GUATEMALA CITY – Adoption officials said Wednesday that DNA tests indicate a Guatemalan baby reported stolen from her mother was being adopted by a U.S. couple, the first strong sign that the Central American nation's troubled adoption system relied in part on abducted children.
Authorities have long believed that children were stolen or bought to supply Guatemala's $100 million-a-year adoption industry before thousands of pending adoptions were frozen in May.
Previously, dozens of mothers reported stolen babies and at least two were found in orphanages, although they had not yet been put up for adoption.
But adoption officials revealed to The Associated Press on Wednesday that DNA tests identified toddler Esther Zulamita, who was reported stolen on March 26, 2007. The girl was in the process of being adopted to an unidentified U.S. couple.
Jaime Tecu, director of a team of experts reviewing all pending Guatemalan adoptions, said the DNA test results represent the first time officials have directly linked a baby reported stolen by its mother to the fraud plagued adoption system.
"This is the first time that we've been able to show, with irrefutable evidence, that a stolen child was put up for adoption," Tecu said.
The baby's mother, Ana Escobar, said armed men locked her in a storage closet at the family's shoe store north of Guatemala City and took the 6-month-old.
"When I got out, my daughter was gone," she told the AP in an earlier interview about the case.
She spent months searching hospitals and orphanages, looking for the child.
In May, Escobar says she was sitting in the National Adoption Council's offices, hoping to get access to the babies whose adoption cases were being reviewed. She looked up and saw a toddler who looked like her baby.
The image of the child being carried by an official haunted her, and she asked officials to see more photos. Soon she was sure the baby girl was hers.
All of the girl's papers were in order, including DNA tests showing that her birth mother was someone other than Escobar. But Escobar convinced officials to take new DNA tests.
"She was so sure that the child was hers that we agreed to search the house where the baby was kept," Tecu said.
The baby was placed with a caretaker while her adoption was pending, but Escobar convinced a Guatemalan judge in May to let her care for the child while the new DNA tests were performed.
"I can't explain how excited and happy I am," Escobar told the AP on Wednesday. "It's a miracle."
Tecu said officials will investigate the lawyers who handled the adoption, the doctor who signed the falsified DNA tests, and anyone else associated with the process.
"This was run by a mafia, and we going after them," he said.
Guatemala froze all 2,286 pending adoptions in May, and officials are reviewing each case to confirm there is no fraud.
At the same time, Guatemala is just starting to adopt babies under a new, more stringent system run by an independent adoption commission.
Before the reform, foreign couples, mostly from the U.S., paid up to $30,000 to adopt children.
The previous system was so quick and hassle-free it became the second-largest source of foreign babies to U.S. couples after China.