A painful truth: Guatemalan adoptees learn they were fraudulently given away

Over 30,000 children in Guatemala were adopted internationally decades ago but some have learned they were taken away from their birth families.

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By Nicole Acevedo

Among a generation of Guatemalan adoptees, now adults, who grew up in the United States and Europe are a number who have learned a painful truth: They were taken away from their birth families in fraudulent circumstances, under adoption laws that drew international scrutiny and have since been revised.

Now, some of the adoptees are telling their stories in the hopes that there are more answers and clarity about a dark chapter in the nation's history.

From the 80s until the early 2000s, thousands of Guatemalan children were robbed and sold for thousands of dollars, separated from their mothers in the hospitals where they were born or taken from their homes.Courtesy Telemundo

"People in Guatemala want to know where their kids are. It's part of the country's history and now that we are adults, we owe that to ourselves and to them," said Mariela Sifonte, 31, who grew up in Belgium as Coline Fanon after being adopted when she was 11 months old.

Though Sifonte grew up in a loving family, her desire to know more about her birth family led to a decadelong search; along the way, she met other young Guatemalans on the same quest.

Her search ended in January 2018 when she finally reunited with her biological mother. That's when Sifonte learned she had been stolen from the hospital as a newborn. Her mother had been told her baby died during birth. When Sifonte's mother asked for the body, the hospital told her it had already buried the baby.

Mariela Sifonte, currently 31, holds a photo from when she was 11-months-old and adopted by a family in Belgium.Courtesy Mariela Sifonte

Between the 1990s and the mid-2000s, tens of thousands of Guatemalan children were adopted in the United States and internationally — 30,000 in the U.S. alone, according to State Department estimates.

But Sifonte's story illustrates the conclusions of a sweeping May 2007 report from the Hague Conference on International Law, which found that Guatemala's fragile laws at the time turned adoptions into a "business."

The report urged the country to fortify the way it investigated the circumstances surrounding a child's prospective adoption to ensure there weren't any "anomalies" regarding the child's "real origins" and that poverty wasn't the justification "for the delivery of children" to other families.

A recent Telemundo investigation found that individuals with connections to the Guatemalan government had been using the legal adoption system to profit from stealing and selling children internationally since at least the 1980s.

Grace González, who directed the investigative documentary, "The Lost Children of Guatemala," told NBC News that the country's fraudulent adoption scandal goes back to the country's civil war and the subsequent genocide of mainly indigenous groups.

Extreme economic and political inequalities triggered a civil war between the Guatemalan government and rebel groups that lasted 36 years, from 1960 to 1996. The Guatemalan army launched an operation in 1980 targeting the country's Mayan population, who were believed to be supporting rebel groups fueling the guerrilla movement. The army destroyed 626 villages, killed over 200,000 people and displaced an additional 1.5 million.

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Thousands of children were lost along the way and some who were found by the military were never returned to their families.

In 2007, before stricter adoptions laws were passed, Guatemala made $200 million in adoptions, according to a 2010 report from the International Commission Against Impunity of Guatemala.

"Guatemala has always been very divided socially, but the motivation seemed strictly economic," González said, adding that the business of adoption become a lucrative one for lawyers and government officials before the country's adoption laws were strengthened in December 2007 following public scrutiny and a national outcry.

"The law changed after the world had their eyes on Guatemala," González said. "But the lesson learned here, whatever the intentions, is that 30 years later, an entire generation has been affected by this and only a handful of people were charged."

Seeking answers

The memory of the day Osmin Tobar was taken from his mother in Guatemala has been replaying in his head like a broken record since he was seven years old.

Guatemalan authorities took him in 1997 after they allegedly received reports that he had been abused and abandoned by his mother — allegations they didn't bother to verify. Instead, Tobar was whisked away and spent two years in a children's home before a family in Pennsylvania adopted him.

"The biggest motivation I had to return to Guatemala was the memory of my mother," Tobar, 30, a father of two boys, told NBC News.

As Tobar yearned to be reunited with his mother for over a decade while living in the U.S., his father, who had been separated from his mother, was trying to reverse a declaration of abandonment — the legal move that allowed the Guatemalan government to put Tobar up for international adoption without his father's consent.

Tobar left Pennsylvania and moved to Guatemala after reconnecting with his biological parents in 2011. However, he has struggled with keeping a good relationship with both his biological and adoptive families.

In 2016, he took his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. He declared that no one asked him whether his mother mistreated him before putting him up for international adoption.

Tobar also said that authorities didn't ask him whether he preferred to live with another family member before being taken to a children's home.

Tobar's declaration made him the first person to win a case against Guatemala over fraudulent adoptions. As a result, the Guatemalan government was forced to admit it enabled years of misconduct.

"That day in court made me realize this was bigger than just me," Tobar said. "It gave me more passion and fire to be outspoken and not be afraid of holding people accountable."

While Tobar is still waiting on the Guatemalan government to make reparations on his case, the woman who facilitated his adoption is currently serving an 18-year sentence for child trafficking.

In the case of Sifonte, she said learning the truth about her circumstances was tough for her Belgian family.

"It has been a hard process for my adoptive parents to learn the truth because they trusted government agencies throughout the adoption process and they didn't know I was a stolen child," Sifonte told NBC News.

Belgium's federal justice system opened a child trafficking investigation on Hacer Puente, the adoption agency that processed Sifonte's adoption decades ago. Bernard Sintobin, Hacer Puente's former treasurer, later became the interim director of UNICEF in Belgium. He resigned in May after being accused of participating in an adoption ring.

Sintobin's lawyer, Patrick Hofstrossler, told Telemundo in a statement that “Mr. Sintobin is abstaining himself from making public statements and reiterates that he was never a witness to or participated in unlawful acts.”

Mariela Sifonte with her biological mother in Guatemala.Courtesy Mariela Sifonte

Sifonte, now a mother herself, said she's "at peace with her story" and keeps a good relationship with both her adoptive and her biological parents.

She's currently working on an autobiographical book expected to come out next year.

Edmond Mulet, a former diplomat for the United Nations and a recent presidential candidate in the Guatemalan elections, was accused of participating in an illegal adoption ring in the 1980s when he was a young lawyer.

While the charges were later dismissed, Mulet still insists that the Guatemalan government "saved children's lives through those adoptions."

"There are no victims here," he told Telemundo.

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