A cross-border baby trafficking ring allegedly operated by welfare officials in northern Mexico — and then covered up by state prosecutors — is highlighting the issue of human trafficking in the country.
The infant trafficking ring reportedly involved officials from the Sonora state child welfare agency using their access to vulnerable single mothers to obtain babies they then sold in Mexico for up to 150,000 pesos, or $8,875. Babies were also allegedly sold in the United States for up to $20,000.
With the investigation inching along, the authorities arrested several people in Mexico accused of illegally adopting babies in the scam, but released them soon after and returned to their care the children they allegedly bought.
Human trafficking is a well-established branch of organized criminal activity in Mexico, though it tends to get little attention amid the dramatic threats to governance represented by drug cartels.
Some towns in the small central state of Tlaxcala are famed as bases for family run forced prostitution networks in which fathers teach their sons how to ensnare young vulnerable women into their rings with promises of love and marriage. Some Mexican beach resorts are also well-known hubs for child prostitution and pornography.
Adoption rackets, however, are less known. The ring in Sonora is particularly shocking given the alleged key role played by public officials supposed to be protecting children.
Juan Manuel Estrada, a member of a special federal commission on human trafficking in Mexico, also alleges that a cover-up from the Sonora state prosecutor's office kept the case on hold for several months.
Earlier this month, Estrada denounced Sonora Chief Prosecutor Carlos Navarro for dragging his feet in the case before the federal attorney general's office.
"He refrained from filing charges without any legal justification," Estrada told VICE News.
Estrada said the US Department of Homeland Security sent a letter to Navarro on March 26, identifying two members of an alleged ring that was "selling newly born babies to couples both in Mexico and the United States." He said Navarro did nothing to follow up the tip for weeks.
The letter said a lawyer named José Manuel Hernández López and his former girlfriend Emma Falcon were the central figures in a "complex network" that provided their clients with birth certificates identifying them as the children's biological parents. The letter noted that Hernández possessed a visa that enabled him to cross over the border and coordinate sales in the United States.
Another of Hernández's former girlfriends, Denisse Ramos Campillo, also went to the state authorities with a similar story.
In her statement, dated March 29 and also seen by VICE News, Ramos alleged that Hernández led the ring with Vladimir Arzate Carbajal, who worked as an attorney in the welfare agency.
She also named a hospital worker and police officer as members, as well as a doctor she said helped the ring get the adopting parents' names put on the birth certificates. Ramos also said she had seen Hernández pressure a woman into giving up her baby, and that he and Arzate each received a third of the takings.
Navarro's office, however, did not question either Hernández or Arzate until May. VICE News obtained copies of both their statements.
Hernández admitted to selling five babies to couples in Mexico since 2013, for 110,000 pesos (approximately $6,500 by today's exchange rate) each. He also confessed to traveling to Phoenix, Arizona, to collect part of a $7,500 fee for another baby sold to a client in Utah.
Arzate admitted to overseeing 13 illegal adoptions from early 2012 onwards.
Another document obtained by VICE News shows Navarro waited until August 20 to issue the first arrest warrants in the case. The list of 16 people included Arzate and Hernández, but they had already fled.
Navarro has also been accused of downplaying the scale of the problem. While he has mentioned 10 cases, the state human rights commission has said it has evidence of 17 cases. Estrada, meanwhile, claims knowledge of 50 such cases this year alone.
Rosi Orozco, the president of Mexico's United Anti-Human-Trafficking Commission, added her voice to the accusations against Navarro. She said he had been "protecting interests" by acting slowly.
"The case is extremely serious," Orozco told VICE News.
Navarro has rejected the accusations that he dragged his feet deliberately as "gibberish."
In a video statement broadcast earlier this month, he claimed he had opened an investigation into the ring before receiving the US government letter pointing it out in March. He also said he could not have issued arrest warrants for Arzate or Hernández earlier without violating due process.
"We did not get them red-handed," Navarro said. "We did not have enough evidence then to arrest them."
The eight people detained so far in relation to the case are all parents who allegedly bought the babies, though they were soon released without charge. The adopted children were also returned to them until the biological parents come forward.
Blake Urrutia, a lawyer representing several of the adopting parents, admitted they had made payments to "accelerate the process" but maintained they "were tricked" into believing there was nothing illegal involved.
He said they received birth certificates naming them as the children's biological parents several weeks after the adoptions were completed, but did not explain why none of them raised the alarm.
Their only intention, Urrutia said, "was to give the children a home, protection, health and a lot of love."
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