When you think of human trafficking in North America, you probably don't think of the illegal baby-buying trade. But that's exactly what investigators in the United States and Mexico were shocked to discover was taking place in the Northern Mexican state of Sonora, involving employees of a state child welfare agency who sold newborns to desperate couples on both sides of the border.
According to Vice News and El Universal, a Mexican newspaper, the babies were sold off to Mexican couples for prices ranging between 80,000 and 150,000 pesos (around $5,000 to $10,000 U.S.), and up to $20,000 to couples in the U.S.
Reports say while some mothers willingly sold their babies, the Sonora state child welfare agency exploited their access to "vulnerable single mothers" to persuade or pressure some mothers into giving up their babies for adoption. One attorney with the state welfare agency confessed to overseeing as many as 13 illegal adoptions, dating back to 2012. Another attorney admitted to selling five babies to couples in Mexico since 2013, as well as traveling to the U.S. to collect fees for a baby sold to a couple living in Utah. There is evidence of at least 17 babies being sold, and more than 50 cases that are currently being investigated in 2015 that could be part of the ring, according to the president of Fundación FIND, an organization that helps find missing children.
According to statements from two witnesses who had knowledge of the babies being sold, and who cooperated with the investigation, a hospital worker, a doctor and police were also allegedly involved in the ring.
And, according to at least one official who sits on the Mexican federal commission on human trafficking, the Sonora state prosecutor's office kept the case on ice for months without filing charges against those involved, even though the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent a letter to Sonora's chief prosecutor back in March of this year identifying two suspects who were alleged to be part of the baby-selling ring.
Eight parents involved in adopting babies who were sold in the trafficking ring have been detained, questioned and were released without being charged. The illegally adopted children were returned to the adoptive parents and will remain in their care until the biological parents are located. A lawyer representing some of the adoptive parents said that they admitted to paying fees to speed up the adoptions, but they "were tricked" into believing the adoptions were completely legal. However, the attorney did not explain to reporters why the adoptive parents are listed on the babies' birth certificates as the biological parents.
Although human trafficking in Mexico is not a new occurrence, it's typically tied to organized crime and does not involve the state government agencies designed to protect children.
Coincidentally, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein recently visited Mexico for the first time since his predecessor visited four years ago and made recommendations for the country to put safeguards in place to stop human rights violations, including human trafficking. He said at a news conference in early October that although Mexico has made "significant progress toward building a solid human rights framework," his visits with President Enrique Peña Nieto, senior government officials and others led him to conclude that there is still much work to be done.
According to official statistics shared by the UN, about 98 percent of all crimes go unsolved in Mexico and most crimes are also not even properly investigated. Hussein recommended the government "urgently strengthen the attorney general's offices across the country to ensure that human rights violations are properly investigated."
Hussein noted that although organized crime is responsible for much of the violence and other issues causing Mexican citizens to suffer, federal, state and municipal authorities and officials "acting in their own interests or in collusion with organized criminal groups" are also responsible.
"The devastatingly corrosive impact of organized crime and the huge amounts of money these gangs command is co-opting or corrupting key institutions, and in some areas reducing Mexico's impressive array of laws to mere words on paper," said Hussein. "The combination of fear, greed and chronic impunity is potent, and millions of people are suffering from this poisonous cocktail which once brewed is hard to eliminate."