothers say that Bosquez and Soto persuaded three of them to register their children as single mothers so they could participate in the anti-abortion campaign, even though they live with the children's fathers.

Children's rights activists say that also could have made it easier to release the child for adoption: only the mother's signature would be needed.

The mothers were assured that the babies were being taken care of by several nannies and checked by doctors. The children often returned home wearing new clothes.

Some of the mothers said they began having second thoughts. But when they declined to send their children back, they say, Bosquez and Soto insisted they would have to pay for the strollers, car seats, diaper bags and everything else they had bought for the babies.

"We're going through a nightmare," said Fernanda Montes, an 18-year-old housewife who said she took part to pay a $670 hospital bill from the birth of her 3-month-old. "How could we have trusted someone so evil?"

The plan began to unravel on Jan. 9, when local police detained 21-year-old Laura Carranza and accused her of trying to sell her 2-year-old daughter.

Investigators said Carranza denied that allegation, but acknowledged she was "renting" her 8-month-old son. She then led authorities to Bosquez and Soto.

Both are now being held on suspicion they ran the alleged anti-abortion ad campaign as a front for an illegal adoption ring. It was not clear if they have attorneys and they have not yet been brought before a judge to say if they accept or reject the allegations.

Carranza is also being held, as is Karla's mother, Cecilia Velazquez, who hasn't worked since she lost both legs in a traffic accident in 2010. Karla says her mother's only fault was agreeing to the ad campaign.

Seven of the mothers interviewed told the AP that the children had most recently been picked up by Bosquez and Soto between Dec. 27 and Dec. 30 for an alleged photo shoot. They returned the babies on Jan. 9 and 10, saying "there had been problems." The mothers said they didn't notice anything wrong with the babies or any signs of abuse.

Then state police investigators showed up at their homes and drove them and their children to the police department for questioning. The babies were taken from them and put into state protective custody. The women complained that only four of them have been allowed to see their babies since, and only once.

A statement from Jalisco state prosecutors' said authorities seized Carranza's two children from her and the other seven while they were with the Irish couples. Prosecutors didn't respond to requests by the AP to clarify the discrepancy.

Residents of Ajijic, a town on the shore of Lake Chapala favored by American and Canadian retirees, say Irish citizens looking to adopt Mexican children began appearing there at least four years ago.

Jalisco state prosecutors' spokesman Lino Gonzalez said none of the Irish had been charged with a crime.

Even if they had adopted the children, Ireland might not have accepted them because the adoptions were handled privately, said Frances FitzGerald, Ireland's minister for children.

"Obviously, for any couple caught up in this, it's a nightmare scenario," she said.

"What you can't have in Mexico is people going to local agencies or individuals doing private adoptions because when they come back, there is going to be a difficulty."

Prosecutors say they have been trying without success to reach the attorneys who were handling the adoption paperwork in the neighboring state of Colima.

Custody release statements signed by all of the mothers carry the logo of Lopez y Lopez Asociados, a firm owned by Carlos Lopez Valenzuela and his son, Carlos Lopez Castellanos. Authorities raided their home last week.

The release statements were shown to the AP by a local advocate for missing and stolen children, Juan Manuel Estrada of Fundacion FIND, who said they had been leaked to him by a state official. He said Lopez Valenzuela had separately sent him a lengthy statement by email declaring that he too may have been duped in the case and denying wrongdoing.

Prosecutors wouldn't confirm the authenticity of his statement to Fundacion FIND, but it mirrors the stories of seven mothers who were interviewed by the AP.

Lopez didn't respond to emailed interview requests from the AP.

The Irish couples told authorities they found Lopez Valenzuela through a website advertising his services, according to their lawyer, Carlos Montoya.

He said they were charged $6,000 for the search for a baby, $13,600 to gain final custody and $5,000 in legal fees, as well as the biological mother's supposed prenatal care, hospital care and nanny services.

The babies stayed with the couples in Ajijic for weeks at a time. Several of the couples had adopted Mexican children in the past with Lopez Valenzuela and hadn't had any problems, he said.

"They are innocent people who were swindled by the lawyer managing the adoptions," he said.

They all returned to Ireland last week on his advice, he said.

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Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.