Illegal Cross-Border Adoption Traps Two Mothers

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Two mothers, an American and Guatemalan, inadvertently get caught in an illegal international adoption scam. In this excerpt from her book, "Finding Fernanda," Erin Siegal describes their frenzied search for the same child.

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Surprising Finding

To her surprise, a news article popped up. It had been published two months before, in the November 25, 2007, edition of Prensa Libre, one of Guatemala's oldest and most widely read newspapers.

El dolor que siente una madre cuando pierde a un hijo es indescriptible. The translation: The pain felt when a mother loses a child is indescribable.

Emanuel slowly skimmed the piece, trying to eke meaning from the jumble of Spanish words and phrases. Recognizing the name Mildred Alvarado, she froze. Could it be the same Alvarado? Re-reading the text, she picked out Fernanda's name. It had to be the same child.

Feeling a hard pit begin to form in her stomach, Emanuel began to carefully copy and paste the article, sentence by sentence, into an online translator. Her fingers trembled. She gasped out loud as she began to read.

The article told the story of Alvarado, a young woman living on the outskirts of Guatemala City, and her search for her two daughters, Maria Fernanda and Ana Cristina. Fernanda had been kidnapped by a woman who had supposed to have been temporarily caring for her. Ana Cristina, an infant, had been forcibly cut from her womb after Alvarado had been drugged unconscious.

Alvarado had been clinging tightly to the flickering hope that her daughters would be found, unscathed, and somehow returned. She'd been seaching for almost a year and a half, ever since Fernanda was taken in the middle of August 2006.

Emanuel sat still, letting the information cascade through her body. She realized she'd been given an adoption referral for her Fernanda at the same time, the end of August 2006.

The coincidence was stunning.

For a moment, Emanuel struggled to catch her breath, turning the realization over in her mind. Fernanda had to be one and the same. She'd been adopting a stolen child.

With her heart in her throat, she reached for the phone.


Children have been stolen, sold and placed as orphans in corrupt international adoptions to well-intentioned Western parents since the industry began in the 1980s. Both the governments of Guatemala and the United States repeatedly proved unwilling and incapable of regulating the baby trade.

In this particular situation, Alvarado was ultimately reunited with her two kidnapped daughters against all odds. And Emanuel accidentally became a reformer dedicated to an ethical adoption system.


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Erin Siegal is a photographer, writer and Ethics and Justice in Journalism Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Time magazine, Rolling Stone and many other magazines and newspapers.

For more information:

Buy the book, "Finding Fernanda":

The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism:

Erin Siegal on Twitter:

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