The Marriott Hotel in Guatemala City’s wealthy Zona 9 isn’t really Central America. But it isn’t the United States either. It’s a kind of no man’s land between countries, between cultures, sprawled out on the highway dividing rich and poor, where thousands of impoverished Guatemalan children make the final step in their journeys to become adopted by Americans. Most of them don’t make a step at all, of course, because they’re infants. Instead they are passed from a Guatemalan foster mother, or an attorney, into the trembling arms of a teary-eyed couple from El Norte who has been waiting for this moment, often not so patiently, for months or years.
In Guatemala City, in venues like the Marriott Hotel, or the Radisson, or the Camino Real right next to the American Embassy, this strange if not humorous baby handoff in a busy lobby is now an everyday occurrence. Guatemala holds the distinction of being the only Latin American country — the only country in the whole Western Hemisphere — that doesn’t recognize the United Nations Hague treaty of 1989 that pushes for stringent state control over international adoptions. Adoptions here fall under the notary system, which means they are essentially privatized and run by lawyers and judges who have plenty to choose from when it comes to impoverished, malnourished, and sometimes abandoned or stolen babies.
As more and more American would-be parents find they are unable to have children, or feel a calling, morally or religious, to reach into the third world and add to their families; as globalization and trade break down national borders; and as international adoption grows in popularity and as an industry, American eyes and arms are descending on Guatemala, not just for its coffee or fruit or textiles, but for its children. The number of Guatemalans adopted by American families neared 3,800 in 2005 after passing the 3,000 mark just one year earlier. Guatemala, a small country of only 11.2 million, has passed Korea and is now the third-largest source of foreign adoption for the United States, trailing only the empires of Russia and China, whose governments sanction, and even encourage adoption en masse, especially their girls.
That makes Guatemala, this magnificent land on the Central American isthmus of Mayan Indians, volcanoes, jungles, ancient temples and observatories, and a dark, bloody modern history, the largest source of relinquishing its offspring, per capita, in the whole world.