Erin Siegal’s first book, Finding Fernanda, is also her first big investigative story, one that began in an airport in Guatemala, took her to Columbia Journalism School’s Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, and led to two years of thorough on-the-ground reporting in both Guatemala and the U.S. Siegal’s book tells the powerful story of Maria Fernanda, abducted by an illegal adoption ring as a child, and the two mothers who spent years searching desperately for her—her Guatemalan birth mother, Mildred Alvarado, and Betsy Emanuel, the tenacious Tennessee housewife who wanted to adopt her and later crusaded to return her to Mildred.
Siegal first came to the story as a photojournalist. On a vacation in Guatemala, she saw nearly a dozen adoptive parents preparing to fly home with their new Guatemalan charges, and thought it would make a powerful photo essay. But when she began to prepare for the project, her research into the history of Guatemalan adoption revealed a complicated tangle of legal and legislative battles, and a sinister underworld of abuses that couldn’t be addressed with a photo essay. Siegal had also tired of seeing her photographic work taken out of context and felt that to have greater control she needed to begin reporting on her subjects herself.
Finding Fernanda is both an intimate story about the intensely personal struggles of two women and a much larger story about the often dysfunctional relationship between the developed and developing worlds, as well as the abysmal failures of the Guatemalan and U.S. legal systems. It is a story filled with shadowy characters—unscrupulous American adoption agencies and their rapacious Guatemalan suppliers—who manipulated impoverished Guatemalan mothers and naïve American parents for financial gain. In some cases, babies were simply cut out of their mothers’ wombs for sale to foreign parents. More often, adoption rings would kidnap the children or force mothers into debt, demanding that they relinquish their children as payment. Some birth mothers who fought back received death threats or disappeared. Many of those involved in child trafficking used Christianity to win credibility and trust from their victims. They were often helped along by corrupt doctors, lawyers, and government officials, in Guatemala and the U.S., all of whom wanted a cut or had someone to protect.
Siegal began her reporting when adoption from Guatemala was at its peak. In 2008, Guatemala topped the list of countries supplying children for adoption to the U.S., sending around 4,000 children to U.S homes. The U.S. has since suspended all new adoptions from Guatemala. Siegal and I spoke about her transition from photojournalism to investigative reporting, the hurdles she encountered reporting a complicated, intimate story in a language and culture that are not her own, the frankness of her Guatemalan sources, and some of the more bizarre characters involved in adoption crime.
—Kristen French for Guernica
Guernica: You began your career as a photojournalist and initially approached this project in that way. What made you decide that this was more of an investigative story, and what kinds of stories do you feel are best suited to photojournalism?
Erin Siegal: I got started with this story completely by accident. I had been in Guatemala with my little sister on vacation, and our trip was cut short because my grandmother passed away. We were in the airport leaving, really tired—it was early in the morning. It was a flight from Guatemala City to Houston, and we were sitting there just looking around, and this was December 2007, which was kind of the height of the adoption industry in Guatemala. There were over a dozen adoptive parents with their new sons and daughters, and just seeing the multiplicity of that image made me think, wow, this would be such an amazing photograph. When I got back to New York I started doing a little research because I figured, OK, I can pull some kind of story out of this, some kind of simple angle, a happy adoption story. I’ll talk to my agency, they’ll give me a couple of grand, send me back to Guatemala. When I started the basic research that you would do for any photo essay—reading old clips, that kind of thing—the same types of abuses kept on popping up over and over again, about how there was so much fraud, how things like kidnapping would happen, and I just didn’t understand why the same kinds of stories kept repeating over a ten-year period. That made me think, let’s look at the legislation and the players and the lobbying around this issue. Why has nothing changed? Why have no reforms been implemented? The more I read about it, the more interested I got in the story. I read old Congressional testimony about adoption laws, and that’s the kind of stuff you can’t photograph, right? It’s really hard to think of in a visual way.
At the same time, I had reached a point in my photojournalism where I was getting very frustrated with not being able to tell deeper stories, not having control over my work, which is so typical. I guess this is what any kind of freelancer in their first five years realizes. Once you produce a product and it goes out into the world, whether that’s to a newswire or an agency or whatever, you don’t have control over it. I had shot this completely unrelated story about a truck-stop brothel in Nevada, for my agency, Redux Pictures, and I sent my agency the pictures and translated the story, and they sold it to a German publication. It was a beautiful, twelve-page spread, all these photos. I’m pretty good at just showing up and talking my way into places. I showed up at the brothel, talked my way in, and just stayed there for a week with the women. You know, it’s tricky, because it’s a sensitive subject. Some folks don’t want their picture taken, so I had to be really careful about it. Like any story you just build trust with your sources. So when Redux sold the story, that was fine, but when I actually saw the clips, and it’s all in German, there was this big, long feature that went with the pictures that I didn’t write. I was by myself; there was no reporter or researcher there. It was the kind of situation where I felt really shitty. It didn’t feel correct. It just didn’t feel right to me.
Guernica: Did you end up getting to read the story, translating it from German to see what approach they took?
Erin Siegal: I never did. It wasn’t online, and I was going to just run it through Google Translate or something like that, but I wasn’t about to type it all out. But it was enough to make me stop and think, I need to acquire the skills to tell the stories I’m photographing, because that’s my responsibility. At the same time I was working on the brothel story, I worked for Reuters—they were the first outlet that hired me as a photographer. One of the quick stories I shot for them was a day in the life of a transgender person; he was one of my best friends, a person I have known forever, so I shot this quick story, really simple. That ran on the newswire. A couple of months later I got this phone call from Topher, my friend, and he says, “You will never guess what I just saw.” I was like, “What did you see?” And he goes, “Well, a friend of mine who works in publishing found out about this encyclopedia, and under the entry for transgender, it’s my picture, the picture that you took.” I was like, “What the hell are you talking about?” As it turns out, that publisher was one of the clients that bought photographs from Reuters’ archive, so they were able to find that picture and use it. Again, I was just kind of like, shit, I didn’t know that that was possible and I should have. This is my responsibility as a photographer, to my subjects, to know what’s going to happen with my images. Things like that were happening and I felt, I need to be able to tell stories the way I see them.
I expected it would be a half-hour conversation, a quick phone call, but we talked for about three hours.
So when I came to the adoption story I felt like I did want to try tell the story myself, and because of those kinds of photojournalism experiences I decided I wanted to get a skill set that would allow me to do deeper investigative reporting. I’d always wanted to do bigger human rights stories, but I didn’t feel equipped to do them myself. I just didn’t have the confidence and didn’t know where to start. I applied to Columbia’s Stabile Center, a program inside the Columbia Journalism School. You have to write a separate essay, pitch an idea, so I said, OK, Guatemala adoption. I’ll pitch this very dry, very boring kind of legislative investigative history about why the laws are so poor and why there’s so little oversight. But once I started doing the research at Columbia, I found the individuals who would become the main characters in my book, and that’s how things snowballed from being a very dry project that nobody probably would have ever read to this character-driven narrative that is just this miraculous story that is almost too crazy to be true in some ways.
Guernica: You mention in the introduction to your book that at one point you were ready to give up because the material was so dry, but that your adviser at Columbia convinced you to keep pushing for these personal stories. How did you ultimately find your main subjects—the little girl, Maria Fernanda; her mother, Mildred Alvarado; and the adoptive mother, Betsy Emanuel?
Erin Siegal: Well, Guatemalan adoption has been written about by everybody—Dateline specials, CBS, everyone has done something about it. So when I started doing my research, I didn’t have a lot of confidence that I would find something big or important or fresh enough that it would be worth spending time on. My adviser, Wayne Barrett, the investigative journalist, just said, “Keep going, you’ll find something, keep going.” And so I did, and I was reading adoption listservs, reading message boards online, websites, that kind of stuff. I was reading archives for one list called the Adoption Agency Reviews list, where adoptive parents can ask questions and share their experiences about all the different American adoption agencies. I read an email from Betsy Emanuel, this housewife in Tennessee, giving advice to a newbie adoptive parent about how to pick an agency. The newbie had asked, “What do I ask, what do I look for?” and Betsy’s response just struck me as over-passionate, the kind of response where you’re like, “OK, what made her say that?” She was telling the newbie that she had to ask a ton of questions, research every staffer at the agency, really intensive stuff, so I shot Betsy an email, saying, “Hey, I’m a grad student, I’m interested in this topic, and I’m kind of interested in hearing your story if you’re willing to talk.” Betsy was like, “Wow, I’m really busy, I have eight children. But I have a daughter in grad school and I know how difficult it is to get people to talk to you, so I’m happy to have a phone conversation.”
I expected it would be a half-hour conversation, a quick phone call, but we talked for about three hours. At that point I was maybe five months into the research, and Betsy’s story just seemed really hard to believe and horrible. We first spoke in December 2008, and I was going to Guatemala on Columbia’s dime that January, so about a week and a half later. Betsy sent me some press clippings from the Guatemala press that kind of backed up her story, and I thought, OK, once I’m on the ground in Guatemala City, if I can find the birth mother involved in this story, then I’ll keep going with it, fill in holes of what really happened. But I’m not going to spend more than a day trying to find this woman—how am I going to find this woman in all of the slums of Guatemala City? It seemed really impossible. But it turned out to be very simple; I found Mildred within days. Once I started speaking to her and to the lawyers and the nonprofit that had helped her, I kind of understood that the story was real and what Betsy had said was true.
Guernica: How did you find her?
Erin Siegal: Mildred had been helped by an organization called Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivors’ Foundation), so I went to the organization and basically asked me if they could put me in touch with Mildred. They said, “Sure, why not, we’ll talk to her.” Mildred is not the kind of person who likes being in the public eye—she’s very private, keeps to herself, that’s just her nature. In retrospect I can say this about her: she felt so in debt to this organization for helping her get her children back that she would do absolutely anything that Norma Cruz, the director, asked of her, anything at all. So when Norma said, “Mildred, would you mind talking to this gringa, she’s here, she’s from New York, just talk to her for a half hour,” she said, “Of course.” She wouldn’t think of saying no. From there it was a very slow process of building trust and learning how to draw a really traumatic story out of someone who was severely traumatized. Also, I always worked side by side with a Guatemalan journalist on the ground in Guatemala, just to make sure that nothing got lost or taken out of context, to make sure my translations were correct, to cover all the bases. Between us both, we would check in with Mildred and check in with each other and say, “OK, are we going too far, we’ve been with her for two hours, is this enough for today, which details are we going to try to cover, which parts of the story are we going to try to cover.”
She said in the beginning, and again and again, that she hoped by telling her story she could prevent other women from going through what she had gone through.
Guernica: How did you build trust with her? She does seem from the book like someone who is very fearless in some ways but also reticent in the extreme.
Erin Siegal: Yes, she’s not out there in the world in some ways. We just went very slowly. I would say the first four interviews we did with Mildred, we just let her talk. And I’m not the kind of journalist who goes in with a list of questions until much further into the process, until I need to know, “OK, what is the color of that wall?”—really detailed stuff that you need for book writing. So we would generally start with something really benign and warm up from there. “What did you do today, what did you have for breakfast?” and just start by having more of a conversation than a really hard interview. Then we would gradually get into the story and let Mildred start, or see where she wanted to naturally start talking about the story, and then patchwork it together after we had all the tapes. It complicated the process a lot, because I had chunks of her story that weren’t in chronological order—that kind of lined up, but it was this big mishmash. Straightening that out was tricky, but it seemed like the best way to handle the situation. Whenever she seemed tired or said she was tired, we stopped. And we would always make sure she was up for the interview, was up for meeting in a place where she felt secure and comfortable. We met in public places for a while—a couple of times we met at her house, depending on what was happening. She was followed and threatened for a long, long time, so there were concerns about whether we would be followed going to meet her, whether her or her family would experience any repercussions for talking to us, two strangers coming into her neighborhood. People notice. Everything was done as carefully as it could be. She was always proud to tell her story and was always genuinely happy to tell her story. She said in the beginning, and again and again, that she hoped by telling her story she could prevent other women from going through what she had gone through. She was definitely driven to talk to us for that reason as well.
Guernica: And you speak Spanish?
Erin Siegal: Conversationally but not fluently.
Guernica: So you collaborated very closely with a Guatemalan reporter on this story. What was that kind of working relationship like?
Erin Siegal: I got really, really lucky. I met J. [Redacted], who was the [Redacted] correspondent in Guatemala City, through word of mouth, through other journalists who had met him: “Oh, you might want to talk to him, he’s worked on adoption stories before, he might want to help you out if you have questions.” We met the first time I went to Guatemala on the first reporting trip, and we just kind of clicked. You know when you meet someone and the conversation is really easy, it kind of just goes? He wound up becoming one of my best friends, to this day. So it was dumb luck that I found J. [Redacted] and that he was willing to help me with this big, long, complicated story. Without him it wouldn’t have been possible—absolutely not. He knew how to navigate certain dangerous neighborhoods we were door knocking in, he knew how to navigate the court system, he knew when to call a government official’s bluff and say, “No, you need to give us this information now,” and when not to be like that. He just had a really good read on all the different situations I dragged us into. That was irreplaceable.
Guernica: Did you ever feel threatened or in danger?
Erin Siegal: It’s funny, every time I went to Guatemala I would go for three to five weeks at a time and then leave and come back. During that time we would cram so much in that we were literally working twelve-to-fourteen-hour days. I was sleeping on his couch. We were together 24/7, in this bubble of trying to figure out this really complicated, alleged crime, trying to corroborate every piece of it and talk to as many people as possible. We were just 24/7 thinking about the case, thinking about the holes in the case. So there were times that we knew we were taking risks, and when we were in the riskier situations, we didn’t take his car: we took a trusted driver who he had worked with before. We told the driver what to do in the worst-case situation, best-case situation, where to wait for us, and J. [Redacted] was very good at concealing his nervousness. We had a conversation last week, and he had never said this before. The last time we were together working on this project in Guatemala was August 2010, so it’s been over a year. And he said, “The stuff you made me do, I was scared shitless.” I was like, “You never said that you were, and I’m glad you didn’t tell me because I would have been terrified if I knew that.”
We were doing stuff like talking to people who were criminally accused of human trafficking and kidnapping—people who were known or rumored to be armed and dangerous, situations that weren’t necessarily simple and safe. It was OK, though. I spoke to Coni Galindo, who is the matriarch of the organization that was finding children for adoption in less than scrupulous ways. It took a lot for us to get to talk to her—we had to kind of surprise her out in front of her house, and we spoke to her for maybe twenty minutes. At the end she said, “Thank you for coming and hearing my side of the story.” We knew she was lying to our faces about multiple things she was saying; we had documentary proof that spoke otherwise. But she still seemed happy that we heard her side of the story.
A lot of sources I spoke to who were adoptive families were afraid to ask questions. They weren’t sure why the last names of their adopted child would suddenly change.
Guernica: Do you think any of those involved in these adoption crimes initially had good intentions and just got sucked in by all the money involved, or were they planning to commit crimes from the start?
Erin Siegal: It’s all so hard to tell. I was speaking to those who are accused of criminal wrongdoing in the book, by Guatemalan government officials. If I had spoken to them years ago, when this was going on, I would be better equipped to answer that question. In retrospect, knowing what did happen, not only to Mildred but to other women as well, it’s hard to understand if there were purely good intentions or not. It seems like financial incentives were what drove these people on the Guatemala side of things, and that’s corroborated by the U.S. embassy itself. Just this past month I got back over 2,000 pages of embassy records from a FOIA request I filed over two years ago. I thought I was never going to get them. These documents paint a history of the last twenty years of adoption corruption in many ways, in which the embassy is continually concerned about aiding and abetting child trafficking through adoption. A lot of things crop up, but not enough times for them to do anything. They weren’t sure exactly how much fraud was permeating the system even though these instances kept occurring. The embassy, in their own words, said that financial incentives were driving the business, so it seems fairly clear.
Guernica: There are some in the U.S. and Guatemala who are fiercely supportive of international adoption, in spite of the evidence of abuses. I was checking out that website you mention in the book, Guatadopt, a kind of listserv for parents looking into Guatemalan adoptions, and there are a number of posts attacking Guatemala’s suspension of international adoptions. What do you think is driving this passion for international adoption?
Erin Siegal: A lot of the folks that run that site are adoptive parents. When the Guatemalan adoption industry was at its height, that was one of the key places Americans came for information, because where else do you get information? From your adoption agency, that’s one way. There’s the U.S. State Department, which puts out the occasional bulletin, but there’s not that much there. If you’re actually trying to get answers to a certain situation or rumor, you turn to Guatadopt. I think that’s one reason that such fraud was able to keep going, because a lot of adoption parents didn’t have hard and trustworthy sources of information when there were questions. A lot of sources I spoke to who were adoptive families were afraid to ask questions. They weren’t sure why the last names of their adopted child would suddenly change. They never got an answer on that. It’s hard to know if something like that is really serious or an innocent mistake unless you are on the ground in Guatemala actually speaking to the people involved in the adoption process. It’s a very time-consuming and expensive process, trying to track down the people involved.
Guernica: How central do you think Christianity and claims to Christianity are to the international adoption racket? Are there agencies and players that don’t have a Christian link?
Erin Siegal: There are all sorts of agencies, Christian and non-, working in adoption, not just in Guatemala, but also in other countries. There is a sizable Christian contingency, but there are also nonreligious organizations involved. I think that when it comes to Christian agencies that might be less than scrupulous, such as Celebrate Children International, the agency in the book, they seem to have a certain amount of power over some of their clients in that people believe. If you share a faith, there is an immediate foundation of trust there. I think that folks were less likely to believe that something fishy was going on, because we’re all following the orders of the same guy, we’re all on the same page here, even if they weren’t really sure.
A lot of the reporting in the book was like detective work in that you never trusted anybody, never believed what anyone said, even Betsy, even Mildred.
Guernica: What kind of impact do you think or hope your book will have?
Erin Siegal: The depth of corruption in Guatemalan adoption has never really been chronicled, and I think part of the reason is that no one has given the public a full picture of how the corruption happens. So I think this book is really important because it does show what happened on both sides—the American side and the Guatemalan side—through this one case. Not only while it was happening, but afterwards—how difficult it was for these women to get anyone to listen to them, to get anyone to follow through on it; how both governments let them down. I’m also releasing an e-book of just these embassy cables, because I think they are important for the public to have access to. It’s a really difficult, emotional issue—it’s a human rights issue, it’s bigger than just the adoption community. I think the American public should understand what happened and why so that our government can be held accountable moving forward, and we can know how to engage in ethical adoptions, know how to make it something good for everyone involved, not exploitative.
Guernica: Why do you think adoption corruption got so bad in Guatemala? Did it have something to do with the civil war there, the destruction and displacement of so many families?
Erin Siegal: Guatemala became a really popular country for adoptions to the U.S. for a lot of reasons. One, it’s geographically close. It’s easy to get there; it’s not expensive to get to. Also, when the adoption industry was at its peak, adoption happened really quickly. You could adopt a child in four to six months, which is a lot faster than adopting a Russian child or a Chinese child. So it was geographically close, the adoptions were quick, there was a high availability of healthy infants, which was attractive for families who didn’t want an older child who had been in institutional care for many years. The supply was there. The Guatemalan government didn’t regulate the industry very well. The only check was a document review at an institution that many sources have called a cesspool of corruption, so it was a very easy place to adopt from.
One of my failings as a new reporter is that I don’t know when to stop.
Guernica: To go back to the beginning of our interview, are there still subjects you feel are best suited to photojournalism, that don’t require intensive reporting?
Erin Siegal: You know, it’s actually one of my regrets with this project, that I didn’t take more pictures. As my reporting process evolved, I would take my camera everywhere, but I was using it just to take snapshots. Like, OK, here is a room where a scene happened in the book, and I’d take a photo just to be able to describe the ceiling, what’s in the room, stuff like that.
Looking back through all the images I took, I wish I had been able to have the discipline to transition my brain from thinking about the investigation to thinking about the visual imagery. I wish I could have done something like have a really strong body of photographs to go along with the book, but I couldn’t. It was too much—the story itself was too overwhelming to figure out how to flip a switch in my brain from visual reporting to the more conceptual investigative work I was doing. A lot of the reporting in the book was like detective work in that you never trusted anybody, never believed what anyone said, even Betsy, even Mildred. I was always looking for holes in their stories, to the very end, until I was really satisfied that I believed them and could back it up five different ways. It was really hard for me to see that visually, and I guess that will be easier over time. I’ve had conversations with other photographers who, in today’s media world, have to do video, audio, everything at once. It’s really hard to juggle and juggle well. It takes a lot of practice. I hope to some day get to that point where I can do the visual and conceptual, but it will definitely take practice.
Guernica: How did you hook up with the Schuster Institute, and what’s it been like to work with them?
Erin Siegal: It’s kind of funny, when I was still reporting around the book project, before it was a book project, as a new writer, I just kind of considered everyone a source, even other journalists, which obviously some people don’t think is very cool. So I called an investigative journalist, E.J. Graff, who does amazing work, and she was the person who had been writing about adoption corruption and global systems of fraud. I had read her articles and thought, “Wow, she’s so great, she’s so smart, I need to talk to her and see, maybe there are some leads she didn’t get around to, maybe she could help.” So I called E.J., and she was great. She was kind of suspicious—she was like, “Why are you calling me?” I was kind of like, “Oh, I’m doing this.” I’m not the kind of journalist that’s secretive about their work. I told her all about the story, and she was like, “OK, OK,” and from there we kept talking now and then. She was, at the time, the associate director of the Schuster Institute, and the SI is a nonprofit investigative journalism center. They’re completely grant-funded, and they do social justice and human rights reporting—that’s their umbrella—so adoption corruption is one of the issues they had been researching.
When they learned about what I was doing they were really interested, because no one had really gone so deep in a certain country on a certain issue. One of my failings as a new reporter is that I don’t know when to stop. It’s a very fine line, and I think that’s a really important skill to have—to know when to stop asking questions. I’m still trying to figure that out. I think that the Schuster folks were impressed at how much I had done thus far, so they were like, “Let’s talk about making you a fellow. We can support you with some database access, with some research assistants from time to time, we can edit your pieces if you want.” It was kind of a very loose arrangement. I said, “OK,” and they said, “When you file your FOIA requests, you can file it on our letterhead—that might help.” And it did. They also helped me get me some grants.
Speaking with American government officials was a nightmare in some cases; trying to get information about adoption cases in Guatemala was an exercise in frustration.
Guernica: You also used Kickstarter to fund some of your reporting. What was that experience like?
Erin Siegal: I did. It felt really strange at first—it kind of felt like online panhandling. But after I put the project up, it kind of became a way to gauge how important this project was to the general public. I set a target goal of $3,500 on my page, and that was supposed to support about four weeks of on-the-ground reporting in Guatemala City. I ended up raising a little over $5,000, and folks were really supportive, believed in the project, and that made me feel like it was really worth it. If no one had funded it, I would have had second thoughts, as to whether anyone would want to read the book. But it helped, and Kickstarter was actually really fun. It was great to have a community, to have folks to engage with, to have people asking you questions, and also to be held accountable to funders. The best part was being able to blog and have folks who were reading, so once I was on the ground in Guatemala City, I would post updates: today I was here, this is what happened, stories about the absurdities of the process, and people liked that. The interactivity was the best part. I don’t think it’s a good idea for journalism in general. Good work should be supported by news organizations, and publishers should pony up money to support investigative reporting. But we’re in hard times, so there are upsides and downsides to it.
Guernica: Was there anything that happened during your reporting for this book that has really stuck with you?
Erin Siegal: We talked to this one lawyer who is known as Skippy in Guatemala. We wanted to talk to him because he was Marvin Bran’s defense lawyer. [Marvin Bran was a Guatemala-based adoption facilitator and attorney for Celebrate Children International, the agency that Betsy Emanuel used in her attempts to adopt a Guatemalan child. There is an arrest warrant out for Bran due to his alleged involvement in “illegal adoptions.”] Skippy is also one of the most powerful, well-known criminal defense lawyers in the country. Of course we wanted to talk to him, because we were having trouble finding Marvin and getting him to talk to us. So we sat down with Skippy, and he speaks perfect English, with a British accent. He is just this very well-dressed, gentlemanly character, and he was amazingly candid about his former client. He told us Marvin was an adoption pimp. He said something like about how finding a child for adoption is like shopping for a car: if you want a green Ford Explorer, you just put the word out on the street that that was what you were looking for. He was so candid that it was shocking. A lot of sources were incredibly frank about how things worked on the Guatemalan side and didn’t sugar-coat.
That was refreshing compared to a lot of the American sources, who were less willing to speak candidly about their questions or concerns. It took a lot more to drag out issues. Speaking with American government officials was a nightmare in some cases; trying to get information about adoption cases in Guatemala was an exercise in frustration. I sat with Kay Anske, U.S. Consul General, and it was the most frustrating interview of my life. They can’t speak about certain cases because of privacy constraints, even though the people in my book all signed waivers saying, “You can speak about my case to this journalist in particular, it’s notarized, it’s OK.” They still wouldn’t talk to me about specifics, or even generalities, until I got those documents back, and those documents came too late to make it into the book at all. The Guatemalan candidness was really refreshing. We were able to show up unannounced in the human-trafficking office of the local government and just speak with people, which I couldn’t ever do here.
Guernica: This entire apparatus has been set up to keep the media out in the U.S.
Erin Siegal: Yeah, and some of that was also just being a foreigner, an American, asking them to tell me what was happening.
Guernica: You felt that Guatemalans were more willing to talk to you because you are an American?
Erin Siegal: It was hard to tell. I think it worked for me in some cases and against me in others. One thing, getting back to memorable moments—I would say one of the most memorable was going to find Marvin Bran. [The Guatemalan journalist] and I spent hours strategizing how to find him. He had already been accused of human trafficking, as had his mother, and things were kind of rolling in terms of prosecution, so we didn’t know if he’d want to talk to anybody. But we knew where they lived. We ultimately decided to surprise Coni, his mother, on her doorstep.
We had heard she just kind of hangs out outside her house, watches what happens in the street. So we thought, we’ll just go hang out, walk up to her when she comes out, that seems easy. We took our driver. He parked around the corner, just in case, you never know, to be safe. J. [Redacted] is tall and pretty fair-skinned, taller than me; most folks in Guatemala are pretty tiny. We walked up to Coni, and she thought we were CICIG investigators. CICIG is the international council against impunity in Guatemala. They’re these badass investigators that tackle drug trafficking, the cartels, former presidents—really big crimes—and they also work on organized crime cases, which is why they work on adoption fraud as well. So she started talking to us and says, “You guys have already been here, I already spoke with CICIG, why are you back?” And we were like, “No, no, no, no. We’re not CICIG.” Just the fact that she thought we were CICIG…it was so crazy. We were like, “No, we’re just journalists.”
It just was funny. She was wearing a leopard-print muumuuu and holding a child, and she said it was one of her grandchildren, and she was wearing a hoodie with cat ears. The whole situation was just kind of comical. It was a colorful scene. Then she told us she had nothing to do with adoption ever, had never been involved in a single adoption case and she had no idea what we were talking about. This was right after she told us she thought we were CICIG.