Image: Karla Zepeda, left, and Gabriela Velazquez claim that they agreed to lend their babies for a two-week photo shoot for $755 for an anti-abortion ad campaign
Bruno Gonzalez  /  AP
Karla Zepeda, left, and Gabriela Velazquez, pictured at Karla's mother house, claim that they agreed to lend their babies for a two-week photo shoot for $755 for an anti-abortion ad campaign.
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updated 1/23/2012 11:48:57 AM ET 2012-01-23T16:48:57

Life seemed to give Karla Zepeda a break when a woman came to her dusty neighborhood of cinderblock homes and dirt roads looking for babies to photograph in an anti-abortion ad campaign.

The woman allegedly asked to use the 15-year-old's baby girl in a two-week photo shoot for $755 (10,000 pesos), a small fortune for a teen mother who earns $180 a month at a sandwich stand and shares a cramped, one-story house with her disabled mother, stepfather, and three brothers.

But 9-month-old Camila wasn't just posing for photographs when she was taken away.

Jalisco state investigators say the child was left for weeks at a time in the care of an Irish couple who had come to Ajijic, a town of cobblestone streets and gated communities 37 miles away, thinking they were adopting her.

Prosecutors say the baby was apparently part of an illegal adoption ring that ensnared destitute young Mexican women trying to earn more for their children and childless Irish couples desperate to become parents.

Camila and nine other children have been turned over to state officials who suspect they were being groomed for illegal adoptions.

And authorities hint that far more children could be involved: Lead investigator Blanca Barron told reporters the ring may have been operating for 20 years, though she gave no details. Prosecutors also say four of the children show signs of sexual abuse, though they gave no details on how or by whom.

Nine people have been detained, including two suspected leaders of the ring, but no one has yet been charged.

At least 15 Irish citizens have been questioned, the Jalisco state attorney general's office said, but officials have not released their names.

Neighbors say most or all have returned to Ireland after spending weeks or months in Ajijic trying to meet requirements for adopting a child. None was detained.

Mom: It 'seemed very normal'
For Karla Zepeda, the story began in August, when she was approached by Guadalupe Bosquez and agreed to lend her daughter for an anti-abortion advertising campaign, she told The Associated Press.

Bosquez later returned with another woman, Silvia Soto, and gave her half the money as they picked the child up. She got the rest two weeks later when they brought Camila home.

"They showed me a poster that showed my girl with other babies and said 'No To Abortion, Yes To Life,'" said Karla, a petite girl cleaning her house to loud norteno music. "I thought it was legal because everything seemed very normal."

Before long, the message spread to her neighbors. Seven other women, most between the ages of 15 and 22, agreed to let their babies be part of the ad campaign.

Some already had several children. Some are single mothers. One of them doesn't know how to read or write. Five of them told the AP that they did not even have birth certificates for their babies when they came across Bosquez and Soto.

Story: Women held in Mexico-to-Ireland adoption racket

One said she needed money to pay for her child's medical care, another to finish building an extra room on her house.

All deny agreeing to give their children up for adoption.

"We're going through a nightmare," said Fernanda Montes, an 18-year-old housewife who said she took part to pay a $670 hospital bill from the birth of her 3-month-old. "How could we have trusted someone so evil?"

Babies given new clothes
The women say that Bosquez and Soto persuaded three of them to register their children as single mothers so they could participate in the anti-abortion campaign, even though they live with the children's fathers.

Children's rights activists say that also could have made it easier to release the child for adoption: Only the mother's signature would be needed.

The mothers were assured that the babies were being taken care of by several nannies and checked by doctors. The babies often returned home wearing new clothes.

Video: Mexican drug cartels target children (on this page)

Some of the mothers said they began having second thoughts. But when they declined to send their children back, they say, Bosquez and Soto insisted they would have to pay for the strollers, car seats, diaper bags and everything else they had bought for the babies.

Investigators say that Bosquez and Soto were taking the children to a hotel in Guadalajara, where they met with Irish couples who believed they were going to adopt them.

The plan began to unravel on Jan. 9, when local police detained 21-year-old Laura Carranza and accused her of trying to sell her 2-year-old daughter.

Slideshow: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border (on this page)

Investigators said Carranza denied that allegation, but acknowledged she was "renting" her 8-month-old son. She then led authorities to Bosquez and Soto.

Both are now being held on suspicion they ran the alleged anti-abortion ad campaign as a front for an illegal adoption ring. It was not clear if they have attorneys and they have not yet been brought before a judge to say if they accept or reject the allegations.

Carranza is also being held, as is Karla's mother, Cecilia Velazquez, who hasn't worked since she lost both legs in a traffic accident in 2010. Karla says her mother's only fault was agreeing to the ad campaign.

'Problems'
Seven of the mothers interviewed told the AP that the children had most recently been picked up by Bosquez and Soto between Dec. 27 and Dec. 30 for an alleged photo shoot. They returned the babies on Jan. 9 and 10, saying "there had been problems." The mothers said they didn't notice anything wrong with the babies or any signs of abuse.

Then state police investigators showed up at their homes and drove them and their children to the police department for questioning. The babies were taken from them and put into state protective custody. The women complained that only four of them have been allowed to see their babies since, and only once.

A statement from Jalisco state prosecutors' said authorities seized Carranza's two children from her and the other seven while they were with Irish couples. Prosecutors didn't respond to requests by the AP to clarify the discrepancy.

Residents of Ajijic, a town on the shore of Lake Chapala favored by American and Canadian retirees, say Irish citizens looking to adopt Mexican children began appearing there at least four years ago.

Jalisco state prosecutors' spokesman Lino Gonzalez wouldn't confirm the Irish had left, but said none had been charged with a crime.

Even if they had adopted the children, Ireland might not have accepted them because the adoptions were handled privately, Frances FitzGerald, Ireland's minister for children, said.

"Obviously, for any couple caught up in this, it's a nightmare scenario," she said.

"What you can't have in Mexico is people going to local agencies or individuals doing private adoptions because when they come back, there is going to be a difficulty," she added.

Prosecutors say they have been trying without success to reach the attorneys who were handling the adoption paperwork in the neighboring state of Colima.

Custody release statements signed by all of the mothers carry the logo of Lopez y Lopez Asociados, a firm owned by Carlos Lopez Valenzuela and his son, Carlos Lopez Castellanos. Authorities raided their home last week.

The release statements were shown to the AP by a local advocate for missing and stolen children, Juan Manuel Estrada of Fundacion FIND, who said they had been leaked to him by a state official. He said Lopez Valenzuela had separately sent him a lengthy statement by email declaring that he too may have been duped in the case and denying wrongdoing.

Prosecutors wouldn't confirm the authenticity of that statement, but it mirrors the stories of seven mothers who were interviewed by the AP.

Cheating 'very easy'
According to the statement, Lopez said he had handled adoptions in Colima state for 63 Irish couples since 2004. He said he first met Bosquez when she approached him in 2009 about giving her own unborn child up for adoption to an Irish couple, a process, he wrote, that was completed legally.

The statement said that Bosquez also introduced Lopez to a social worker and together they brought him the current case involving Zepeda and the other women from Zapopan, apparently hoping he could match the children to adopting couples.

It says Lopez was told the mothers wanted only to deal with the two women, and he agreed. The young mothers confirmed they never met Lopez.

Lopez didn't respond to emailed interview requests from the AP.

According to the statement, Lopez said he follows the stringent adoption laws set by the Hague Adoption Convention, which Mexico has signed.

Unlike Guatemala or China, Mexico has not been a popular destination for foreigners looking to adopt, perhaps because the process, done by law, is complicated.

"The legal adoption process in Mexico is difficult, but cheating in Mexico is very easy," Estrada said.

Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Mexican drug cartels target children

  1. Closed captioning of: Mexican drug cartels target children

    >>> mexican drug cartels are sinking to a new low. murdering children to terrorize the community and to scare rival gangs. a children's rights group now estimates 994 children under the age of 18 were killed in drug-related violence between 2006 and 2010 . jose diaz anchors the signature newscast. always good to see you, jose. historically, i thought children were off limits but the stories are brutal. one child was actually shot while cradled in his grandmother's arms. what is going on here?

    >> they have stopped respecting any level of humanity. you remember the scene in the godfather when the hollywood producer wakes up one morning and he opens the sheets in his bed and there is a horse's head as a message? that's what these drug cartels are doing, but they're using little children . as you say, chris , brilliantly, by the way. they're not only terrorizing the community, they are trying to establish terror and respect by using dead children with rival drug cartel gangs. so, what happens is that the civilian population, especially the northern border towns of mexico is literally living in this incredible level of fear. it's terrorism in its finest form when they're usiing little children as essentially the horse in the godfather movie.

    >> this hike in violence, he thinks, is actually a sign of success in the fight against drugs. do you buy that?

    >> yeah. a certain element of history. look, chris , chris look what happened in columbia during the '80s. i mean when the government got serious and went after these people and the dea was very, very involved in helping the columbian government dealing with these narco terrorists who have all the money in the world and multi-national corporations. once that battle went head on against the drug cartels . a huge spike in violence. but as you start taking down these cartel leaders, i mean, these aren't road scholars, by any stretch of the imagination. but they do have some organizational skills that the rest of the thugs don't necessarily have. so, when you start taking out one and the other and the other. the first thing is they react against the government and the second thing is, they react within them selves to be the next one to get power. so, it's a natural evolution. the problem is that the collateral damage is children. and women and people who have absolutely nothing to do and, yet, they are terrorized. chris , we were talking about this earlier, 88 bodies so far found about 80 miles from the u.s. border in mexico and they don't know who they are, but they could be the work of the stew maker, a guy who was practically proud, he was caught of getting the victims of the drug cartels and dipping them in acid. these are the kind of people we're dealing with in the border.

    >> jose diaz with a real reality check there. thanks. always great to see you. you can catch jose on noticiero each week night at 6:30

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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