Flaneur: “The Lie We Love”

Published in the Liberties

We tell ourselves myths in order to live with ourselves. Historians have the unpleasant responsibility of making that a little more difficult for us than it would otherwise be. This is a story about such a myth, and about the truth it obscures.

Guatemala was not a country at peace in 1977. It was still dealing with the consequences of an earthquake which had devastated it the year before, killing more than 20,000 people and injuring almost four times as many. That storm made landfall in the midst of a decades-long civil war in which a US-backed military government battled with left-wing guerilla groups supported by Cuba. So it is not surprising it went more or less unnoticed that, on March first of that year, the Guatemalan Congress ratified the Law Regulating the Notarial Procedure for Matters of Voluntary Jurisdiction. And historians are just as susceptible to distraction as the rest of the public, though it is one of their jobs to keep an eye out for dealings of historic import whether or not they make headlines.

In this case, attention should have been paid. One particular provision in the hastily passed bill rendered it an historically significant one, and not only because it included a law which appears in the law books of no other country. Sponsored by Guatemala’s esteemed Bar Association, the act allowed lawyers to arrange for adoptions between the two sides without oversight of a judge. In fact, adoptions could be conducted without any state mechanisms at all.

One of the myths we tell ourselves is that adoption is a beneficent practice. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is not, and as a result of this law, in Guatemala adoption became a mechanism of corruption and horror. The law inaugurated a brutal adoption system which was not abolished for thirty years. As historian Rachel Nolan points out in Until I Found You: Disappeared Children and Coercive Adoptions in Guatemala, “This type of private system does not exist and has never existed in any other country in the world.” And for good reason.

What’s wrong with cutting government red tape and allowing for willing adoptive and adoptee parents to exchange a child? Especially in a country with thousands of orphaned children, following the twin disasters of earthquake and civil war? Wasn’t it proper to make it more likely that children would find a family, especially one in a wealthier country such as the United States or Canada?

The project sounds rather like a libertarian fantasy. The fact that, unlike many such fantasies, it was tried in a real place for thirty years, allows us to see its real-life implications.

Only utter upheaval could have allowed for such an outlandish scheme to be implemented. The massive destruction caused by the earthquake provided the perfect context for the ruling military regime to pass the act. Thousands of families were still living in tents – who could oppose giving those homeless children stable lives?

The lawmakers, desperate for quick solutions, did not seem to notice that no such system had ever been established before. The far-right president of congress, Luis Alfonso López, an ally of President Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García hectored: “When an orphan, a nameless child, is abandoned to penury without even a last name, and a humanitarian person who is able do so wishes to adopt, they must begin a very lengthy adoption trial. The child is completely helpless…. So to benefit these abandoned children who are in need, the law establishes the notarial system of adoption.”

But whatever the purported benefits to the adopted children, a more obvious beneficiary was a group that had done the most to pass the law: the lawyers whose Bar Association, founded in 1810, was amongst the country’s most powerful organizations. With judges mostly out of the way, the lawyers now led the adoption process and would come to charge tens of thousands of dollars per case. This, in a country where the poorest employed citizens made as little as a couple of dollars a day. Their conniving initiative underscores that pushing the state aside doesn’t always lead to individual empowerment. Non-state entities can be all-powerful and oppressive, too. The Leviathan comes in many forms.

It is not hard to imagine what followed given the dazzling financial incentives. An industry of baby brokers, or Jaladoras (literally ‘pullers’), developed to supply lawyers with children for eager couples overseas. These brokers sometimes outright kidnapped children or used coercion or deception to acquire them from vulnerable birth parents. In other instances, the exchange was technically voluntary but a product of the crushing poverty of the birth families. Like so much in Guatemala, the process was polluted by social and racial prejudices. The indigenous Maya communities of Guatemalan highlands often didn’t speak Spanish and were otherwise disadvantaged in these exchanges. They were also victims of the genocidal campaigns of the country’s civil war. One of the war’s bloodiest periods was the short span, 1982-83, of General Efrain Rios Montt’s presidency. His anti-communist zeal was as much a symptom of the Cold War as of his loyalty to evangelical Christianity and ‘pro-family’ politics. The latter made him into something of a critic of the adoption regime but the only ‘criminals’ his extrajudicial courts went after were those on the lowest rung, i.e. some of the women accused of trafficking children. But he was overthrown in a coup in 1983, led by his defense minister, whose sister-in-law was implicated in an adoption crime case. The adoption regime was to continue unabated for decades more. At any rate, there had always been something sickly ironic about Rios Montt’s posturing as a ‘pro-family’ crusader. It was his murderous campaign that created many of the orphans who supplied the adoption industry.

In the thirty years this system held, tens of thousands of Guatemalan children were adopted internationally. The small nation of less than eighteen million overtook well-known orphan-exporting centers such as Russia and South Korea and provided the second most ‘sender’ adoptions in the world in absolute numbers. China was the only country which exceeded Guatemala’s children-export. In other words, it was, per capita, by far the largest source of children-for-adoptions in the world. At the height of the adoption boom in the early 2000s, as many as one out of every 100 Guatemalan children was put for adoption. Roughly 30,000 of these children went to the US. Sweden and Canada were two other common destinations. Eventually, the uproar over the practice, which was considered a national humiliation, resulted in the law being changed in 2007. Rios Montt outlived the civil war and the immunity he had enjoyed because of it. In 2013, he was sentenced to 80 years in prison for committing genocide although the Constitutional Court quashed that sentence and he died in 2018 before his retrial could be complete. 

Stories about adopted babies, lost parents, and mysterious origins occupy a strange sphere of human psychology. Tabloids, B movies, and fairytales are full of them. Even master auteurs like Pedro Almodovar and Asghar Farhadi addressed these themes, (Respectively: Parallel Mothers and Everybody Knows, both starring Penelope Cruz.)  

Rachel Nolan’s book about Guatemala is conscious about the hyperbolism which often colors treatments of this theme, but not overwhelmed by it. Her disciplined narrative does not indulge in simplification or sensationalism – a marked feat given the overlapping racial and militaristic elements of the story. It was cinematic, she did not have to make it so.

 But the book was born from Nolan’s dissertation and is enriched by her years of archival work and careful, deeply knowledgeable analysis. It is fattened with data and quotes from state archives, contemporary press, and adoption files, as well as interviews with a range of characters including former state officials, lawyers, and adopted children trying to untangle the mystery of their origin story. 

Nolan’s sweat stains the page: the work that went into this research is evident. But the book is as morally rigorous as it is intellectually and historically so. It is not clinical – it has heart. One of the most affecting parts of the book comes at its start: in the first chapter, titled The Lie We Love, Nolan dispels the myth we like to tell ourselves that most adopted children were orphans, that they had no parents to leave. A happy myth, and a false one. 

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