All it took was a moment. Loyda Rodriguez recalls carrying her groceries into her Guatemala City apartment before turning around to find her two-year-old daughter Anyeli gone from the patio.
“I said, ‘Where is she?’ I was very confused – why did they take my nena?” said Rodriguez of that afternoon in November 2006. As it turns out, her “nena” (Spanish slang for “baby girl”) was on a long journey to Liberty, Missouri, to be adopted by Jennifer and Timothy J. Monahan.
Last week, the Guatemalan government announced that it will begin reviewing adoption cases that were halted midway after the United States barred all adoptions from Guatamala in 2007, for the latter’s failure to comply with Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoptions regulations that aim to prevent child trafficking. All reviewed cases found to have established consent with the birth parent of the adopted child will be allowed to proceed, while those adoption cases opened after the U.S. decision will remain closed.
The decree marks an initial step toward repairing the nation’s battered adoption system, and follows a court decision reached on August 1 calling for the return of Anyeli, who now goes by the name “Karen Abigail Monahan.” The court decision was based largely on the fact that Anyeli had been kidnapped, by human traffickers.
After four years of living together, Anyeli’s adoptive parents are now being ordered to return the six-year-old to her birth mother, whose identity was confirmed through a DNA test. The Monahans have two months to comply with the order, or the International Police will intervene.
While the couple has declined to speak with the press, they issued a statement saying they will “continue to advocate for the safety and best interest of their legally adopted child.”
But for Rodriguez, justice means Anyeli coming home to Guatemala.
Once a highly popular source for adoptions, Guatemala in 2007 sent 4,726 children—the second highest number of children after China—to the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State, earning private Guatemalan attorneys about $35,000 per case.
Most other developed countries had already halted Guatemalan adoptions by 2002, in response to child trafficking allegations. Within the country, meanwhile, rumors of child theft incited large mobs to lynch several suspected traffickers.
Anyeli’s kidnapping is emblematic of Guatemala’s infamously corrupt adoption system, said Claudia Hernandez, assistant director of Fundacion Sobrevivientes (Survivors Foundation) in Guatemala City. She added that Rodriguez’s case marks the first tentative step toward delivering legal justice to victims of child trafficking in Guatemala.
“I feel like I have her! I’ve won!” exalted Rodriguez, from within the protective walls of the human rights organization. Her sense of elation comes on the heels of a grueling five-year search for her daughter, an experience Rodriguez, now 26, can recall with amazing clarity.
Immediately after Anyeli was stolen in 2006, Rodriguez said she called the police and asked neighbors if they’d seen her daughter, and the next morning she went out at dawn to search, to no avail. Her husband contacted the government, which led nowhere, so they decided to keep the search up on their own.
“I kept looking, putting out flyers, but nothing, nothing from the authorities,” she said. At a friend’s suggestion, she went to orphanages, to see if any had taken in her child. “But they said I couldn’t enter without a judge’s order, for the security of the kids there.”
Finally, Rodriguez went to Fundacion Sobrevivientes in 2008, and the organization helped her gain entrance to look at photos of found children in the Public Ministry of Guatemala’s archives. But there were no matches.
Rodriguez, upon learning of two other mothers with missing children, went on a hunger strike in May 2008 with the other women for eight days in front of the government palace, a tall historic building in Guatemala City’s center square.
Thanks to attention from that strike, Rodriguez said, the government began to help, bringing children from the orphanages to the National Attorney General’s office for the women to meet. But child after child entered, and none was Anyeli. Exhausted, she returned home to her two young sons, then being cared for by relatives. Her husband was in Canada, she said, where he works as a migrant farmer four months each year to help make ends meet.
At home she wouldn’t lose hope, but her anguish deepened as time passed and she heard nothing of her child. So she went with her brother to look, again, in November 2008, this time combing through thousands of photos of children in the National Council for Adoptions. Then her brother suddenly held one up.
“He looked at me and said–this is the nena!” Rodriguez recalled, gasping again at the memory. “We took it and looked, made it bigger on the computer to see–and it really was her! I have her, I found her!”
The Public Ministry in 2009 then began an investigation of the case, naming nine culprits including members of the Guatemalan national military (PNG) and a judge who helped change Anyeli’s identity to “Karen Abigail.” But after the discoveries, Rodriguez said she began receiving death threats.
“Many cars came to my house and asked if it was where I lived, and they took my sister but fortunately she escaped,” recalled Rodriguez. They even came to Fundacion Sobrevivientes seeking information on Rodriguez’s whereabouts. Terrified, she took her children out of school and fled Guatemala City, moving to a small town six hours away.
Rodriguez’s brother said the delay in finding Anyeli was due to government negligence.
“They [the government] didn’t listen for so long,” he said. “But yes, now we have justice–we’ll have full justice when all the guilty are in jail, so my sister can be safe… I don’t know how she’s been so brave.” Eight out of nine of the suspects have now been captured, and are in prison awaiting trials.
Though Rodriguez said she still fears people associated with her attackers–she wouldn’t walk three blocks outside to the market in Guatemala City– she still insists that her daughter should return home.
”I know she won’t recognize me because she was so small, so I’m going to have a lot of patience. When she comes it’s going to be different because I don’t know how she lives there. I don’t know how I’ll understand her,” admitted Rodriguez. “But I have faith that she’ll accept me because I’m going to tell her what happened. I’m going to tell her I’m her mama and I think she’ll feel good, to feel the love of her real mother.”
Read more at New America Media →