With Guatemala the second biggest provider of children adopted in the US, most of the children are born to poor women who are either paid to be pregnant or pressured into giving up their baby.
|Alejandra has given up her child for adoption |
The US has now threatened to bar such adoptions, unless the Guatemalan government complies with an international agreement designed to protect potential adoptees.
Alejandra has just given up her daughter for adoption. She is 16 years old.
"My mother found a woman who asked me if I was sure I wanted to do that. She said I would not get into trouble and the baby would be fine," she said.
Alejandra says she did not get paid for her baby, but Josefina Arellano, a prosecutor for minors, said he suspects that money was involved.
"There are minors who have had three or four pregnancies. They get paid between $500 and $1500, depending on how desperate the mother is for money. Let's be honest, this is a business," Arellano says.
And as a business, it is booming.
Last year, more than 5000 Guatemalan children were put up for adoption – per capita, it is the highest rate in the world, in an industry worth $130m.
Many international visitors stay at a hotel when they come to Guatemala to pick-up their new babies.
Most are American and very few of them are willing to talk about the process.
One woman said she was told by her lawyer to remain silent. Hotel security is instructed to protect them.
It is not that adoption is wrong - it is the unregulated process in Guatemala that leaves the system open to corruption.
Profit-making agencies offer babies over the internet.
Authorities rarely police the lawyers, notaries or agency managers who charge up to $30,000 for a baby.
'Acting with impunity'
Mother Ines Ayau runs a government-supervised orphanage. Here the system works, but she says it is often not the case elsewhere.
"There is impunity in our country - general impunity in all the different sectors of the country. Everybody knows who are the bad guys and they are still there acting," Ayau says.
Ayau says unscrupulous caretakers convince women to give up their children. They even push them to get pregnant to make some money.
In one private home, one of the priorities is to find a family that would be suitable for each one of the children there, but just the opposite happens in many clandestine homes where the caretakers provide a child that will respond to the needs of the adoptive parents.
Police sometimes raid clandestine homes in Guatemala City rescuing children from the hands of adoption brokers, but this sort of action has not slowed the trade.
What is more effective is the international Hague treaty banning unregulated adoptions.
Until now, the United States - responsible for 95 per cent of adoptions - has not signed the convention, but Unicef says the US government has signalled it will soon.
"People are rushing because they know that the convention will be in effect in the US and shortly from now there will not be possibilities to continue with this way of running the adoption in Guatemala," said Manuel Manrique, Unicef director.
Many Guatemalan mothers believe they are giving up their children to a better future.
But for many others, it is also a heart-breaking moment forced on them by poverty, and too often someone else is reaping the financial rewards.
Source: Al Jazeera