Arrests Spur Debate on Old Practice : Latin America Agonizing Over Trafficking in Babies

Times Staff Writer

Juan Mikietin and Maria Nilda Arguero appeared to be an ordinary couple with a problem: They could not have children. Ana Munfani was willing to help, for a price.

They arranged to meet in a small house in the Argentine provincial city of La Plata on Oct. 13. For a total of $5,700, Munfani and her colleagues would hand over a newborn baby, papers in order.

As the deal was being completed, police officers surrounded the house and moved in. They arrested five people, including two obstetricians, and recovered two babies, one of them just 2 days old and destined for Mikietin and Arguero--who in fact were police officers taking part in a three-month undercover investigation.

It was the first time that alleged baby vendors were caught in the act in Argentina, and it awakened a national debate on a practice that has afflicted Latin America for generations, involving thousands of infants each year.


Similar cases in Paraguay, Brazil and elsewhere in the region have raised an outcry in recent months over the ease with which laws are skirted to provide babies for infertile couples, often in the United States and Europe. Legislators and children’s rights groups now are hurriedly seeking changes in the law and in the public consciousness to control the problem.

After the Argentine headlines on the horror of selling children came a more subtle debate on the reasons for the illegal trafficking, which is motivated as often by altruism as by profit. Recognition is growing that poverty, a dearth of sex education and birth control, taboos about adoption, inefficient bureaucracies and corruption all play a role.

On one side are poor women, usually unmarried, who become pregnant with little prospect of providing an adequate future for the child and facing the opprobrium of families and neighbors.

On the other side, infertile couples who long for a child sometimes must wait years to adopt legally--the minimum wait is 20 to 22 months in Argentina. In some cases, couples have been judged unsuitable and thus ineligible but are no less eager for a child.


So the intermediaries come into the picture: lawyers, doctors, midwives, friends, many of whom see themselves merely as solving three problems without personal gain. By pressuring the mother to give up her child, they seek to help the mother, make a childless couple happy and provide a good life for the baby.

Money as Motive

In other cases, the motive is simply money.

Orlando Caporal, undersecretary of welfare for Buenos Aires province, organized the investigation into the La Plata baby-selling ring in June after hearing persistent rumors about infant trafficking. Police used wiretaps to intercept phone calls about the gang’s activities and then set the trap, with the two officers posing as aspiring parents.

Caporal has said that the gang “could be the tip of a larger organization,” and that “it is believed that many of the babies sold were taken out of the country.”

A Geneva-based organization, Defense of the Child, is sponsoring an investigation into baby trafficking in Argentina, and the fieldwork is being done by Argentine experts in four regions of the country. Their report is due in December.

Most Adoptions Are Illegal

Leandro Isla, an Argentine law professor who represents the group in Buenos Aires, said data is incomplete but initial indications are that roughly four out of five adoptions in the country appear to be illegal. Of the illegal adoptions, roughly half probably involve some kind of profit for the natural mother or the middleman or both, he said.


“We know of some cases in which women get pregnant each year and sell their baby each year,” Isla said. Sometimes, women come from neighboring countries such as Paraguay and Bolivia to give birth, hand over the child and return home.

Although reports are common of infant sales to foreign couples for up to $20,000, Isla said the sum for transactions among Argentines, the vast majority, are far lower, usually $1,000 to $2,000 for a baby younger than 3 months, with no defects--"and the fairer and blonder the better.”

In a problem typical of most Latin American countries, record-keeping is shoddy, making it easier to sidestep legal niceties. The government Office for Minors could not provide the number of adoptions in Argentina each year, beyond saying there are thousands, because private adoption agencies also are involved and there is no national register of adoptions.

‘Tired of Waiting’

The second baby recovered in the La Plata case was destined for Adrian Tereschovicz and his wife, who typify the dilemma. Tereschovicz, who sold his car to get the $800 for the baby boy, told a Buenos Aires newspaper: “I don’t feel any regrets at having acquired him, because we were tired of waiting to adopt a newborn legally. . . . We fell into this scheme because we could not legally get a child that my wife couldn’t have and that she wanted.”

A judge gave the couple temporary custody of the 3-week-old baby boy, pending further proceedings, and said it appeared that the Tereschoviczes committed no crime under Argentine law. The other infant girl was given temporarily to a childless couple in the police force.

Maria Ester Benchuya, adoptions supervisor in the minors’ office, said taboos remain strong against adoption in Latin America, in part because families fear adopted children will have problems later in life when they discover their true identity. So families often prefer to obtain infants and make them seem to be their own biological children.

Latin American countries, with few resources, also provide little help to unmarried women. Unlike Europe and the United States, where extensive social services are available, Latin societies tend to reject unmarried mothers, she said.


Public Attitudes a Problem

Benchuya said that Argentine laws and adoption services provide adequate safeguards against abuses but that public attitudes toward enforcement are the problem. Health professionals, especially, must become aware of the risks of providing children to couples without proper preparation and supervision, she said, and they must recognize the dangers of “large criminal organizations specializing in the sale of babies, this traffic of human flesh.”

Isla said that Latin American societies “must realize that adoption is a solution for an abandoned child, not for a sterile couple. The problem is that the society takes the attitude that a sterile couple is entitled to have a child.”

But legislators in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, worried about legal loopholes, are re-examining laws and regulations on adoption, particularly involving foreigners.

After the arrest of a band in Asuncion, Paraguay, in August, and the recovery of seven newborns from Brazil who were being readied for “export,” Paraguay’s attorney general, Clotildo Jimenez Benitez, said he wanted a ban on all adoptions by foreigners. Paraguay, a traditional center for every imaginable form of smuggling, has been notoriously lax on adoptions.

Peripheral Issue

The Paraguayan case resurrected a peripheral issue, that of the alleged sale of Latin American babies destined for slaughter abroad for their organs. Without citing evidence to substantiate his claim, a Paraguayan juvenile court judge said the recovered infants apparently were headed for such a fate in the United States.

U.S. officials have repeatedly and angrily denied that any such trade exists, and they blame the Soviet Union for feeding the rumors as part of an anti-American disinformation campaign. Health experts have said it would be technically impossible to conduct an infant organ business, and the Paraguayan judge later retracted his remarks. But the persistent rumors have played a role in reducing the chances for foreigners to adopt babies legitimately in Latin America.

The Brazilian news magazine Veja reported that trafficking rings take as many as 3,000 babies a year from Brazil illegally. Some are kidnaped, but most are given up voluntarily by their mothers. In Brazil, tens of thousands of mothers each year give away unwanted babies. The practice becomes news when foreigners pay high fees for a simplified “adoption” that often involves bribing police and other officials.

Celebrated Case

The most celebrated case in Brazil has been the adoption by an Israeli couple of Bruna Vasconcelos, a 2-year-old girl who was kidnaped as a baby from her parents in southern Brazil. In June, the parents won a long court battle in Israel to recover Bruna. But Bruna came back to a broken home--her mother was separated, living in poverty and expecting her fifth baby.

In the Brazilian state of Maranhao, federal police arrested a 48-year-old woman in September for arranging illegal adoptions. Officers said that 20 children had been adopted illegally there in the last two years, with as much as $15,000 changing hands for each baby. In Rio de Janeiro, police raided an apartment Sept. 2 and found six babies without certificates, apparently to be sold to French couples at $20,000 each. In the southern state of Santa Catarina, federal police arrested a French couple in August with 17 babies that they apparently were preparing to take to Europe.

In August, the federal police announced “Operation Barrier,” an effort to prevent trafficking of Brazilian babies by stepping up controls on Brazil’s borders with Peru, Paraguay, Colombia and Venezuela. A government commission appointed in September has until mid-December to propose new legislation against baby trafficking.

“No Moral Impediment’

“It seems evident that in many cases, the traffic occurs because legislation prohibits or makes difficult adoptions for which there is no moral impediment,” the Rio newspaper O Globo said in an editorial.

In Argentina, the La Plata case prompted two Peronist members of Congress, Carlos Guido Freytes and Irma Roy, to propose laws to impose prison terms of three to six years for those convicted of promoting or facilitating illegal adoptions or of fraudulently registering adoptions. Currently, such cases must be prosecuted under other statutes, such as falsifying public documents.

Another Peronist legislator, Lorenzo Pepe, proposed a law requiring stricter border controls.

“It is always said that there are no figures, and because there are no charges or proof, trafficking in babies does not exist in Argentina. Well, the detention of this group is sufficient proof that something must be done,” he said.

Times staff writer William R. Long, in Rio de Janeiro, contributed to this article.