Guatemala’s baby brokers: how thousands of children were stolen for adoption

4 January 2024

From the 1960s, baby brokers persuaded often Indigenous Mayan women to give up newborns while kidnappers ‘disappeared’ babies. Now, international adoption is being called out as a way of covering up war crimes

by Rachel Nolan

In 2009, Dolores Preat went looking for her birth mother. A softly spoken woman with a bob haircut and glasses, Preat had been adopted as a five-year-old from Guatemala by a Belgian family in 1984. Her adoption paperwork recorded her birth mother as Rosario Colop Chim, originally from an area that had been brutalised in the civil war that ravaged Guatemala from 1960 to 1996.

Aged 32, Preat booked a plane ticket to Guatemala. She had managed to trace Colop Chim to her home in Zunil, a small town sitting in a green valley at the base of a volcano. Zunil means reed whistle in the Indigenous Mayan language K’iche’, and the town’s population is almost entirely Indigenous. (In Guatemala, Indigenous people make up about half the population, identified and differentiated by language, by home town, and – especially among women – by brightly coloured hand-woven clothing.)


Though Preat spoke no K’iche’ and only a little Spanish, she had no trouble finding the right house. When she showed up, Colop Chim wasn’t there, but her sister was. The sister was confused. Colop Chim had never given up a child for adoption, she said. But someone had kidnapped a girl from across the street in 1984, and her family had been looking for her ever since.

Preat crossed the street and met a woman nearly her age with a very familiar face: it was just like her own. The woman called her mother, who tearfully recounted the kidnapping. Testimony given for a later criminal case captured the emotion of the moment: “The family gathered, Dolores told them about the adoption, and all was confusion. Her aunts and uncles arrived, and one of them said that on seeing Dolores he felt the call of blood.”

DNA tests confirmed what Preat had felt right away. The woman with the familiar face was her sister, and the woman’s mother was Preat’s birth mother. Rosario Colop Chim was not Preat’s mother at all, but her kidnapper.



It took Preat’s birth family some time to put together the full story, but eventually they realised that after stealing her neighbour’s child, Colop Chim had posed as her birth mother to sign legal consent forms for the adoption. In seizing Preat, she had acted as a jaladora, or baby broker: someone who is hired by a lawyer to supply babies for the purpose of placing them in private adoptions. This process should, of course, occur with the parents’ consent. In Guatemala, this was not always the case.

Preat is one of an estimated 40,000 Guatemalan international adoptees who now live in the United States, Canada and Europe. The first wave of adoptions took place from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Sweden and Canada were popular early destinations. These were soon joined by other European countries including France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.

The second wave, which began in the 1980s, sent adoptees to the US. Some Guatemalan adoptees came from orphanages, but many were placed through private adoptions. Agencies in Europe and the US contracted directly with lawyers in Guatemala to find children, match them to families and do all the paperwork without judicial oversight.

This system was expensive: total adoption costs began at the equivalent of $3,500 per child when adoption was first privatised in 1977 and shot up to $45,000 in later years. Despite the cost, private adoptions were more popular than those from orphanages because they were faster and adoptive parents could select the kinds of children they wanted rather than rely on the “supply” of usually older children in orphanages. Jaladoras often had a mandate to find the youngest children possible, or ideally contact pregnant women to sign up babies before birth.


By the mid-2000s, Guatemala had overtaken other “sender” countries, including South Korea and Russia, until it was second only to China for the number of children adopted abroad – in absolute numbers, not adjusted for population. It was also the only country in the world to allow fully privatised adoptions from 1977 to 2008. At the height of the adoption boom, one in 100 children born in Guatemala was placed for adoption with a family abroad. “Some countries export bananas,” one lawyer who arranged private adoptions told the Economist in 2016. “We exported babies.”

Guatemala is often cited as the worst-case scenario for what can go wrong when adoptions are commercialised and children are sent from poorer countries to wealthier ones. Outright kidnappings like Preat’s were rare, but other abuses were common. Some were technically legal: women pressured to give up babies or to sign documents they could not understand, or they were approached when pregnant about whether they wished to relinquish a child. There are also many documented cases of women being paid a small sum for their children – which was illegal. Despite plentiful evidence as early as the 1980s of corruption and abuses within the industry, international adoption did not become illegal in Guatemala until 2008.

After Preat was kidnapped, her parents tore up the countryside, searching for their daughter in hospitals and nearby farms. They didn’t report the kidnapping to the police, terrified by a note that the kidnapper had left threatening to kill them if they did so. In any case, the authorities were a source of fear more than protection in many areas of the country. In the mid-1980s, Guatemala was suffering the most violent period of its long civil war, in which an estimated 200,000 civilians – more than three-quarters of whom were Indigenous Maya peoples – were massacred by government forces, the army and the police. Sociologists and historians now often refer to this period as state terror rather than civil war because of the asymmetry of the violence. Hundreds of children who were stolen by government forces were placed in international adoptions. Crimes like Preat’s kidnapping shared features with war crimes.

Preat brought a criminal case against Colop Chim in Guatemala, and hearings began six years after she had embarked on the search for her birth mother. Her lawyers sidestepped the statute of limitations by arguing that this was more than a simple kidnapping. Preat had been “disappeared” – that most Latin American of crimes. Forced disappearance constituted an ongoing crime, the prosecution argued, because of the anguish and uncertainty that Preat’s family had experienced every day since the kidnapping, and because of her own long-term mistaken understanding of her identity.

Preat’s lawyer told me that this legal strategy, pioneered in Argentina, was one of the few ways to convict war criminals who were otherwise let off the hook by statutes of limitation or amnesty laws. In 2015, Colop Chim was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. While her crime was not unique, the series of events leading to its punishment were. Only because the jaladora lived across the street from her birth family did Preat learn the truth.


Baby brokers have worked in countries as varied as Haiti, South Korea, Ethiopia and Cambodia, but they were especially common in Guatemala. In Spanish, the word jaladora has soap opera overtones. It comes from the verb jalar, to pull, as in to pull children away from birth families. Fernando Linares Beltranena prefers to use the word intermediary. These linguistic choices are important to him, as a lawyer who, for more than a decade, helped match children with adoptive families. “We worked through intermediaries who had contact with mothers who most likely would want to give up their children,” he recalled.

It’s true that, according to Guatemalan and international law, a birth mother must consent to relinquish her child for an adoption to go forward. But in a context of extreme economic pressure and inequality, what constituted meaningful consent from birth mothers was not at all clear.

I have spent the last decade researching the adoption industry in Guatemala from 1968 until its closure in 2008. Many records I read, of private adoptions and those through state orphanages, contained a signature from the birth mother in the form of a thumbprint – indicating that she was illiterate.

Linares Beltranena received me in his law office in Guatemala City, at his ease and expansive, wearing his trademark bow tie, which set off a Charlie Chaplin moustache. He began arranging adoptions in the 1980s and eventually oversaw hundreds of cases, mostly for families in the US. He remains one of the most insistent defenders of international adoptions from Guatemala.

Because lawyers moved in wealthier circles than did the birth mothers, they subcontracted the job of finding children to women like Colop Chim, sometimes paying them $500 per child or more. One lawyer told me that her “best” jaladoras were those who had previously relinquished their own babies for adoption.

I spoke to several lawyers about private adoptions, but Linares Beltranena was the only one to say that I was welcome to look through his old files. He had never committed crimes, he said, and he had nothing to hide. The birth mothers his jaladoras found were usually poor and their pregnancies unwanted, he told me.

It was illegal for baby brokers to offer birth mothers money, but it sometimes happened. More often, though, they used other methods of persuasion. Linares Beltranena’s paperwork, along with police records and Guatemalan news reports, showed that his jaladoras would approach poor, often Indigenous women who were visibly pregnant – at home, at bus stops, in hospitals, in marketplaces. Baby brokers sometimes also worked as midwives, maids, nurses, obstetricians or civil registrars, or they ran nurseries or daycares. They would ask if the mother-to-be had money to raise a child, or if the child would be better off with a foreign family in a country with more opportunities. Some jaladoras carried photo albums, which they flipped through in front of pregnant women, showing them Guatemalan boys and girls in the comfortable homes of middle-class families abroad. Many of the women they approached already had young children they were struggling to feed.

Linares Beltranena’s files contained photographs of the adoptive couple, often pictured in classic all-American scenes, like sitting together at a picnic table on a front deck with their barbecue grill visible behind them. One couple sent a photo of the whole family out jogging together. Interiors feature bourgeois comfort: pianos, wall-to-wall carpeting, fireplaces.

One file describes a birth mother who was caring for her five children without the help of either of the two men who were their fathers. She consented to give up her two youngest boys for adoption. A social worker noted:

“She dresses modestly, she wears discreet makeup. One perceives in her: physical and mental health. She can be considered of normal intelligence.

“She states that she decided to give her children in adoption, because what she earns is not enough to buy milk for the youngest child. Since they are siblings, she thought they should remain together for ever.

“She appeared very tearful, very tormented, ashamed, but she recognises that her decision will favour her children because at her side they would have endured many hardships.”

When the adoption was finalised, this mother signed her consent with a fingerprint. Her file contains a full invoice, dated 1 July 1987. Lawyer fees were $3,500 per child, and expenses were $3,392.65.


In the following decades, as more and more international couples looked to adopt from Guatemala, prices would almost quadruple, but the extreme poverty of birth mothers remained the same. Jaladoras provided a service that was more in demand than ever.

When international adoptions boom the way they did in Guatemala, there is often a backlash. If the backlash leads to adoptions becoming illegal in a particular country, other countries enlarge their adoption programmes to meet demand, which in the drug trade is called the balloon effect – squeeze here and it expands over there. These days, now that Guatemala is closed, popular countries include Colombia, India and Haiti. International adoption is declining overall, but international surrogacy is surging in popularity – raising similar questions about what constitutes meaningful consent given crushing poverty and inequality.

In Guatemala in the 90s, signs of the increasing panic over adoptions were everywhere. Graffiti reading “gringo robaniños (Gringo child thieves) and “Yankis robaniños fuera” (Yankee child thieves get out) appeared around the capital. Truths about adoptions mixed with rumours: that children were actually taken for organ trafficking, for example, or for “baby parts”. Several foreigners travelling in Guatemala were killed or maimed on suspicion of stealing children. Francisco Goldman, the Guatemalan-American journalist and author, who was living in Guatemala City at the time, put it this way to the Washington Post in 1994: “Everything about the baby parts story is true, except for gringos and baby parts.” He added: “Children get stolen all the time in Guatemala. But not for their organs and not by foreigners. The Guatemalans steal them for adoptions.”

Baby brokers featured centrally in these fears, and for good reason. Some outright tricked or coerced birth mothers into giving up their children. They persuaded birth mothers to sign blank documents, which could later be repurposed into consent forms faking legal relinquishment. Another ruse was to tell birth mothers that the adoption was temporary or that they would be allowed to see their children on a regular basis. Yet another was to offer to cover a child’s medical expenses or the medical expenses of a sibling.

Even though international adoption has now been illegal in Guatemala for more than 15 years, fears about child snatchers persist. One woman in a tiny town in the department of Jalapa told me she had recently been the only parent to sign up her child for a programme providing free school supplies, because everyone else feared it would end with strangers taking the children out of the country. (In this case, the aid was real.) The woman turned to her young son, who was hanging around us listening, and said to him, in what I hoped was a joking tone, that he had better not go away with me or I would “turn him into soap”.

There were cases of babies stolen from hospital, cases of women told by nurses moonlighting as jaladoras – usually in rural areas – that their children had died in childbirth. (Such cases are not unique to Guatemala: they have been reported in Israel, Chile and Spain.) Mariela SR-Coline Fanon was adopted as a baby by a Belgian family and found her birth mother in Guatemala in 2018. When they were reunited, her birth mother told her that nurses at the hospital had said she was stillborn and refused to let her see the body, claiming to have already buried it. Fanon wrote a memoir called Mother, I Am Not Dead, in which she observes: “A human being, living or dead, has no price. But demand creates supply.”

The US became aware of adoption fraud as early as the 1980s. In 1996, Duke Lokka, then the chief of American Citizen Services and Immigration Sections at the US embassy in Guatemala, acknowledged in an interview that adoption lawyers routinely falsified paperwork, usually by listing the wrong name of the birth mother in order to allow another woman – like Colop Chim – to “relinquish” the child. To minimise fraud, the US had begun requiring birth mothers to travel to the embassy in Guatemala City to be interviewed. But power imbalances and language gaps meant that the interviews were not always reliable – not least because the embassy relied on freelance interpreters, often provided by the lawyers, for conversations with Indigenous birth mothers.

Despite these known difficulties in verifying consent, adoptions to the US skyrocketed from the 90s onwards. According to the US Department of State, a total of 29,807 Guatemalan children were adopted in the United States.

The jaladora who allegedly worked on Fanon’s adoption, Ofelia Rosal de Gamas, was an unusually high-status woman. (She has since died, but criminal investigations of her adoption ring are ongoing in Belgium.) Rosal de Gamas was the sister-in-law of one Gen Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, the dictator who ruled Guatemala from 1983 to 1986. She worked with several lawyers supplying children for private adoptions, and her name pops up like a persistent ghost in the archives and in interviews.

Many of the children Rosal de Gamas brokered were from Malacatán, a town near the Guatemala-Mexico border. Father Juan María Boxus, a courtly Belgian priest I met in the rectory in Malacatán, recalled Rosal de Gamas visiting frequently in the 1980s and inquiring about children on behalf of the Belgian adoption agency Hacer Puente. (The same agency organised Dolores Preat’s adoption.) Father Boxus said Rosal de Gamas was “persistent”, though there was no indication at the time that she was involved in crimes. Unusually for a jaladora, she would sometimes take the children to Europe herself. One adoptive mother recalled her as “tall, a little cold”.


Rosal de Gamas also worked with Edmond Mulet, a well-connected lawyer who arranged adoptions for Canadian families. In 1981, Mulet signed five requests for tourist visas for babies to travel to Canada, the quickest way to get children out of the country. Doing so was illegal, since the Canadian families had no intention of returning with the babies to Guatemala. Mulet was arrested and charged with falsifying adoption paperwork. At Mulet’s pre-trial hearing in Guatemala City, one of the birth mothers testified that Rosal de Gamas had approached her at a street market when she was pregnant. “We kept chatting on various occasions and she even sometimes brought me bread or tortillas as a gift,” she said. “Finally she asked me if I would give him [the baby] to a person who could support him.”

Another birth mother, identified at the hearing as Delia D, earned 45 quetzales ($7.50) a month working as a maid. She testified that she was desperate when she discovered she was pregnant: the father said he wouldn’t recognise her child, and she was worried that her employers would throw her out. She was walking in a park in the centre of Guatemala City when a stranger approached her, asked about her pregnancy and offered to introduce her to Rosal de Gamas. When she assented, Rosal de Gamas showed her albums of photos of adopted children to convince her that her child would have a better life abroad.

Some birth mothers said they had had a chance to read the adoption documents before signing. But Delia D alleged that when she went to Mulet’s office to sign relinquishment papers, he was not there, and two young women rushed her along. “I did not read [the papers] and they did not read them to me,” she told the judge. “I did not find out what it was that I signed. The señorita told me I had five minutes to sign those papers.”


Mulet denied the allegations, saying that the case was a political farce aimed to tarnish his image. Despite the evidence of falsified paperwork, the charges were dropped and he was released from prison. In the years that followed, he continued to facilitate adoptions. In 1984, Mulet was investigated a second time for falsifying adoption paperwork, but the investigation did not lead to any charges. (Mulet went on to have a prominent career in politics. From 1993 to 1996, he was Guatemalan ambassador to the US; he then served various high-level roles at the United Nations, including chief of staff to secretary Ban Ki-moon. Last year, he ran for president in Guatemala, securing nearly 9% of the vote in the first round.)

On 3 March 1987, police raided a house owned by Rosal de Gamas where 16 children, aged between one month and two years old, were held. Once birth mothers were persuaded to relinquish babies and children, lawyers needed a place to house them while they finalised paperwork. Jaladoras therefore sometimes ran what were effectively temporary orphanages. Police accused Rosal de Gamas of falsifying paperwork for these 16 children with invented details about birth mothers for an adoption ring. At her home, police found adoption files as well as receipts for childcare and birth certificates. The police noted that she paid babysitters 100 quetzales a month ($40) and adoptive parents paid between $20,000 and $30,000 per adoption.

The investigation into Rosal de Gamas was widely reported in the Guatemalan media, alongside stories about fraudulent international adoption practices. Almost two decades later, in the mid-00s, such stories began to appear in the international press. The New York Times wrote: “Critics of the adoption system here – privately run and uniquely streamlined – say it has turned this country of 12 million people into a virtual baby farm.” Many news reports mentioned “baby hotels”, where foreign families lived for as little as a week to complete adoption paperwork and receive a child. The Marriott in Guatemala City sold nappies, wet wipes and formula next to postcards in the gift shop. The Camino Real, where Canadian mothers had waited to pick up babies from Edmond Mulet, outfitted its rooms with cots.

Dolores Preat had always assumed that her adoption paperwork was in order. She had no reason to believe otherwise until she began the search for her birth mother. Other adoptees’ inquiries hit a wall when it became clear that their paperwork was falsified. They were left with doubts: did their mother really want to give them up? Did a jaladora force her to do so? Did extreme poverty force her to do so? Or could they be one of the children who was forcibly disappeared during the civil war?

In 1987, in response to Ofelia Rosal de Gamas’s arrest, the Guatemalan newspaper El Gráfico published a bombshell of an article by Carlos Rafael Soto, a columnist and political analyst. Soto wrote openly about two issues usually unmentioned in the censored press at that time: army massacres and powerful people’s involvement in commercialised adoptions. Soto connected murderous state terror in the highlands, which was orphaning Indigenous children at a high rate, to lawyers and members of the elite profiting from adoptions. He identified “the exploitation of orphans as a valuable by-product” of war, one “destined to enrich a few people”. International adoption, Soto wrote, was a business and a way to cover up war crimes.


As in many armed conflicts, the Guatemalan civil war involved appropriating the children of those seen as the enemy and placing them with new families, inside the country and out. “Forcibly transferring children” from one group to another has been part of the UN’s definition of genocide since 1948, included because it was one of the techniques the Nazis used to wipe out populations. A report in 2000 found that of the 5,000 children in Guatemala forcibly disappeared during the war, at least 500 were put up for adoption. Most were Indigenous Maya. Human rights groups caution that that number is likely much higher, owing to fear of speaking about war crimes and the remote location of some of the most affected communities.

Many rightwing Guatemalans still strenuously deny that there was a genocide at all, and the history of children disappeared during the state terror stayed mostly silent, or was silenced. But this is gradually changing. Today, the walls of downtown Guatemala City are plastered with the faces of the disappeared, with posters and murals calling for justice. These are often pulled down, plastered over with apolitical posters or covered by stencilled graffiti declaring: “There was no genocide.” Then the faces of the disappeared reappear, hung again by activist groups.

One of these groups is Hijos, a Spanish-language acronym for children. Hijos was first created in Argentina by children of disappeared adults. The Guatemalan branch, which was founded in 1999, now works with adoptees who were themselves disappeared as children – including Francophone adoptees from Canada, France and Belgium. Other adoptees, including many who have neither the cash nor the desire to travel to Guatemala, frequently gather in support groups in Europe and the US. Preat is an active member of adoptee support groups and by all accounts a calming presence, counselling other adoptees on how to search for their birth families and how to handle what they find. Anglophone groups have been slower to form, since the adoptees are younger, but there are now two based in the United States. Each has more than 900 members.

Networks of adoptee groups around the world are lobbying for more transparency from governments about the circumstances of their adoptions. Slowly, their work is having an effect. In 2022, the French government announced an internal investigation “to identify past alleged illegal practices to prevent them from happening again”. Under pressure from adoptee activists, the Netherlands froze all international adoptions in 2021. South Korea, which over the last 70 years has placed more children abroad than any other country, last year opened its first governmental investigation into its long history of international adoptions.

In 2022, in Guatemala City, volunteers with Hijos hung posters around the capital. One poster read: “5,000 disappeared children. Where are they? Set fire to the genocidal state. We want justice.”

This is an edited extract from Until I Find You: Disappeared Children and Coercive Adoptions in Guatemala, published by Harvard University Press