Fairy godmother or child trafficker? An American woman stands trial in Guatemala.
A controversial child trafficking trial starts this Thursday for a 64-year-old American woman who throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s placed hundreds of Guatemalan children with American families. If convicted, she could face more than a decade in prison.
Nancy Bailey of northern California founded and ran Semillas de Amor, Seeds of Love, a home for children. She arranged hundreds of adoptions between 1997 and 2013, and adopted two Guatemalan daughters herself. She rode a wave of popularity in foreign adoptions worldwide. At the time, Guatemala ranked as the second most popular country for foreign adoptions after China.
However, widespread corruption and allegations of kidnapping drove the country to outlaw foreign adoptions in 2007. Semillas was raided several times, and a warrant was issued for Bailey’s arrest. In late 2014 she was arrested, and she has been in jail since October 2016.
“[Prison] is too dangerous to be fearful,” Bailey said in a phone interview. She said the prison is overcrowded and she shares a cell with three, four or five other women, most of them gang members. Bailey said she suffers from health issues, and has been hospitalized repeatedly. “I’m friendly to people and I stay to myself a lot. I try to not create any kind of problems. The only way of coping is by really trying not to think about it,” she said.
As her trial approaches, her family and friends are launching a Facebook campaign to pressure the US government to intervene with Guatemalan officials on her behalf. “Dear Friends, especially FB peeps in CA, please take action NOW and contact your Congressional Reps, Senators, the Secretary of State and President Trump,” one friend posted. “As many of you know, Nancy has dedicated the last 25 years to caring for Guatemala’s most vulnerable…their children! She has been falsely accused of human trafficking”.
However Guatemalan officials intend to tell a different story this week and next as the trial unfolds.
Bailey, they say, was a player in the widespread corruption of the adoption industry in Guatemala that preyed on innocent mothers and babies for profit. In the decade leading up to Guatemala’s foreign adoption ban, more nearly 30,000 Guatemalan children were adopted. It became a lucrative industry for a poor country — costs for families looking to adopt Guatemalan babies often ran as high as $40,000, an amount which is considered standard in US adoption cases but high for foreign adoptions.
All that cash sloshing around a desperately poor country led to a documented instances of baby-selling and kidnapping. Critics said birth mothers were producing for export. Baby brokers made money from vulnerable parents at both ends of the equation; birth mothers who relinquished children and foreign families who sought to adopt them.
“In Guatemala it was so so easy to manufacture paperwork, identity, pay off a judge, pay off a lawyer,” said investigative reporter Erin Siegal McIntyre who wrote a book, “Finding Fernanda,” on illegal adoptions in Guatemala. “This industry was certainly corrupt to the core.”
Guatemalan prosecutors said Bailey was part of the racket. In 2014 a Guatemalan court ordered Bailey to stand trial on charges taking children and putting them up for illegal adoption for high fees. The prosecutor’s office for human trafficking says the court found sufficient evidence to try Bailey.
Newspaper reports indicate the government plans to argue that Bailey falsified documents in three different adoptions, however requests for comment from the prosecutor’s office were denied. Typically, Guatemalan prosecutors are not allowed to speak publicly about a case until after the trial starts.
Bailey said she did nothing illegal, and that a disgruntled former employee set her up. She said critics don’t understand how challenging it was to do adoptions in a country where some birth mothers didn’t have legal identification because their own births were never registered and paperwork was always for sale.
She said she’s unlikely to get a fair trial because “everything to do with international adoption has become criminalized.” She said that the Guatemalan government has made her a scapegoat.
“What they tried to do is build their reputations and their promotions on me being an American and a human trafficker,” Bailey said.
Over a distant phone line from her prison, just days before her trial, Bailey told PRI her story.
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