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By Ramona Wadi
The nature of child trafficking, or illegal adoptions in Chile since the 1950s, is akin to the dictatorship practice of disappearing its opponents. Chilean Adoptees Worldwide (CAW), an organisation set up to unite the children who were illegally taken from their mothers and trafficked internationally through adoption, is working to uncover and bring to justice an intricate criminal web involving a plethora of professionals from legal, social and religious institutions.
Alejandro Quezada, who is a victim of the illegal adoptions system and one of the founders of CAW, spoke to The Wry Ronin about the organisation’s aims.
“CAW was formally started in 2018, once we clarified our aims and objectives regarding the illegal adoptions and child trafficking that took place in Chile. Last year, Judge Mario Carroza was appointed to start investigating the illegal adoptions in Chile. In 2018, the number of official complaints by mothers and families who lost their children under the most bizarre circumstances rose to 10,000. New cases are still coming in. CAW serves an important role by seeking to connect all adoptees worldwide and updating them about the processes that are being pursued today – all of which concern them, having been severed from their origins at a young age.”
Maria Stodart, one of CAW’s founders, was illegally adopted from Chile to Sweden when she was eight and a half years old. She says she was one of the lucky adoptees – at age 14 her Swedish adoptive mother took her to Chile to meet her biological family and thus was able to maintain contact.
Alejandro Quezada and Maria Stodart.
However, since then she got to know that her younger brother was also taken away from her mother at birth. Speaking to The Wry Ronin, Stodart said, “The nurse at the hospital and the social worker told her that he was dead. But I know from other sources that he was put up for adoption to Italy.”
Quezada clarifies a misconception that has taken root in the media.
The illegal adoptions are not solely tied to the dictatorship – CAW founder Alejandro Quezada clarified this after Chilean media published an article that specifically linked the trafficking to the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.
Following that misrepresentation, he says, “would mean that we are taking away the right of anyone who became a victim of child trafficking before and after the dictatorship era. People who lost children in the sixties are really sad and disappointed that the press has largely persisted in attributing the adoptions to the dictatorship.”
The Mapuche population was also targeted by the trafficking network. Last April, Mapuche Lonko Juana Calfunao presented the International Criminal Court with documents pertaining to the genocide of the Mapuche population.
Juana Calfunao (left) outside the International Criminal Court.
Details of the illegal adoptions affecting the community were also included.
Stodart is also one of the many illegally adopted Mapuche children who were trafficked to Europe. Between 1970 and 1980, at least 1,000 children were trafficked from the Araucania region, mostly to Sweden.
Of her own adoption, Stodart says, “It was only when I went to the Chilean consulate the other day that it was confirmed I was not given up for adoption. My papers show a draft of a custody care order that was given to my Swedish mother. My so-called adoption consists of only five pages.”
Stodart explains, “Various judges and social workers granted care or custody for us, but we were adopted only within the law of the country in which our adoptive families lived. This means that the Chilean state does not recognise our adoption and we have been left with a double identity.”
Quezada notes that Chile had no adoption law until 1988. “Most of us left the country under a “personal care” law, which is completely different from adoption. With an adoption the legal part of the biological parents, being juridical responsible for the child, goes over to the adoptive parents. In the case of an inter-country adoption, the adoptee should be deleted from the system of the country of birth. That would be a regular adoption. In our case, we have never been deleted from the system and so in basically all the cases that we have seen, documents authorising the trafficking were signed by a judge.”
Chilean Adoptees Worldwide recently led its first European special event in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
“Illegal adoptions,” Quezada says, “usually took place in hospitals through the entire country, as early as the 1950s and, as far as the cases we have become aware of, until 2007. The oldest case we have come across is an adoption that occurred in 1945.”
Quezada points out that the US-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet facilitated the illegal trafficking, which reached its peak in 1982. “Over 800 children were removed from Chile in that year. That is at least a total of two children per day.”
Speaking about the dictatorship era and its aftermath, Quezada describes this period as “the most intense years.”
“People were living in fear. I have been told by some parents who lost children during this period that it is probably better to live in a war than a dictatorship, because in a war you know who your enemy is, whereas in a dictatorship, it could be your neighbour, for all you know.”
The widespread fear among people Quezada says, aided the illegal adoption system during the dictatorship. “Newborn babies were taken away right after birth from their mothers and older children who were hospitalised were taken away in a very sophisticated way. Some children were eight years old at the time they were trafficked.”
Stodart added, “Most adopted children in one way or another just ‘disappeared’ either at the moment of birth – having been declared dead and the mothers presented with an actual, dead child.” Of the older children like herself who were adopted, she says, “I met a woman in Brussels who was adopted at the age of nine and a half. She was taken away from her mother when she was hospitalised.”
The systematic trafficking chose its victims well. Quezada notes that most of the adoptions targeted “people in poverty, people who could not read or write, people from the countryside, people who were not able to defend themselves or who were in vulnerable situations.”
Speaking about the dictatorship era, Stodart says, “The targeted families were exploited by the rich, educated Chileans who I suppose in a way supported Pinochet since they were all government representatives. Doctors, social workers, social services assistances, judges and lawyers working at the tribunal all knew the loopholes and used the system to profit from the adoptions.”
However, even people with a higher socio-economic status were targets in these operations. Quezada describes how the entire Chilean public system played a part in facilitating the illegal adoptions.
“From the hospital staff at the maternity departments to social assistants, lawyers, notaries and even judges – all played a role to ensure that the adoptions resembled a legal matter. Documents were signed by judges for purported validity.”
A heavy psychological and social trauma was inflicted upon the Chilean adoptees and their families. From the children’s questioning of their identity to the official reasons given for their illegal adoptions, the fabrications justifying the adoptions were designed to prevent any future reunions from happening.
Quezada notes, “Our adoption documents in most cases state that we were abandoned by our mothers because they couldn’t take care of us for some reason. Or that we were simply not wanted because our birth was the result of rape.”
On the other hand, the mothers of Chilean adoptees were told that their babies were dead. Quezada says that the usual closure was not afforded to the grieving mothers.
Parents of children who were older at the time of their illegal adoptions and whose children were in orphanages to enable the mothers to work and maintain their children, were simply told that there children were not in the premises anymore. These parents were dismissed as incapable of taking care of their children.
Quezada says, “Going to the police for recourse was an impossible mission because they would accuse the parents of inventing lies against the professionals purportedly in charge of the children.”
This month, Chile’s supreme court appointed Jaime Balmaceda to investigate the illegal adoptions of Chilean children before and after the dictatorship. Judge Carroza will remain in charge of the investigations focusing on child trafficking during the dictatorship era.
Ramona Wadi is a freelance journalist and independent researcher featured in Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor, MintPress News and more.
All Photos credited to Chilean Adoptees Worldwide.