A shocked nation remembers 1990s scandal about corrupt adoption procedures and wonders how much is still going on.
March 12, 2006 | Rick Vecchio | Associated Press
LIMA, Peru — When the body of Claudina Herrera was discovered almost five months ago by the side of a highway, curled in the fetal position in a cardboard box, the cause of death was obvious: The pregnant 18-year-old’s belly was sliced open and her baby was gone.
Within days, her premature girl was located in intensive care at a public hospital, and the woman who had shown up with the baby — covered in blood and saying she had given birth in a taxi — was arrested along with four others. She was later found to be infertile.
Herrera’s slaying to steal her unborn child has shocked Peru and served as an ugly reminder of the early 1990s, when widespread allegations of corrupt adoption procedures led to a crackdown.
It also suggests that an illegal industry is still booming: Dr. Luis Bromley, chief of forensic investigations at the attorney general’s office, said the alleged perpetrators belong to one of at least a dozen rings trafficking in babies in Peru.
Peruvian police, working with Interpol, the FBI and investigators from Spain, Colombia and elsewhere, say they have already broken up one of the alleged baby-peddling operations.
Last month a German man and his Peruvian wife were charged with selling a baby for $16,870 to a German woman, who was detained with the child in Ecuador.
Police think that for more than a year, the couple had been buying newborns from poor women, then bribing officials in isolated jungle towns to issue false birth certificates.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Peru was famous for its relatively quick, easy adoptions. Thousands of foreign couples flocked to the country, and Americans alone adopted more than 720 Peruvian babies in 1991.
That changed after a series of scandals in which children were allegedly kidnapped from poor families and lawyers and judges were bribed to fake paperwork.
An embarrassed Peruvian government created a National Adoptions Secretariat to enforce new codes so bureaucratic and time-consuming that the number of legal adoptions by foreigners plummeted to 92 in 2004.
But activists say the restrictions may have merely pushed the industry underground.
“It’s a situation that favors the proliferation of these trafficking rings and creates the markets and conditions for these international networks to operate,” said Sandra Soria, executive director of Peru’s nonprofit Institute for Infancy and the Family.
She said it was impossible to know how many children were sold each year, not only for adoption but also for forced labor and the sex trade.
“The majority of cases of trafficked children go unreported,” Soria said. “They are largely sold voluntarily by their parents.”
Soria said Herrera’s case was a classic example of how sophisticated rings infiltrate public health clinics in search of vulnerable women. Bromley said that behind Herrera’s case “there wouldn’t be one, two or five people, but rather a mafia.”
What set the case apart is that Herrera turned up dead. “No similar precedent exists for the death of Claudina Herrera,” Bromley said. “These mafias don’t function by murdering women to obtain babies.”
Investigators think Herrera’s killers had an order to fill “and they urgently needed a baby girl,” Bromley said.
“What they had at hand was Claudina Herrera, and they took her against her will,” he said.
An autopsy indicated Herrera had been hit on the head and burned on the chest — a sign that defibrillator paddles were used to try to resuscitate her, according to police reports obtained by the Associated Press.
“Claudina Herrera was handled with surgical techniques … not by inexperienced people but by professionals, probably a doctor or obstetrician, probably with the participation of nurses [and] an anesthesiologist,” Bromley said.
According to police reports, Herrera was one of five pregnant teenagers approached in a rundown public health clinic by Ysabel Palacios, the woman who registered as the baby’s mother and is now charged with Herrera’s murder.
Herrera was living with the family of her boyfriend, only blocks from her family’s home in a poor Lima neighborhood on a dusty stretch of the coastal Andean foothills.
Palacios, 31, allegedly claimed to be a “coordinator” from Lima’s prestigious Hogar de Madre birth clinic, and offered to enroll Herrera and the other girls, all in their final trimester, in a free prenatal program for the needy.
Palacios told police that the teenagers were confusing her with another woman who offered free medical care and promised to find “foreign godparents to provide help” after the babies were born.
She denied ever meeting Herrera, and said she delivered her own baby girl in a taxi.
But a medical exam determined that Palacios had not given birth. In fact, medical records showed she had been infertile since October 2002, when she underwent tubal ligation. What she did have is a large benign uterine tumor that made her appear pregnant to a casual observer, which is why Peruvian media call her la panzona, the potbelly.
When police confronted her with their evidence, Palacios admitted calling Herrera’s house. But in a written statement to police, obtained by the AP, she insisted that she was pregnant, and said that she too was a victim of the baby-trafficking ring.
Palacios told police she and Herrera were both picked up by Diana Rivas, an obstetrics nurse, ostensibly for an appointment at the Hogar de Madre. Palacios claimed she went into labor in the taxi and began hemorrhaging, and that just before losing consciousness, she saw the taxi driver strike Herrera on the head with a tire iron.
Palacios said she awoke and was handed a baby she thought was her own. DNA tests later revealed the baby to be Herrera’s.
Rivas, who was arrested with Palacios, denied participating in Herrera’s murder, but acknowledged preparing a history of prenatal checkups for Palacios, documenting the development of an unborn baby that police said never existed.
Palacios is now in jail along with four alleged accomplices, her boyfriend, ex-husband, Rivas and a clinic social worker. Police are investigating several physicians, including one whose name appeared on a fake ultrasound Palacios presented.
Herrera’s father, Miguel Herrera, told the AP that on the day of his daughter’s slaying, a stranger called asking for her. “Today Claudina has an appointment in Hogar de Madre in the gynecology department,” he recalled the woman saying. “We need her to be there and we prefer that she come alone.”
Pilar Villavicencio, the mother of Herrera’s boyfriend, said Herrera had been looking forward to her baby shower at the time of her death.
“She was a very tranquil, good girl. Very innocent. Very humble,” she said.
Now, Villavicencio is helping to raise the baby girl. They call her Fabiana Antonella — the name Herrera chose a few weeks before she was killed.