Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
The troubled legacy of Guatemalan adoptions

Five years ago, Jean-Sebastien Hertsens Zune went looking for his parents. He already had one set, a Belgian church organist and his wife, who adopted him as a baby from Guatemala and later moved the family to France. But he wanted to find his birth mother and father. When Zune was a teenager, his Belgian parents gave him his adoption file, holding back only receipts showing how much the process had cost. Most people pay little attention to their birth certificates, but for adoptees, these documents, along with notes about their relinquishment, tell an often patchy origin story.

Illustrations by Brian Hubble. Source image of Alberto Jean-Sebastien Hertsens Zune and his adoptive parents. Courtesy Alberto Zune

Illustrations by Brian Hubble. Source image of Alberto Jean-Sebastien Hertsens Zune and his adoptive parents. Courtesy Alberto Zune

The paperwork said that Zune’s birth parents, Alfredo Gonzalo Cajas Barrios and Rebeca Natividad López Ramírez, lived in a small town near the Guatemalan border with Mexico. Alfredo had signed the consent form with his name. Rebeca had dipped her finger in ink and signed with a thumbprint. The reason given for relinquishment was that Zune had been born with a clubfoot and his birth parents could not afford medical treatment. But his adoptive parents told him that his foot had been fine when he arrived in Belgium as a baby. Why had Alfredo and Rebeca really given him up for adoption?

At the age of twenty-seven, Zune moved to Guatemala and rented an apartment in Antigua, the former colonial capital laid out at the foot of a dormant volcano, with another volcano throwing up smoke in the distance. The city is popular among foreigners because it is a cheap and picturesque place to learn Spanish, with sixteenth-century church ruins and bougainvillea climbing the sides of adobe homes. At night, big, chattering black birds called zanates settle into a single tree in the city’s central park, and the gringos and Guatemalans gather to dance salsa clumsily. Zune took intensive Spanish classes in a tile-roofed house with a courtyard filled with flowers, and began to use his pre-adoption name: Alberto.

By the time he arrived in Antigua, Zune had already led a roving life—working as a bricklayer, a pizza slinger, and an airport information officer in Bosnia, Italy, Poland, and France. He earned a master’s degree in international business but hadn’t found a way to use it. Zune has a restless energy that keeps him from staying in one place for long. He speaks five languages, most with local slang and imperfect grammar because he picked them up by ear. Guatemalans looked at him strangely when he spoke Spanish with drawn-out, frenchified vowels. He looked like he could be local, but no one guessed that he was from Guatemala. “Brazil?” they would ask.

After two weeks in Antigua, Zune felt he spoke enough Spanish to communicate, and he set out for Catarina, the place listed in his adoption file as his birth parents’ home. Catarina is a small town in the southwestern corner of the country, an area through which the migrant caravans recently crossed on their way to the United States. Zune convinced a new Guatemalan friend to accompany him by motorcycle on the eleven-hour trek.

The road to Catarina begins smoothly, rising from Antigua through pine forests where indigenous families carry firewood up mountain paths on their backs, with tumplines looped over their foreheads bearing the weight. Then it becomes dangerous, as trucks, cars, and motorcycles pass one another around blind curves. The worst offenders are the “chicken buses,” worn-out American school buses painted in bright colors and repurposed as intercity transportation. As the road descends from the mountains into San Marcos, the pines give way to banana trees and the tropical heat of the border zone rises. Catarina is just a few streets crossed together in an area known for drug trafficking, where teenagers serve as lookouts for small-time narcos.

Before arriving, Zune had written to the Belgian Embassy, which put him in touch with a Belgian priest who had lived in the area for decades. The priest gave Zune the current address of his birth father, Alfredo, who was now married to another woman. At the address, Zune and his friend found a concrete-­block house set back from the street. Alfredo, a slight man with an intense gaze, answered the door and welcomed them effusively, professing himself delighted to see Zune again. “I’ve always remembered you, my son,” he said. “I never thought you would come back.”

Alfredo invited Zune to stay at his home in Catarina for several days. At family meals, Alfredo introduced Zune as his son, not mentioning the adoption but simply saying, “He’s a son who went away.” Everyone assumed this meant that Zune was the product of an affair, which would not be at all unusual. Alfredo didn’t want to talk much about the past, but he was curious about Zune’s life. How long could he stay in Guatemala? What had his life in Europe been like? Did he make good money at his jobs there? Zune stumbled along in Spanish, and his friend did his best to translate and help smooth the encounter.

Zune reveled in a feeling of belonging. A photograph from this time shows Zune smiling shyly with his hands in his pockets in Alfredo’s living room. Alfredo’s wife, with a pinched smile, has her hand on Zune’s shoulder.

At the end of his stay, Zune announced that he was going back to Antigua, but said he would return to visit often. Alfredo told him he was welcome anytime, but that it would be best not to seek out his birth mother. “She’s a bad type of person,” Alfredo told Zune, insinuating that she might even be involved with the narcos. “She won’t want to see you.” He would not say why.

Zune hadn’t come all the way to Guatemala to meet only one of his parents. He returned to Catarina a few weeks later, alone on the chicken bus. Rebeca lived on a small ranch just outside town. Her house was large enough only for a bed; the rest of her belongings—a table, a wood-burning stove—were arrayed on the grass outside. Rebeca was home, and she invited Zune in. Here, finally, was his mother. His first thought was that she looked older than her years. “I was so happy,” Zune recalled.

But Rebeca told him that there had been un error, a mistake. “I’m not your mother,” she said. Zune’s Spanish was not perfect. Maybe he had misunderstood. “Look, ma’am,” he said, “you are in my adoption file. It says here that you are my mother.” But Rebeca was insistent. “I only signed for you,” she told him, “nothing more.” A long time ago, she said, a powerful neighbor had forced her to pretend to be Zune’s mother. The neighbor brought her to a lawyer’s office in Guatemala City, where she consented to Zune’s adoption. She didn’t know how to read or write, so she signed the papers with a thumbprint.

The neighbor who forced her to sign the paperwork was Alfredo Gonzalo Cajas Barrios. Rebeca told Zune that the man who was posing as his father was rumored to be a child trafficker. People in the area said he had earned money finding children for lawyers in Guatemala City who arranged international adoptions. His wife, whom Alberto had met, had been involved in the adoption business, too, as well as the illegal importation of cars from Mexico.

Rebeca was religious, and what she had done had always bothered her. She said she had no idea who Zune’s parents were. She had only signed adoption papers that one time, but other women may have done it for Alfredo, too. She was very, very sorry. Alfredo had threatened that if she ever told anyone what she had done, terrible things would happen. She warned Zune to be careful.

Rebeca spoke spontaneously, and Zune was inclined to believe her. After thinking it over for several weeks, he decided to confront Alfredo. He took Alfredo’s whole family out to Domino’s Pizza at the shopping mall in Malacatán, a nearby town, and, in the food court, next to the ball pit for kids, Zune told Alfredo that he had met Rebeca and asked for the truth. Alfredo claimed that Rebeca was lying. They had been together for a short while, he said, and this really was Zune’s family. If Rebeca claimed that he was not the father, “maybe she had been unfaithful,” he suggested.

Zune, confused and unsettled, went back to Antigua. He started contacting adoptee support groups for help, and found that he was not alone in his predicament. He learned from lawyers working with a nonprofit organization that the adoption agency that had handled his case, Hacer Puente (“Make a Bridge”), was known to have placed children who were stolen from their birth parents with French and Belgian couples in the 1980s. The agency no longer existed, but the father and daughter who ran it had been named in several lawsuits. Zune was convinced that Rebeca was telling the truth. But if he wasn’t from Catarina, where was he from?

Zune had always believed that his birth parents gave him up voluntarily, but now he could not be sure. “I think about them out there, looking for me,” he told me. “I just want to talk to my real mother for one second, to find out if she gave me up because she wanted to or because she had to.” When the lawyers in Guatemala City asked him whether he wanted to open a criminal investigation into his adoption, he said yes.

Zune is one of tens of thousands of Guatemalan children who were adopted abroad over the past several decades. Between 1996 and 2008 in particular, Guatemala, a small country of 17 million people, was one of the world’s top sources of adoptive children for families in the United States. “Some countries export bananas,” a Guatemalan congressman told The Economist in 2016. “We exported babies.” Regulations were exceedingly lax, and it has now become clear that some of those babies were trafficked, and many others had their files falsified to speed up the process. Some children were stolen outright, often from poor, indigenous women in rural areas. A small number were abducted by nurses, who told the mothers that their babies had died in childbirth. In many cases, adoption lawyers working with foreign agencies paid women to coerce mothers into relinquishing their children. Guatemala began prohibiting foreigners from adopting in 2008, and thousands of families there have begun piecing together what happened and searching for their lost children. Zune is part of a wave of adult adoptees who are now returning to Guatemala to face disconcerting revelations about their pasts.

Adoptions from Guatemala began to rise during the country’s civil war, a conflict that was stoked by the United States. In 1954, the CIA backed a military coup overthrowing Guatemala’s democratically elected government, which had passed land reforms curtailing the United Fruit Company’s semifeudal control over the countryside. The coup resulted in a decades-long backlash. From 1960 to 1996, a small Marxist insurgency squared off against a series of right-wing military dictatorships. A United Nations–backed truth commission later found that at least two hundred thousand people were killed in the war, the vast majority of them indigenous Maya. Soldiers, police, and death squads seized people by the light of day, hustling them into vans and later tossing their mutilated bodies onto the street as warnings. The United States supported the dictators with military equipment, which was rerouted through Israel when human rights abuses became too egregious for Congress to swallow. The generals most infamous for torture and mass murder were trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, in Georgia. At the height of the killings, in 1982, Ronald Reagan flew down to Guatemala and said that the then dictator, Efraín Ríos Montt, was “a man of great personal integrity” and was getting “a bum rap.”

Ríos Montt claimed that indigenous people in Guatemala were particularly susceptible to guerrilla influence, so scorched-earth campaigns against whole villages were necessary. “The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea,” he proclaimed. “If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea.” (Nearly all Guatemalans have Mayan heritage, but around 40 percent of the population is considered indigenous because they speak Mayan languages or wear traditional, hand-woven clothing.) Ríos Montt also happened to be a Pentecostal Christian, converted by a group based in California. He appeared on television every Sunday to give long sermons on the importance of family values even while he ordered massacres against indigenous villages, from which surviving children were stolen. One former social worker told me that, in the 1980s, the Guatemalan Army would bring staff from the Ministry of Social Welfare in helicopters to the sites of massacres to pick up the children. These children were then held in state orphanages and put up for adoption, often with incomplete information about the identities of their birth parents or their places of origin.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed in 1948, defines genocide as including not only massacres of ethnic groups but also “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” This is a little-known provision, though the tactic has been used often. Nazi Germany had a program called Lebensborn (“Font of Life”) that identified and kidnapped “racially pure” children throughout occupied Europe. The children were placed with “Aryan” families as part of the eugenic plan to germanize the continent. Nazi officials burned adoption files at the end of the war, so the extent of the program is unknown. From 1976 to 1983, during the Dirty War, Argentine Army officials stole an estimated five hundred children of “subversives” before murdering the parents and raising the children or assigning them to childless right-wing families. Francisco Franco’s fascist government in Spain also kidnapped thousands of children and gave them to families loyal to the regime. In Guatemala, the transfer of children was not the result of a top-down campaign, though it was an expression of extreme racism against indigenous people dating back to the Conquest. A 2010 report from the Guatemalan Archives of Peace found that the disappearance of children during the conflict was driven in part by the idea of “destroying the seeds of future guerrilla fighters.”

Wartime adoption files from the state orphanages appear to have been falsified in large and small ways, especially those concerning children “remitted” by soldiers and police. Some children’s names were changed and details about their pasts erased. Other files show that family members who came looking for the children were turned away if they didn’t have proof of kinship, such as a birth certificate, which many poor people in Guatemala lack.

But the vast majority of adoptees did not pass through the state orphanages. Using an infrastructure of lawyers, middlemen, and connections with foreign adoption agencies that was created during the chaos of war, the private sector built a thriving commercial market for adoptions. In 1977, the Guatemalan Congress voted to allow adoptions without judicial oversight; a private lawyer could match a child to a family, fill out all the paperwork, and get the process rubber-stamped by the attorney general’s office. (This system was unique in the world and accelerated Guatemala’s adoption boom; elsewhere, even the hastiest and most slapdash adoptions were overseen by state agencies.) A private adoption was not cheap—it could cost anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000—but it was fast. Adoptions through the state orphanages took about two years to finalize, but private adoptions could take as little as six months.

Adoption lawyers worked with women called jaladoras, literally “pullers,” who found children for a fee—usually several hundred US dollars per child. According to a study by human rights groups, jaladoras were often women between the ages of twenty and forty, the most valuable of whom lived in the same communities as their targets; many were poor and indigenous themselves. Some jaladoras stole children outright, but more often they would approach young mothers or pregnant women on buses or at outdoor markets and try to persuade them to give up their children. They would flip through photo albums showing Guatemalan boys and girls in the comfortable homes of middle-class families in the United States and Europe. Jaladoras would promise to cover the cost of childbirth in a hospital or to pay for medical care for other, older children.

Jaladoras became infamous for their guile and deceit. One strategy they used was to pretend to award scholarships to the children of illiterate, indigenous women in rural communities. The mothers signed what they thought were scholarship documents, but they were actually adoption consent forms. The children were taken to “school” and never heard from again. One woman in a tiny town called Aldea Güisiltepeque told me that she had been the only parent to sign up her child for a program 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.”

Because so many documents were falsified, it is impossible to know what proportion of adoptions were illegal. Julio Prado, a former public prosecutor at the attorney general’s office who specialized in adoption cases, estimated that although the number of children kidnapped for adoption was very small, the majority of private adoptions were what he called “gray,” involving some form of coercion or fraud. When foreign adoptions were suspended, in 2008, the Guatemalan government ordered an investigation of the 3,342 adoption cases currently in process and found irregularities in more than half of them.

Zune had intended to stay in Guatemala for only a month, but he skipped his return flight to help with the criminal investigation. By the time I met him, he had been living there for two years. He had moved from Antigua to a less touristy neighboring town, Jocotenango, and decorated his new apartment with French and Guatemalan flags. When he invited me over, there was little food in the fridge and a lot of jarred protein powder stacked on top of it.

Zune is what Guatemalans call desconfiado, someone who doesn’t trust easily. Even before moving to Guatemala, he had an odd habit of secretly taping conversations. He showed me how he did it—by pressing the record button on his phone in his pocket without looking. At his apartment, Zune played me the recording of his confrontation with Alfredo at the mall. He had turned over copies to the Guatemalan attorney general’s office, and he had given a statement to the Belgian police, who were working with Interpol to investigate the adoptions handled by Hacer Puente. He was obsessed with the investigation, researching his case for hours each day.

Zune’s problem was not just that he didn’t know who his birth parents were, but that he didn’t even know what type of adoption his might have been. Was he one of the niños de la guerra? Had his mother been tricked or coerced? Was she even alive? Without the clues of language or dress, it was hard to say whether Zune was indigenous. Had he survived a massacre of which he had no memory? The only person who might know was Alfredo, and, for now at least, he wasn’t telling.

Even once Zune was convinced that Alfredo was lying to him, he continued to visit Catarina. He grew attached to Rebeca and brought her little gifts, mostly food. Even if she wasn’t his mother, he said, she had had the decency to tell him the truth. Alfredo was angry and hurt that Zune had gone looking for Rebeca, but he continued to treat him warmly, denying that he had done anything wrong. When Guatemalan investigators asked Zune to try to convince Alfredo to take a DNA test, Zune called him and said only, “I need to talk to you.”

Several days later, Zune, accompanied by two public prosecutors, set out from Antigua early in the morning in a black car with tinted windows. Zune had arranged to meet Alfredo in the central park of Malacatán, but when Alfredo saw him step out of the official car, he started to back away. Zune motioned him over, and Alfredo didn’t run. Zune explained that they were here to take him to the local health clinic to swab him for DNA. Alfredo didn’t want to go, but one of the officials took him aside and spoke to him alone. “Somehow, he convinced him,” Zune said. They drove Alfredo over to the health center. Alfredo was angry, and also somehow wistful. “I’m going to lose you,” Alfredo told him before getting swabbed. The test was negative.

Zune’s Belgian parents hadn’t believed him at first when he told them that he might have been stolen or coerced away from his family. “They kept thinking that Alfredo was my father, that Rebeca was my mother, that everything had been legal,” he told me. The DNA test finally persuaded them. They had known little about the civil war in Guatemala, but, as practicing Catholics, they had an idea that they might save a child from a desperate situation. The family had adopted a total of four children, each from a different country: Ethiopia, the Republic of the Congo, Colombia, and Guatemala. Like many who adopted from Guatemala, the couple did not know how children were selected and matched to families. They simply paid a lump sum to a lawyer for the adoption. None of Zune’s siblings had any desire to find their birth families, nor had they returned to their countries of origin.

Zune’s adoptive parents told him that one of the people who had facilitated his adoption was a tall, elegant Guatemalan woman named Ofelia Rosal de Gama. Rosal de Gama was the sister-in-law of General Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, the president of Guatemala from 1983 to 1986. According to records at the National Police Archive, she had been arrested twice for “trafficking in children,” once in 1983 and once in 1987. One mother, identified as Evelia R. in court documents, said that Rosal de Gama had approached her at a market in Guatemala City to ask whether she would be able to support the child she was expecting. Rosal de Gama gave the mother bread and tortillas, and eventually convinced her to give the baby up for adoption.

Rosal de Gama was named in one of the few pieces of investigative journalism published about international adoptions during the war, in El Gráfico in 1987, two years after Zune’s adoption. The article was titled “Orphans of the Highlands: Spoils of War?” The highlands are a mountainous region in central Guatemala, where the indigenous population is concentrated. The story began,

The discovery by the national police of safe houses of children destined for export has permitted the revelation of one of the most painful facets of the dirty war staged in Guatemala over many years: the exploitation of orphans as a valuable byproduct bound to enrich the few.

Rosal de Gama appears as one of the women assisting Army officials to place children for adoption—channels that ran through both the private adoption system and state orphanages. Her participation in Zune’s adoption suggested that perhaps he could be a war orphan or massacre survivor.

Rosal de Gama was never convicted, but it is not clear whether she was released from jail for lack of evidence, under political pressure, or thanks to a bribe. The court records fall off without resolution. She died several years ago—never having served a prison sentence.

For many years, the US Embassy in Guatemala City was reluctant to acknowledge the problem of adoption fraud, despite the fact that it had granted tens of thousands of visas to children adopted by American parents. According to the journalist Erin Siegal McIntyre, who wrote the book Finding Fernanda about adoption fraud in Guatemala, the embassy was aware of problems as early as the late 1980s. Through FOIA requests, Siegal McIntyre found that in 1987 embassy officials learned of a private nursery in Guatemala City where children were sold to American couples for $10,000 each. According to the embassy documents, the women who ran the nursery allegedly traveled to the country’s rural interior to “steal children.” The embassy complained in a cable to the State Department that it was too understaffed to deal with widespread fraud, but Washington refused requests to assign more personnel to adoption cases.

Later, the embassy instituted DNA testing prior to adoption approval in order to match children to the women relinquishing them, a measure that would have prevented Zune from being taken out of the country. But, according to Siegal McIntyre, some of these tests were falsified. Embassy cables from the 1990s through the 2000s show concern about a spike in fraud, but little action. On the rare occasions when the US Embassy slowed down adoptions for further investigation and doubled up on DNA testing, they received a flood of phone calls from members of Congress who were themselves getting angry calls and letters from their constituents—adoptive parents waiting for children.

While the United States waffled, legitimate concerns about criminal and semi-criminal adoptions led to paranoia and panic in Guatemala. In the early 1990s, rumors—which were never proved—spread that some children who were given up for adoption had been killed, their organs extracted for sale on the international black market. In 1994, Guatemala’s leading newspaper, Prensa Libre, irresponsibly published a graphic that resembled a butcher’s chart, showing what it claimed were prices in US dollars for children’s body parts. The most expensive organs were supposedly livers at $150,000, followed by a set of heart and lungs at $125,000; pancreases at $90,000; kidneys at $65,000; and corneas at $2,500. (In Guatemala, per capita income that year averaged $1,300; workers in rural areas earned much less.) Hysteria increased even though Prensa Libre cited no sources. Several foreigners who spoke to Guatemalan children or took pictures of them were attacked by large crowds; at least two were killed.

In the end, it was a combination of public protest, the US Embassy’s fear of ongoing scandal, and pressure from ­UNICEF that led to the outright ban on foreign adoptions in 2008. But Guatemala has been slow to reckon with its history of genocide, or connect it to the problem of adoption fraud. In 2013, the year before Zune arrived in Guatemala, the former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was indicted by the attorney general and tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. The prosecution cited adoption files from the 1980s as evidence of genocidal acts. Ríos Montt was convicted, but the judgment was later overturned under political pressure, and last year he died under house arrest while awaiting retrial. Although the truth commission ordered the Guatemalan government to search for the five thousand children who were disappeared during the war, no systematic effort has been initiated. Former generals still control the country, and genocide denial is common.

Wealthy private lawyers who engaged in adoption crimes have mostly gone free. If anyone went to jail, it tended to be the jaladoras or the nannies hired by lawyers to look after children before their adoptions. One prominent exception is Susana Luarca, a lawyer formerly married to a Guatemalan Supreme Court justice, who, in 2006, helped arrange the adoption of a two-year-old girl who was reportedly kidnapped from her parents’ patio in San Miguel Petapa, south of Guatemala City. When I visited the parents, Loyda and Dayner Rodríguez, they showed me the tiny dresses that their daughter had worn before she went missing, still folded away in a chest of drawers. Over a decade had passed.

I met Luarca in 2016 at the women’s prison in Guatemala City. We spoke in her private cell—a rare luxury—­where she keeps three formerly feral cats, one of whom is named after a reggaeton star. She was wearing sandals and showed me her perfectly manicured toenails, saying she had enrolled in a beauty course inside. “I’m the only one who does the homework,” she said.

Luarca arranged her first adoption in 1984, for friends—a childless American couple visiting Guatemala. After her divorce, she told me, she made a living facilitating hundreds of adoptions through the private system. Eventually she opened a nursery for the children whose adoption paperwork she was processing. “The fact that I adopted two children myself is not considered a mitigating circumstance. Neither is the fact that I had the most beautiful nursery where the children were the best cared for,” Luarca told me. At its peak, her nursery, in the capital’s upscale Zone 10—four blocks from the US Embassy—had been staffed by uniformed maids and held up to a hundred babies at once. “Children don’t need much space,” she said. Luarca did confirm that she worked with jaladoras, whom she paid for their services. She did not scrutinize their methods. Luarca told me she’s angry that she doesn’t have more company inside. Other lawyers, she said, did the same things.

Source images: Housing on a plantation in southwestern Guatemala, 2015 © Lucy Brown/Alamy; Guatemalan Army, 1985 © Jenny Matthews/Alamy

Source images: Housing on a plantation in southwestern Guatemala, 2015
© Lucy Brown/Alamy; Guatemalan Army, 1985 © Jenny Matthews/Alamy

Families searching for disappeared children in Guatemala rely on a nonprofit organization called La Liga Guatemalteca de Higiene Mental, run by Marco Antonio Garavito. Garavito is a compact, warm man with a mustache, who was trained as a social psychologist. Even before the war ended, he began to quietly ask around about the whereabouts of children who had gone missing or were taken by the Army. Now he works with a small staff out of an unmarked office in downtown Guatemala City.

The work of reunifying families is slow and difficult. Birth parents and adoptees rarely speak the same language, and Garavito struggles to find regular translators for all twenty-one Mayan languages. He and his colleagues travel long distances by jeep and on foot to gather testimony in remote parts of Guatemala where the war hit hardest. “We haven’t been able to get everywhere, so there are still stories that aren’t known,” says Garavito. In Argentina, a DNA database has been the most important tool in helping to find stolen children, but La Liga’s irregular funding has meant that they are able to match stories more frequently than blood. Despite all this, La Liga has managed to find the families of 488 disappeared children. Thousands more families are still looking.

Zune became friends with Garavito after dropping off a copy of his adoption papers at La Liga, in case he was a match with one of the families in their database. After reviewing Zune’s file, Garavito said it was unlikely that he was a victim of the civil war after all. The paperwork for disappeared children—even forms that have been falsified—generally locates the children’s birthplaces in the indigenous, highland regions of Guatemala, not the border area near Mexico. For Zune, it is hard to be certain about anything. “According to La Liga, my adoption wasn’t because of the war, but due to private trafficking,” he told me. “But how to know for sure?”

La Liga’s archives are full of testimony from parents, often some variation of the story told by the K’iche’ Mayan couple Felipe Sosa Sarat and María Sarat Ordóñez. In 1982, the Guatemalan Army attacked their town, and the couple fled up into the mountains, getting separated in the confusion. Felipe was shot in the foot while carrying their four-year-old son, whom he set down to seek help and to try to find his wife. When he returned, his son was gone. La Liga discovered that soldiers had found the child and taken him to a military base. He was then given to a private orphanage called La Casa del Niño del Quiché, where staff changed his name, declared him to be in a legal state of abandonment, and gave him up for adoption to a family in the United States. “I just want him to know about everything I did to search for him,” Felipe said. “In spite of all the time that has passed I love him just as much, if not more.”

When La Liga does manage to match a family to their missing child, Garavito often organizes a Mayan ceremony with candles, incense, and a spread of tamales. He has started inviting Zune, who, understandably, has become something of the star of these ceremonies. Whenever he attends an event, he is surrounded by several rings of parents at all times. One family from Nebaj became convinced that Zune was their son who went missing after a notorious 1982 massacre. Garavito had to break the news gently to both the family and Zune that it was not even worth doing a DNA test, since he was too young to be their son. “They still write me every once in a while to see how I’m doing,” Zune told me. He recalled that he sobbed openly when attending his first reunification ceremony, but now considers those events the highlight of his time in Guatemala because of all of the affection shown to him by the parents. “They are all missing children,” Garavito said, “and he is the one who came back. They like to imagine that he is theirs.”

There are many people in Guatemala and abroad who believe that international adoption should be reopened. The highest-­­profile advocate is Elizabeth Bartholet, an adoptive mother of two children from Peru and a professor at Harvard Law School. Bartholet acknowledges that there is some fraud in international adoption, but she believes the response should be to address the illegality, not, as she put it, to “shut the whole thing down.” “There is a huge cost to be paid by the children who are denied adoptive homes and typically end up in institutions,” she told me. The problem with this view is that most of the children adopted from Guatemala were not orphans or street children, but were sourced by adoption lawyers. One journalist called the idea that most international adoptees are orphans “the lie we love.”

Some conservatives argue that reopening Guatemala to international adoptions could help assuage the current political crisis over migration. The implicit argument is: if Central American families had the option of sending their children for placement with adoptive families in the United States, the whole family wouldn’t have to migrate. Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who adopted a child from Guatemala right before the ban in 2008, brought up the idea in the midst of last summer’s family separation crisis at the border. “We should make adoption easier for American couples,” she said. “Let’s put our hearts out there for the kids in the right way.”

Although the Trump Administration claims it is seeking to reunite families who have been separated at the border, the Associated Press found in October that some children of deported Salvadoran mothers were at risk of being processed for adoption by families in the United States. The AP investigation drew on immigration records, interviews, and hundreds of court documents to show that there are “holes in the system that allow state court judges to grant custody of migrant children to American families without notifying their parents.” One undocumented Guatemalan woman in Missouri, who was arrested in an ICE raid several years ago, sued from prison to stop her one-year-old son from being adopted by an American family. A judge on a Missouri Circuit Court found in favor of the adoptive family, writing about the mother that “smuggling herself into the country is not a lifestyle that can provide any stability for the child.”

In December, I visited Zune one last time. He was working at a call center in Guatemala City, making a good salary because he could answer the phones in French, and he commuted back and forth from Jocotenango on his motorcycle. After an overnight shift and a session at the gym, he showed up to meet me in black and neon-yellow athletic wear and said he was taking herbal supplements to keep his energy up.

Zune had written about his search on Facebook, and other adoptees had started to contact him for advice. Many did not have the time or resources to travel to Guatemala but were still hoping to find their birth parents. Zune cautioned them that opportunities to make money from adoptions had not completely dried up after they were banned. A number of former jaladoras and others now worked as “searchers,” locating birth parents for a fee of about $1,000 per case. One searcher I interviewed, who asked not to be identified by name and emphasized that she had not worked as a jaladora, said that she had completed hundreds of searches, which often led her to gang-­controlled areas in Guatemala City. “I’ve never found a mother who was not poor or exceedingly poor,” she said.

Zune put other adoptees in touch with Garavito and explained how to look for family members without paying a searcher. When I last saw him, he had just hosted a twenty-eight-year-old French adoptee, Mario, in his apartment for three weeks, and they had a great time eating pepián, a national dish, and buying handwoven textiles. “He even ate tortillas,” Zune said. Tortillas are one thing Zune never got used to about Guatemala, despite the fact that they are served with every meal. “In my house,” Zune told me, “there will never be tortillas.”

Zune told me that his case had been presented in June before a panel of Guatemalan judges and that the public prosecutors were close to an arrest warrant for Alfredo. He has joined several other Belgian adoptees in a lawsuit against the people who ran the adoption agency, Hacer Puente, with a lawyer who has prosecuted drug traffickers in Belgium. In the meantime, Guatemalan public prosecutors had given Zune closure, of a kind. They still didn’t know who his birth parents were, but told him they are “ninety percent sure” he is Mexican, not Guatemalan.

In the 1980s, Mexican children were often brought into Guatemala for easier and more profitable adoptions. “Everything links me to that trafficking network,” Zune told me. The public prosecutor, Oscar Gálvez, did not want to reveal more information while the investigation was ongoing. Julio Prado, the former public prosecutor, said that, although he hadn’t worked directly on Zune’s case, it was also possible that Zune was the son of a sex worker, since the border zone sees a lot of prostitution. If so, Zune’s mother may even be from another Central American country—Honduras, Nicaragua, or El Salvador. Malacatán, the largest town in the area, was and remains a crossing point for migrants into Mexico on the way to the United States. “Many Central American women migrating to the US ran out of money and stayed,” Prado told me.

I asked Zune whether, if it turned out that he was Mexican or from another country, he would move away and start a new life again. “I swear on my parents, I swear on God, or whoever, that I won’t,” said Zune, laughing. “I came here, I’ve got all the paperwork, I’m not going to reject Guatemala.”

Every time I talk to Zune, he says that he is planning to move back to Europe within the next few months. And every time I go back to Guatemala he is still there. Zune has been saving money to build a small house, and he has his eye on a plot of land near his current apartment. He was recently offered a job in France and is considering accepting. If he goes, he says, he will still buy the plot in Guatemala and will probably retire there one day. He is no longer bothered by having two, three, even several lives.

| View All Issues |

July 2019

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now