For the past six years, Karen has lived in Missouri with her adoptive parents. But a Guatemalan couple are convinced the child is their kidnapped daughter, Anyelí.
Loyda, at Sobrevivientes in Guatemala City, 2010
It’s unclear how the two-year-old broke her femur, Dr. Napoleon Castillo Molinedo told me. The Guatemalan pediatrician regularly saw the child, identified as “Karen Abigail Lopéz García” in his office records, for check-up appointments and vaccinations. Firing up a weary PC, the doctor retrieved Karen’s old records, printing out a list: ten visits in the first seven months of 2007 alone.
The adults who brought the toddler into Castillo’s office, members of the Bran family, were in the business of children. More specifically, they provided what most Americans call “foster care” for Guatemalan kids during their adoptions to mostly American families. According to Castillo, the Brans “didn’t overflow with love for the kids.”
“I charged them less per child, since they brought so much volume through my office,” the doctor said. He said the Brans claimed Karen “fell down” and broke her limb “jumping on a bed.” But he didn’t believe them.
Sitting in a dingy yellow office in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in Guatemala City, Castillo explained, back in 2010, that it wasn’t his business to investigate or even report his suspicions. His involvement with Karen had clear limits. It began when she came through the clinic’s doors. It ended when she left.
The same unspoken boundaries applied to many other adults involved in Karen’s protracted, complicated adoption. Someone had found the child. Someone had offered her for adoption. Someone fed her, and someone changed her diapers. One person processed adoption paperwork in Guatemala; another did the same in the US. Some links in the chain knew each other, and some didn’t. The simple compartmentalization helped obscure a shared responsibility, as well as legal jurisdiction.
And there lies one of the myriad issues facing the exhausted prosecutors of Guatemala’s human-trafficking unit in what is now a high-profile criminal investigation. For the past six years, the child known as Karen has lived in Missouri with her adoptive parents, Timothy and Jennifer Monahan. But Loyda Rodríguez and Dayner Hernández, a young Guatemalan couple, are convinced the child is their daughter, Anyelí, who was kidnapped in November 2006. Although a Guatemalan judge ruled that Karen should be returned to Guatemala in 2011, the Monahans have kept her.
Today, both families hope to do what’s best for Karen. But understanding what that means is just as complicated as understanding what actually happened to the child.
In Guatemala nearly a dozen people, including government officials, have been charged with serious criminal offenses related to Karen’s adoption, including dereliction of duty, human trafficking, and falsifying documents. Two women, a nursery director and a lawyer, have been found guilty and are serving jail time for their involvement with the child.
The case pits American against Guatemalan interests, a family against a family. It can be seen as a study in the failure of cooperation and international diplomacy, or as an examination of influence, wealth, and power. The situation forces questions about the definitions of what is right, what is moral, and what, exactly, is criminal.
This story was reported over the past six years. I used over five thousand documents obtained and leaked from various sources in Guatemala, interviewed dozens of parties, and gained insight from criminal investigators and experts associated with the case in both countries.
In 2006, Timothy and Jennifer Monahan, an American couple from Liberty, Missouri, began the process of adopting a boy from Guatemala. They already had one biological daughter. To adopt, they used the Florida adoption agency Celebrate Children International (CCI). Like many CCI clients, the Monahans shared a deep Christian faith with the agency’s director, Sue Hedberg. The adoption proceeded with ease, despite CCI’s checkered history of complaints alleging unethical business practices.
When the Monahans visited Guatemala, they found the poverty there overwhelming, according to a chronology of events written by Jennifer Monahan and later obtained by criminal investigators in Guatemala. “…[O]ur family is burdened with the vision of ‘street toddlers’ and reports of children not having enough to eat or drink, and even being incarcerated with their mothers in jail,” Monahan wrote, upon returning to Missouri. “We pray for the opportunity to adopt another child.”
Like countless other potential adoptive parents, they skimmed through photos of children posted online. When they saw a picture of a girl listed as Karen Abigail Lopéz García, aged twenty-three months, they decided to inquire.
Karen Abigail López García, photo from CNA (Consejo Nacional de Adopciones) adoption files
“We want to work with an ethical facilitator, although we know in Guatemala there are always things out of people’s control,” Monahan said, as recounted in an email she later sent to Guatemalan adoption lawyer Susana Luarca. “We also offered to help the birth mother if she needs help, since Karen appears to be extraordinarily well-cared for.”
At the same time, in 2006, the reputation of Guatemala’s international adoption industry was declining fast. Stories of baby-snatching and kidnappings for adoption peppered the pages of local newspapers.
Nevertheless, business was still booming. In 1996, the State Department reported that 542 Guatemalan children were adopted into the US. Ten years later, that number increased 663 percent to 4,135. Adopting parents paid agency fees ranging anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 per child. The money passed through various hands: those of child finders (buscadoras) and pullers (jaladoras), lawyers, specialized cabbies, pediatricians, civil registrars, judges, government officials, nannies, nurses, and more.
A few months after the Monahans signed up with CCI to adopt Karen, the hitches and hiccups began.
Yet increasing attention paid to Guatemalan adoptions meant that adoptive parents faced heightened scrutiny. “Guys,” CCI director Hedberg wrote in an email to dozens of her clients in October 2006, “there are again major problems with the police stopping families, foster moms and lawyers and harassing them and even taking the children away. This is not a safe time to travel to visit your children.”
A few months after the Monahans signed up with CCI to adopt Karen, the hitches and hiccups began. The required DNA test, meant to prove the parenthood of the relinquishing mother, kept getting delayed for various reasons. In January, the midwife’s license couldn’t be found.
At the time, the Monahans were still in the process of adopting their son. Jennifer Monahan wrote that in March, when they traveled to Guatemala to pick him up, she hesitated to meet Karen. The child was reportedly living with a foster mother, paid by CCI’s in-country facilitator, Marvin Bran.
Monahan told CCI she didn’t want to meet the child unless the adoption was certain to progress. She didn’t want to give her any false ideas. One of Hedberg’s volunteer staff members, acting as a case manager, warned the family not to meet Karen, since her requisite DNA test hadn’t been carried out yet. “She felt that this wasn’t going well, and that something might be going on,” Monahan noted. In her chronology of events, she wrote that she decided to pray about the decision.
But Hedberg insisted that nothing was wrong. The next day, against Jennifer Monahan’s wishes, a caretaker named Kimberly Bran brought Karen to the apartment the Monahans had rented, telling her to “kiss new mommy and daddy…” “Karen wept hysterically for the foster mother, then settled into our hearts,” Monahan wrote. By the time the visit ended, the Monahans had fallen in love with the child.
In May, however, CCI wrote to the family with bad news. Karen’s mother, who was listed on the child’s birth certificate as “Felicita López García,” was now suddenly “missing,” Monahan wrote in her chronology. No one could find her.
It was a problem. Without Felicita’s consent, and a voluntary sample of her DNA from which to establish a maternal connection to Karen, the child’s adoption to the Monahans would freeze—perhaps forever.
Guatemala is a small, brutally poor country. Almost half of all children there—and the majority of children in rural, indigenous communities—grow up stunted by chronic malnourishment. The nation was the site of the longest civil war in Latin American history: over three decades of brutality, during which the government massacred hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Trauma still hangs over the country, like a shroud.
Against this background, some Guatemalan families voluntarily relinquished their children to international adoption. Sometimes babies were given up to help siblings survive. For a woman with a starving family, selling a child might be an obvious, if heartbreaking, option.
Karla Ordoñez, a Guatemalan adoption facilitator who sometimes worked with CCI, told me pregnant women often called her, seeking help. “Most of the time they needed a house or food,” she said. Selling a baby was a way to meet basic needs: jaladoras, middlemen who identified children who could be “pulled” into adoption, reportedly offered pregnant women as much as $640 USD per unborn baby.
But sometimes, Ordoñez said, the women changed their minds. That kind of situation, she explained, was difficult to navigate. “Part of the money would have already gone to the woman, so you couldn’t get it back,” she said. Many American adoption companies, she claimed, weren’t interested in understanding the complicated details of individual situations. As with any business, after a deposit, goods were expected.
It was widely acknowledged that baby-selling in adoption was occurring, and had been since the early 1990s. The American government also knew. In June 1995, the US Embassy in Guatemala sent a highly disturbing cable back to the State Department in Washington, outlining what it called “a cruel international trade.” Some birth mothers, it noted, had been threatened with death after trying to get children back. “The issue is the following,” the cable stated. “Are we not morally obligated (if not legally) to prevent what is otherwise clearly reprehensible as well as criminal under any penal code—kidnapping, the illegal separation of biological children from their parents?”
Dayner Orlando Hernández, a bricklayer, and his wife, Loyda Rodríguez, had three children and were solidly middle class by Guatemalan standards. Unlike some of their desperate countrymen, they’d never been forced to consider selling a child. But on November 3, 2006, their daughter, two-year-old Anyelí Liseth, was abducted. The child, Rodríguez said, was snatched from their home in San Miguel Petapa, south of Guatemala City.
Loyda with her three kids
The next morning, after a fruitless search, Hernández filed a formal complaint with the local police, and gave them a photo of his daughter. In the report, he stated that two unknown women had seized Anyelí, fleeing in a white taxi. The baby had been wearing a simple light-blue canvas dress and toddler-sized white shoes. The day after, he filed another complaint with the local branch of the Ministerio Público, and the following week, he lodged a third report with the Procurador de los Derechos Humanos, a congressional office on human rights.
But the authorities didn’t help.
Winter passed. So did Anyelí’s third birthday. The young family filed complaints with various Guatemalan authorities, and still nothing happened. Spring came and went. Hernández engaged in his own kind of guerrilla investigations, working the neighborhood streets and questioning people as to whether they’d seen his baby daughter.
By early summer 2007, the couple still had no information about Anyelí’s kidnapping. Was the child dead? Why would anyone take their daughter?
By June 2007, Karen’s mother had resurfaced. In her chronology, Jennifer Monahan claimed that CCI gave no explanation regarding the woman’s earlier disappearance. When the family asked what had transpired, CCI staff told Monahan to be patient—and to stop asking questions.
The DNA test was administered in July. Documents show that Karen’s cheek was swabbed, and that the sample was then compared with one from her mother Felicita’s cheek. The DNA comparison test, first put into place in 1995, was supposed to be a fool-proof fraud detector that verified whether a woman relinquishing a child was indeed biologically related to that child. A strict protocol instituted by the US Embassy mandated how the samples were drawn, handled, and shipped to pre-approved American laboratories that performed the actual testing. That way, it was thought, no one could tamper with the samples.
By mid-July, the US testing facility LabCorp hadn’t confirmed receipt of Karen and her mother’s DNA samples. The Monahans, again, pressed CCI for information.
“Dear Sue,” Jennifer Monahan wrote to Hedberg, “…Labcorp hasn’t notified anyone of receiving the sample—should we be concerned that it didn’t happen?” She tried calling LabCorp directly, to no avail.
“We just want you to know that after spending time with Karen, we know she is our daughter and we will do anything to bring her home,” Monahan wrote in a separate email, also included in the chronology. “We want to do the right thing through this process and not put undue pressure on anybody, but we are so concerned about how slowly things are going with no apparent explanation.”
Then new information arrived. On August 1, 2007, the Monahans learned that the DNA test had failed to establish a maternal match. Felicita Antonia López was an imposter.
According to the Monahan chronology, Hedberg said she’d ask LabCorp “…to bury this [DNA] result, like they used to do for her, but LabCorp said…they couldn’t do that any more.” Monahan noted, “She said she could get LabCorp to delay reporting for a week.” It’s unclear whether or not the reporting was delayed. Neither LabCorp nor Hedberg responded to requests for comment.
Hedberg, Monahan wrote, said there was now “zero chance” of the family succeeding in adopting Karen. The adoption was effectively frozen, since the child’s origins had been called into question. Via email, Hedberg urged the Monahans to drop the matter and move on. Their down payment on Karen’s adoption could be transferred to another child’s adoption.
In a cable from a decade before, when DNA tests became mandatory in Guatemalan adoptions to the US, Embassy officials noted that children with problem cases simply “disappeared into the same foggy background from which they came. It has been anguishing to all parties involved…”
Would Karen also disappear? If the Monahans followed Hedberg’s advice and chose another child to adopt, what would happen to her? Who would buy food and diapers for her if no one paid the Brans? Would Karen end up on the streets of Guatemala, transformed into one of the urchin children that had haunted their dreams?
Monahan reported begging Hedberg for help; she wanted to find Karen’s real birth mother in order to figure out what had happened. But Hedberg balked.
“Sometimes they didn’t have the money to pay the mothers and maintain the children. Which is why they passed children around like ping-pong balls.”
The agency head subsequently turned on her Guatemalan partner, adoption facilitator Marvin Bran. Then twenty-six and a law school dropout, Bran had originally been described to the Monahans as “a Christian, a good man who specializes in toddler girls,” someone Hedberg often worked with. She’d recommended him “without reservation.” But now, the agency director began weaving another story. Bran and his mother, she allegedly told Jennifer Monahan, ran “an illegal orphanage” out of their home. It was staffed with household help, working double duty as foster moms. Bran was “emotionally unstable.” It seemed as if the two business partners had a troubled relationship.
“Sometimes they didn’t have the money to pay the mothers and maintain the children,” said one of the Brans’ caretakers, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. “Which is why they passed children around like ping-pong balls.”
Bran “might just dump her [Karen] somewhere where nobody could find her,” Monahan recorded Hedberg as saying, in her chronology. “Of course, this was terrifying.”
With the revelation of the failed DNA test, a chasm of unknowns emerged. The same day they learned about the imposter birth mother, the Monahans decided to hire Guatemalan private investigator Wilbert Reyna. They wired him $400. He started digging for information.
Five days later, the Monahans recorded in the chronology, Reyna reported back to them that the Brans were “cheaters,” and that “this is their usual MO.” Further, Karen’s birth records were “based on lies and false statements.” He thought that the child’s true mother was an “alcoholic and a prostitute,” information he said he got from talking to supposed neighbors of Karen’s real mother and sister.
Reyna offered up a theory: perhaps the imposter who failed the DNA test was Karen’s aunt, posing as Karen’s mother to protect her real mother’s reputation.
“This is an elaborate scam,” Reyna said, as recorded in Jennifer Monahan’s chronology. “…[A]n agency fwd[s] the [adoptive] parent’s money to the Brans, they take a case as far as to the DNA test, the DNA test blows…[and] by then they have already collected the first payment [for the child].”
Reyna also had a warning for the Monahans. If the family continued trying to adopt Karen, “…the odds are high [that] somewhere on the way something illegal would come out.”
Then the investigator abruptly quit. Reyna said he’d received threats from the Brans, and was concerned about his safety. He hadn’t found Karen’s biological mother. Nor had he found Felicita, but with good reason: the woman listed on Karen’s birth certificate wasn’t real.
The Monahans had reached another crossroads, and another choice needed to be made quickly.
Would the right thing be to move on and “drop” the matter of Karen, as Hedberg insisted? Or should the Monahans continue building a relationship with a child they believed to be unwanted, unloved, and possibly soon to be uncared for?
The path they chose would determine the shape of Karen’s life in the weeks, years, and decades to come.
Without the involvement of a known birth parent, a “relinquishment”—the most popular way of adopting from Guatemala—was now impossible. The Monahans reached out to Guatemalan lawyer Susana Luarca Saracho, who was well known in American adoption circles. Luarca had a reputation for a deep knowledge of the intricacies of Guatemalan law, and the ability to guide complicated adoption processes for children in situations like Karen’s—those without relinquishing parents, or those whose parents appeared to be missing.
In 2007, Jennifer Monahan sent Luarca the detailed chronology, listing dates, phone numbers, summaries of events, names, and the addresses of everyone she believed was related to the child’s case, including notes from the private investigator. A confidential source later shared the chronology with me, and criminal prosecutors in Guatemala verified its authenticity.
In the document, Monahan outlined a conversation she’d had with Rodolfo “Rudy” Rivera, an American adoption lawyer, in early August 2007. Rivera allegedly told her that the US Embassy hadn’t received a copy of Karen’s negative DNA test. “Rudy…confirms that we can proceed in looking for the birth mother, and [that the] US Embassy will not stand in our way should the abandonment ever be complete,” Monahan wrote.
When I spoke to him in 2010, Rivera wouldn’t comment on the US Embassy, or its alleged willingness to bend rules. He admitted he was familiar with Marvin Bran and Sue Hedberg, saying Bran was “bad news.” He recalled, “His [Marvin’s] mother was what they call a jaladora, a finder, a foster care lady.”
He didn’t have any proof of malfeasance on their part, but he didn’t trust them, either. “My gut made me feel uncomfortable,” he told me. Rivera said he “helped” the Monahans with Karen’s case, declining to say how.
Rivera went on to claim that Hedberg often called him for advice. “A lot of her cases needed to be cleaned up in the end,” he said. “She worked adoptions for two simple reasons. It’s money, and number two, a lot of us feel you’re getting as many kids as possible out [of]…a rotten situation.”
In September 2008, Karen was delivered to Asociación Primavera, a private nursery owned by Susana Luarca.
Babies in the private Guatemalan nursery Hogar Luz de María
Although the nursery was in Guatemala City, Luarca and her staff brought Karen to a court in the town of Escuintla, over an hour away, to begin abandonment proceedings.
Under Guatemalan law, a child without known parents or relatives had to go through a series of steps before being declared legally abandoned and thus available for adoption. The child would be brought before a judge, who would set a date for a hearing meant to uncover facts about the child’s situation. The hearings were advertised, with a photo of the child, in local newspapers. Any existing family was supposed to come forward at the hearing and declare their relationship to or interest in the child. If no one came forward, the child could be legally declared abandoned, and legal custody could be subsequently reassigned by the judge. Custody often went to whoever brought the child forward in the first place: often a nursery director, facilitator, or adoption lawyer.
Having a child declared legally abandoned generally took much longer than a relinquishment adoption, and would sometimes stretch to nine years.
But not for Luarca.
“That woman fought with every judge in Guatemala,” said Mario Fernando Peralta Castañeda, the Escuintla judge who maintained he heard at least forty of Luarca’s abandonment adoption cases. “The First Court, the Third Court, Chimaltenalgo, Zacapa…all of them. She was very arrogant, very abusive.”
But Peralta, too, had a reputation. Guatemalan prosecutors followed him for years, even giving him the nickname “Danny DeVito,” based on his resemblance to the American actor. They suspected him of taking bribes, of being yet another corrupt player within a larger system known for acquiescence to power and money.
“Look, if I was corrupt, I’d be well off…. I would have Versace suits, a Lamborghini.”
Judges routinely passed on taking Luarca’s cases, Peralta told me in his chambers. He claimed he’d ended up with dozens after she opened another childcare facility in Palin, a city within his jurisdiction. The abandonments seemed like an adoption workaround, he said, pure and simple.
Peralta said he’d never taken a bribe or money from Luarca. “She doesn’t use money for this. She uses the law, pressure. She makes people uncomfortable,” he said. “Look, if I was corrupt, I’d be well off…. I would have Versace suits, a Lamborghini.”
On Karen’s behalf, Peralta contacted the Guatemalan newspapers Siglo Veintiuno and Al Día, asking them to run an ad announcing the date of her upcoming hearing, scheduled for November 6th. Both of the ads solicited “Felicita” by name, asking her to come forward—even though she had already been exposed as a fraud.
Left, bottom: The advertisement placed in a newspaper before Karen’s abandonment ruling
Loyda Rodríguez and Dayner Hernández never saw the ad with the small, dark picture. No one came forward to announce an interest in Karen.
“In 2007, they presented the child to me, we now know, with false documents,” Peralta told me. “But I didn’t know that [at the time].” On December 5th, Peralta ruled that Karen was legally abandoned.
Luarca’s staff assumed custody and reignited adoption proceedings for Karen to become the Monahans’ daughter. It had been roughly a year since the Monahans had first seen the child’s picture on the Internet.
For most of the next year, Guatemalan investigators believe, Karen lived under the care of Luarca’s nursery. According to flight records obtained by criminal investigators, the American couple regularly flew to Guatemala to visit, sometimes as often as once a month.
Shortly after Karen was declared legally abandoned, Loyda Rodríguez’s search for Anyelí led her to the doors of Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivor’s Foundation), a nonprofit focused on women’s rights in Guatemala.
“The authorities here weren’t doing anything to find her,” Rodríguez said. They kept asking her if she’d sold Anyelí. It had been a year and a half with no clues or leads.
At the time, Sobrevivientes was in the midst of an adoption-related campaign, “No Más Cunas Vacías” (No More Empty Cribs), to pressure the Guatemalan government to investigate kidnappings for adoption.
At Fundación Sobrevivientes, Rodríguez met Mildred Alvarado, whose two daughters had been missing for eighteen months in a dramatic parallel case detailed in my book Finding Fernanda. At the time, no one knew that some of the same people—Sue Hedberg, Marvin Bran, Bran’s mother—had also been involved with the young Alvarado sisters.
Rodríguez attended the court hearing, bearing witness as a judge formally returned Alvarado’s daughters to her. She fought back tears, she remembered, wondering when the same thing might happen to her.
She learned that three of the various women working with Sobrevivientes had been able to successfully recover missing children. She asked the nonprofit to take her case and soon was being formally represented, pro-bono, by a Sobrevivientes lawyer.
In May 2008, Rodríguez participated in a hunger strike whose goal was to call attention to the women’s missing children and kidnappings for adoption. Camping out with a small group of searching mothers atop blankets in a public park near Guatemala’s National Palace, Rodríguez lasted eight full days.
Sympathetic coverage of the protest saturated the newspapers. Afterward, the Guatemalan government announced that the mothers, including Rodríguez, would be allowed to read and review various adoption files held in government offices.
With help from her husband and brother, Rodríguez reviewed thousands of files. In the three years since Anyelí had been kidnapped, American citizens had adopted around thirteen thousand Guatemalan children. By now, Anyelí was almost five years old. Rodríguez wondered how her daughter’s appearance had changed since she’d last seen her.
Some files were thick with documents; others lacked the requisite headshots of the children they involved. Some dockets for boys mistakenly contained photos of girls, and vice versa. After a few long days, Rodríguez identified three children resembling Anyelí. She submitted samples of her own DNA to be tested against each of the children’s, kept on file. None matched.
By March 23, 2009, the case had received so much attention that the Public Ministry announced a reward, posted publicly online, of 100,000 quetzales ($13,000 USD) for any person who came forward with information about Anyelí’s kidnapping or her whereabouts.
Three days later, during another review session, Rodríguez’s brother opened an adoption file for a child identified by the name Karen Abigail López García. “Look, this is her!” he exclaimed. When Rodríguez looked at the photographs stapled inside the file, she immediately recognized her daughter’s face.
Karen Abigail López García, photos from PGN (Procuraduria General de la Nación) adoption dossier
Loyda Rodríguez’s DNA was compared to the DNA sample kept on file for Karen, drawn in July 2007. Two independent labs, one in Spain and one in the US, sent their findings back to Guatemala. Both agreed: Rodríguez and “Karen” tested 99.98% positive for a maternal match.
Claudia Palencias, then working as a lawyer with Sobrevivientes, began making frenzied phone calls to track down documents related to Karen’s adoption. The process had produced a convoluted paper trail through different government offices.
By the time a child’s origins had been ascertained, he or she could be a teenager, or even an adult, living in one of Guatemala’s few state-run orphanages or being cared for by a nonprofit.
“We asked for the file, and we found the negative DNA result,” Palencias recalled. It was a powerful lead, albeit a surprising one. Palencias didn’t understand how Karen’s adoption had continued moving forward without the consent of a relinquishing parent.
When an imposter birth mother was exposed via a negative DNA test, the adoption case was supposed to freeze, so that a criminal investigation could take place. But Guatemala’s Ministry of Justice lacked resources and was burdened by a heavy backlog of criminal cases. Investigations commonly took years, even decades, to complete. By the time a child’s origins had been ascertained, he or she could be a teenager, or even an adult, living in one of Guatemala’s few state-run orphanages or being cared for by a nonprofit.
But Sobrevivientes claimed that Karen’s adoption file had no documentation suggesting that such a criminal investigation had begun. Instead, the child had simply been declared abandoned. Further, the abandonment proceedings seemed clearly flawed: not only had the Escuintla judge sought out the imaginary “Felicita,” the police had, too, in their requisite missing persons search.
Invigorated by the break in the case, prosecutors from the Ministry of Justice’s human-trafficking unit took up the investigation into Anyelí’s disappearance in earnest. Each document related to “Karen Abigail López García” was examined. Because manufactured birth certificates were common, agents trekked into the countryside to visit the town where the child was allegedly born to verify her data. There, they found the birth year on Karen’s certificate had been blacked out. They also found a second version of the certificate, with a different date written in by hand. The agents tracked down the midwife listed on the document, who allegedly attended Karen’s birth. The woman said she’d never met a child called Karen, nor did she know Felicita.
Birth certificate used in adoption of Karen Abigail López García, later determined to be false
Inside Karen’s adoption file, an official government social report about the child, written in October 2007, plainly stated that the address for Felicita Antonia López had been manufactured. Staffers from the attorney general’s office tried to visit Felicita. They couldn’t find her, and instead spoke to the woman listed on paper as Felicita’s mother. That woman said she had no daughter named Felicita. The investigators went on to question people around the small village. “If…Felicita Antonia lived here, everyone would have known,” one neighbor said.
Investigators drew sketches showing the possible routes of the kidnappers, and photographers re-created crime scenes outside Loyda Rodríguez’s house.
Rodríguez, the Sobrevivientes lawyers, and the agents working on the case were caught up in an intense flurry of activity, driven by the possibility that Anyelí was still hidden somewhere in Guatemala. Preparations were underway to obtain permission to search inside Asociación Primavera and other Guatemalan nurseries commonly used in adoption.
But the momentum was short-lived. Two weeks after the human-trafficking unit presented a formal inquiry to determine whether or not Karen had left the country, they received an answer. They were four months too late. On December 9, 2008, the child had left Guatemala on a Continental Airlines flight, alongside the Monahans. And now, she had a new US visa, and a new name: Karen Abigail Monahan.
Passport issued to Karen Abigail López García
Guatemalan authorities began making arrests. Judge Peralta, who had declared the child legally abandoned, was charged with human trafficking, conspiracy, and failure to report a crime. An official from the office of the attorney general, César Augusto Galicia Prera, who failed to halt the adoption’s progression or notify Peralta of any missing child reports, was charged with dereliction of duty and human trafficking. Investigators raided the offices and home of attorney Susana Luarca, charging her, too, with human trafficking.
Investigators also discovered that a person named Felicita did in fact exist: she was a 30-year-old Nicaraguan baker who’d immigrated to Guatemala years before. Her identity had been stolen, then used by a stranger to create a fake mother in order to facilitate Karen’s adoption.
Marvin Bran turned himself in to the Public Ministry in May 2009, attempting to obtain immunity from the prosecution for trafficking. He provided a copy of a $7,000 check he’d deposited from CCI, explaining that he worked for them. In his deposition, Bran admitted to having paid 30,000 quetzales ($3,800) to two women, “Ligia and Sara,” for Karen. Initially, investigators said, he claimed the women were lesbians who’d snatched the child and escaped via motorcycle.
But the Public Ministry didn’t believe Bran. Chunks of his colorful story were hard to understand, and lacked evidence. Investigators said they didn’t trust Bran because he’d previously lied under oath. Bran’s former defense attorney, Fernando Linares, thought Bran “wasn’t a big enough fish” in the investigation to warrant protection, or an offer to become a protected witness of sorts. Linares speculated that the US government was culpable in the case, since they’d issued Karen’s orphan immigrant visa. “Perhaps they didn’t read what was in the computer,” he told me wryly, referring to the long-established and easily discoverable negative DNA result.
On her personal blog, Luarca published a long defense, clarifying her own role in Karen’s adoption and accusing Guatemalan authorities of planting evidence to frame her. She also accused them of general incompetence. Dated October 11, 2009, the account included a discussion of Karen’s “adoptive parents,” though Luarca never explicitly named the Monahans.
“Unfortunately, when her [Karen’s] parents were approached by the Guatemalan Consulate, they said that they would talk to their lawyer and stopped accepting calls,” Luarca wrote. “They hired a lawyer who does not want to collaborate, for reasons that I cannot understand, since it is in the best interest of the family who hired her, to clear things up, in order to be assured that nobody is going to show at their doorstep, demanding that the girl be returned to Guatemala.”
At the time, the idea of Guatemala demanding the girl’s return may have seemed far-fetched. No child had ever been in a situation like Karen’s before—or at least no situation like hers had ever been reported.
“All these problems could be solved,” Luarca continued. She suggested that the Monahans get a re-test of the child’s DNA to compare it Loyda Rodríguez’s. “If only the family of Karen would…. It is a pity that they are ill-advised and hurting so many people by refusing to do so. They have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Wouldn’t it be nice to be sure that your daughter is not involved in this?”
Meanwhile, Alexánder Colop, head of the human-trafficking unit at the Guatemala Ministry of Justice, tracked payments Sue Hedberg sent to her adoption facilitators in Guatemala. “The money came from the US. From there, they’d give it to a ‘cambista’ (changer) who would turn it into cash, and from there, the Brans would distribute it,” he alleged.
He didn’t know if Hedberg was under criminal investigation in the United States, and said he wondered if she was being investigated for violating US laws. She had been investigated, but was never indicted.
To Colop, in cross-border investigations like Karen’s trafficking case, the US Embassy could be helpful, but not always. “They are there [primarily] to protect US citizens,” he told me, “not help us investigate.”
His investigation was as dangerous as it was difficult, which is why Colop has bodyguards. “It’s a pretty delicate issue, to investigate lawyers who were involved in adoptions for years,” Colop said. “You could be going after a lawyer and not know who he might know. It’s an issue where each case has people behind it, friends.”
Guatemala’s prosecutors were helped by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known by the Spanish acronym CICIG, an investigative and prosecutorial authority set up by the United Nations. Some CICIG staff also have bodyguards, and the offices sit, bunker-like, behind tall fortified walls. Bomb-sniffing dogs and X-ray machines inspect each visitor, including members of the press.
Illegal adoptions have been a priority since CICIG opened in 2006. The Commission hopes to hold every actor involved in child trafficking accountable, from bribe-taking government officials, private attorneys, and adoption “facilitators” down to those directly involved in the dirty work, like kidnapping and purchasing children.
The case involving Karen was unique for CICIG, in part because of the existence of clear evidence implicating powerful people like Luarca, who had previously been considered more or less untouchable. Such a case had never been tried before. Karen had already been living a new life as an American citizen for more than a year.
Through 2010, CICIG and the Public Ministry built their prosecution. Through early 2011, the US government remained publicly silent about the case. The Monahans did, too, although they had known about the criminal investigation into Karen’s adoption since April 2009, when Guatemalan officials reached out to them through diplomatic channels. According to a faxed response, the Monahans told the officials to communicate with their lawyer.
Both countries were and remain parties to the Inter-American Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters. Via the MLAT treaty, Guatemala’s Public Ministry asked the US State Department for assistance in taking a new DNA swab from Karen, to verify whether she was the same Karen who had, in July 2007, positively matched as Loyda Rodríguez’s daughter.
But the US Justice Department told Guatemala it wouldn’t help. There wasn’t enough evidence tying adoptive parents to kidnapped children, it said, and because of that, it couldn’t undertake DNA testing. A heavily redacted document obtained by public records request shows at least two MLAT requests for assistance have been formally made from Guatemala, related to two other missing children believed to be living in the American Midwest.
The judge gave the Monahans an ultimatum: they had two months to return Karen to Guatemala.
Loyda Rodríguez and her husband persevered. After receiving anonymous death threats, they were forced to move to an undisclosed location hours away from their previous home. At times, Rodríguez said, it took a full day’s bus ride to get to meetings in the capital about the case. They continued to rely on pro-bono legal counsel from Sobrevivientes.
In the summer of 2011, the case was finally thrust into the international spotlight. A Guatemalan judge issued an unprecedented order in July, ruling for the cancellation of the Guatemalan passport and birth certificate issued to “Karen Abigail López García,” now Karen Abigail Monahan. The judge gave the Monahans an ultimatum: they had two months to return Karen to Guatemala. If they didn’t cooperate, she ruled, Interpol would be called upon to enforce the order.
A deluge of press attention followed. The Monahans hired a Washington PR firm, which released a statement saying, “The Monahan family will continue to advocate for the safety and best interests of their legally adopted child. They remain committed to protecting their daughter from additional trauma as they pursue the truth of her past through appropriate legal channels.”
They also retained Jared Genser, an aggressive former lobbyist and Washington lawyer specializing in international human rights.
In October 2011, the Monahans appeared on the CBS’s Early Show. Jennifer Monahan spoke softly and held her husband’s hand; she said the couple believed their adoption of Karen was legal. Footage taken in the Monahan’s handsome living room showed leather couches and a fully outfitted children’s playroom, complete with a brown-skinned Barbie.
The Monahans made it clear that they didn’t believe the results of the DNA test that showed a match between Karen and Loyda Rodríguez. They implied that the little girl in their home wasn’t the same child whose DNA had been tested in 2007. In Guatemala, Jennifer Monahan said, “DNA is sort of viewed as a title, and we strongly feel that Karen isn’t property.”
A shot of Genser was spliced in remotely. He declared that the Guatemalan court ruling had no jurisdiction in the US.
Yet the original issuance of Karen’s orphan immigrant visa, necessary to enter the US, and her American citizenship both depended on the authenticity of certain identifying documents—the same documents that had been voided by the Guatemalan judge. Essentially, US citizenship had been granted to a girl whose identity was in dispute.
When asked what they would do “if it is proven that Karen is Mrs. Rodríguez’s daughter,” Timothy Monahan answered, “It’s really very difficult to say.” He added that they’d been “trying to work with authorities all through this process.” But Guatemalan authorities said they’d never been contacted by the Monahans.
The same day the Monahans made their TV appearance, thousands of miles south, two women intimately involved in Karen’s adoption were sentenced in court for human trafficking, document fraud, and criminal enterprise related to the buying and selling of the child. Luarca’s nursery director and the lawyer who facilitated Karen’s adoption were both found guilty of all charges, and were sentenced, respectively, to sixteen and twenty-one years in prison.
Eight years have passed since the kidnapping of Anyelí Liseth Hernández Rodríguez. Karen has now lived in the United States since December 2008. It’s been three years since Guatemalan prosecutors concluded the child’s identity was manufactured. As the criminal proceedings move forward at a staggeringly slow pace, a host of difficult questions remain.
What are the best interests of the little girl at the heart of the case? How will the nullification of her Guatemalan birth certificate and passport affect her status as an American citizen? If Marvin Bran is guilty of human trafficking, will there be ramifications here for the Americans who worked with him?
As of yet, no one knows.
Since their TV appearance, the Monahans have remained publicly silent about the case.
Since the child wasn’t purchased for reasons of forced labor or sexual servitude, her sale doesn’t constitute trafficking under US law.
Their lawyer also refuses to speak on the record. Jared Genser sent letters and emails to journalists and editors reporting on the case, including to myself, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and others, threatening legal action. Little has been written in the American media about the case and ongoing criminal investigation.
Although under Guatemalan law Karen Abigail Monahan was trafficked, her sale doesn’t constitute trafficking under US law, since the child wasn’t purchased for reasons of forced labor or sexual servitude.
And since US adoption agencies are licensed by the states in which they operate, federal authorities have almost no power to monitor their activities, and even less ability to punish those involved in trafficking.
In Guatemala, the entire adoption industry has ground to a halt. Americans can no longer adopt Guatemalan children. Since 2009, Guatemala has been trying to update its laws and regulations, to prevent child-buying and to implement more safeguards, checks, and balances in the process. No one knows when the country might open again to hopeful foreign couples.
Since the decision, Rodríguez and her husband have considered filing suit in Missouri. They haven’t yet been able to retain the pro-bono counsel.
Of the twelve Guatemalans facing criminal charges in relation to the adoption, only two are behind bars today, Enriqueta Francisca Noriega Cano and Alma Beatriz Valle Flores de Mejía. (Others are in prison, but awaiting trial.) The accused include three former government officials from Guatemala’s Procuraduría General de la Nación: César Augusto Galicia Prera, Marco Tulio España Sánchez, and Mairena Trujillo Reyes.
Raúl Ticún Urias, the lawyer who served as Jennifer and Timothy Monahan’s power of attorney in Guatemala, awaits trial from prison. Others are in custody. Peralta’s arrest, along with that of Judge Rossana Maribel Mena Guzman for trafficking in persons related to adoption, made it into the US State Department’s 2012 Human Rights Report on Guatemala. Peralta is accused of participating in a reported twenty other adoption cases with irregularities.
Marvin Bran disappeared, and is now considered a fugitive of justice, though he maintains a Facebook presence. Susana Luarca is being held in a women’s prison in Antigua while her trial continues. She has appealed the charges, and the next hearing is scheduled for January 2015.
Sandra Noemí Maldonado Chajón de Velásquez, who posed as the Nicaraguan baker Felicita (a real woman, but not the birth mother), and two more lawyers, César Augusto Trujillo López and Saúl Vinicio García, are also waiting.
Almost all of those involved in the human trafficking network underpinning this adoption case have appealed their charges.
CICIG lawyer Flor de María Gálvez, a co-prosecutor on the case, said that the Commission has never been in contact with the Monahans. When asked if either the Monahans or Sue Hedberg would be charged or linked to the case, she said she couldn’t comment since it was “still under investigation.”
Gálvez said that the prosecution is still waiting for a response from the US government to Guatemala’s requests for help in the criminal investigation. “This case is important for Guatemala because it involves a criminal network,” she said. “A network made up of public officials, judges responsible for matters concerning children, attorneys, notary publics, and other individuals. It’s also important because of the damage caused to the girl, and to her biological family.”
A diagram created by the Ministerio Público mapping the people involved in Karen’s adoption
A source inside the Ministerio Público said the criminal sentences are expected to happen in early 2015, after the hearings. “They [the adoption networks] have no political power now,” the source said. “They’ll probably be convicted.”
I asked Chris Bentley, an official from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, what could happen in a hypothetical kidnapping for adoption case, where a child’s identity was manufactured in order to obtain US citizenship.
“There’s no case precedent for situations like this that I’m aware of,” he told me. But
a process called denaturalization could occur. It’s rare, and depends on the individual situation.
“Willful misrepresentation is the threshold that would have to be met to begin a denaturalization process,” Bentley said. “[It] is when you are asking for something you don’t qualify for. You are willfully making up facts to try to convince the government that you are eligible for something when you know you’re not…to circumvent the system.”
When I spoke with Loyda Rodríguez in Guatemala City in 2009, she was buoyant. “I think that they are going to ultimately return her,” Rodríguez said of the Monahans.
Since then, her dreams have faded. Now, Rodríguez said, she wants just one thing: to be able to communicate with her daughter. She wants to explain to Anyelí that she was never given up, and that she was always loved.
Correction: “The Limits of Jurisdiction” (Dec. 1, 2014) as initially published misstated three dates. The Monahans traveled to Guatemala to pick up the little boy they were in the process of trying to adopt in March, not January. In her chronology, Jennifer Monahan outlined a conversation she’d had with Rodolfo “Rudy” Rivera, an American adoption lawyer, in early August 2007, not 2008. And Jennifer Monahan sent Guatemalan lawyer Susana Luarca Saracho her detailed chronology in 2007, not 2008.
All reporting in Guatemala for this investigation was done alongside journalist Juan Carlos Llorca. Photographs were taken by Erin Siegal McIntyre and Juan Carlos Llorca.
Erin Siegal McIntyre is a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism and an investigative correspondent/producer working on special projects and documentaries for Univision. She’s the author of the book Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth (Beacon Press 2012), which was honored by the Overseas Press Club of America with a Robert Spiers Benjamin Award citation for best reporting in any medium on Latin America. She’s based in Tijuana and Miami, and loves to chat on Twitter—say hi @ErinSiegal.