Organized child trafficking is one of the murkiest chapters in the history of Latin American military autocracies. The dictators in dark glasses may be gone, but exploitation of the vulnerable continues.
When the findings of a police investigation into a suspected child trafficking ring in the Peruvian city of Arequipa were made public, the people of Peru were horrified. Central to the whole investigation was the alleged enabler of the traffickers: the country's former chief of police, Raul Becerra. The probe found that the gang had detained pregnant women and forced them to hand over their children.
The Peruvian case was especially sensational, but child trafficking is not a rare occurrence in Latin America. Various aid organizations warn that this is a horrific phenomenon affecting all the countries in the region.
The criminal gangs involved specialize in different areas of child trafficking, but their main line of business is illegal adoption. Juan Martín Perez Garcia, head of the NGO network REDLAMYC, told DW that these criminal organizations often work with state officials to get hold of babies and children for adoptions. "They exploit the weakness of the institutions in their country, and the incomplete or non-existent legislation. Sometimes the adoptive family doesn't know how this child came to them for adoption," says Perez Garcia.
The situation is particularly bad in Guatemala. Ever since the 1980s, the Central American country has been the world leader in the illegal adoption market. Experts agree that the increase in kidnappings since 2013 and the suspected involvement of members of the public health service constitute an ideal breeding ground for child trafficking. There is also a climate of impunity.
Different age groups are affected
The U.N. children's agency UNICEF has been warning for years that poverty is a decisive factor in child trafficking. Indigenous children from impoverished backgrounds are particularly at risk. Child trafficking is therefore often a social problem that can also be associated with ethnicity.
Meredith Fabian is an expert with the Casa Alianza organization, which campaigns for children's rights in a number of Latin American countries. She emphasizes that street children are especially vulnerable. "They don't have protecting factors like family or school," she told DW. Unaccompanied underage migrants moving northwards from Central America in big groups — as they are right now — are also in particular danger.
After a child has reached a certain age, trafficking stops being about illegal adoptions, shifting instead to child labor and — especially for girls — prostitution.
Babies are not goods
What could be done to counter child trafficking in Latin America? Perez Garcia says that international agreements on adoption must be reformed as a matter of urgency. With organized crime spreading so fast, they've become outdated. However, he doubts that this topic is a priority for prosperous nations. Meredith Fabian, on the other hand, emphasizes the necessity of combating widespread impunity in the Latin American countries.
Perez Garcia is calling for a general shift in people's attitude toward adoption. "We have to change the mentality that families can acquire babies as if they were pets that they can buy according to skin color, ethnicity and age," he told DW. "In other words: We need children who adopt parents, not the other way around."