America’s Renegade Retirees

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U.S. News and World Report

ROSARITO, Mexico — At the sprawling beachfront Las Rocas Resort and Spa in the Mexican state of Baja California, the restaurant El Mesón serves up American-style pizza and Mexican seafood accompanied by a breathtaking view of the Pacific. To drum up more business, the restaurant is running a new campaign in local publications, with a limited-time offer.

Their advertisement shows a beaming, middle-aged couple, a silver-haired gentleman and a blond. Her arms are draped comfortably around his shoulders. “Super special!” reads the text over their heads, in English. “Seniors 50% off your check!” In the tiny print below, a disclaimer notes that the deal is available to those aged 55 and up.

That marketing focus is intentional. In 2017, for the first time in twenty years, Mexico topped the list of International Living’s annual ranking of the best places for U.S. citizens to retire. The population of Americans in Mexico is rising, in size as well as in age.

Yet most of them may be there illegally. South of the border, it’s relatively easy for U.S. citizens to live without legal documentation. In fact, some official reports indicate that illegal Americans seem to be the rule, not the exception.

One 2015 study from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography reveals that a stunning 91.2 percent of Americans in the country don’t have their papers in order. That figure includes typos and other minor irregularities, and doesn’t appear to account for dual nationals.

The welcome many American immigrants feel in Mexico stands in stark contrasts to the way their Mexican counterparts are treated by Uncle Sam.

At the border crossing into Tijuana from San Diego, Americans can drive straight into Mexico without stopping or showing any kind of identification.

Mexicans generally embrace Americans and the influx of U.S. dollars that accompany them, and the Mexican government rarely deports Americans – typically just for very serious crime. Fines related to immigration paperwork can range from $50 to a few hundred dollars.

Conversely, under the Trump administration, even those people who grew up in the United States, brought here as babies or children, are now being deported for lacking formal documentation.

“There is a great deal of irony there,” says Sheila Croucher, author of the book, “The Other Side of the Fence: American Migrants in Mexico.” She adds, “I believe the Mexican people are remarkably adept at separating the actions and attitudes of the U.S. government from that of the American people.”

According to the U.S. State Department, around a million Americans currently reside in Mexico. But that number is only an estimate, since citizens aren’t closely tracked leaving the U.S. For its part, Mexico struggles to tally incoming visitors.

“I think it’s safe to say that over the past few years there has been a marked increase,” Croucher says. “And there’s been no indication of a reverse flow of people coming back from the towns in Mexico where large numbers of Americans have settled.”

Statistics from the U.S. Social Security Administration show that distributions to beneficiaries in Mexico increased 7.2 percent between 2012 and 2016. Yet those numbers, too, aren’t exactly reliable: many American seniors move south while keeping their old bank accounts back home.

Some of the 15,000 Americans skirt formal residency requirements by obtaining tourist visas, and renewing them every 180 days. Otherwise, a one-year temporary visa costs about $194 USD.

Cheap living, proximity and established enclaves of Americans are three top reasons why Americans are drawn to retiring in Mexico, says Jen Stevens, the executive editor of International Living.

“Part of the reason Mexico came out on top [in our ranking] is because of the dollar being so strong this year, compared to the peso,” Stevens says. “It is even more affordable now than it was a decade before.”

Hot spots for American immigrants, young and old alike, include cities and towns like San Miguel de Allende, Rosarito, the Valle de Guadalupe, Lake Chapala and Ajijic.

And with the climbing cost of healthcare in the U.S., some American retirees also view Mexico as a good option if assisted living facilities or in-home private care become necessary.

Scott Astorga of Palm Springs says he opened a small retirement home in Rosarito in June 2016. “There’s a demand here,” Astorga says. “That’s why I’m in business. It’s growing. Back in 2003, there weren’t any assisted living facilities.”

Yet some Americans find themselves unsettled by what still seems to be a fact of Mexican life: the “mordida,” or bribe.

Sean Gunderson, 57, of Arizona bought a beachfront second home in a gated community along the Tijuana-Rosarito coast in 2004.

A few years later, the former law enforcement consultant was advised to pay a bribe after the Mexican government refused to fix a typo on paperwork related to his property. The incident rankled Gunderson so much that he decided to put his house on the market, scrapping a plan to develop a multi-million dollar assisted living community in Baja California.

“If you don’t mind operating that way, as an American, you can buy influence and connections,” Gunderson says. “But for us, in terms of investing, that was the straw that broke our backs.”

The Limits of Jurisdiction

clips, words

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.


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. Abigail López García, photo from Consejo Nacional de Adopciones 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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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., 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. Abigail López García, photos from 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.

“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. 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. 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. Bran

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.

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.

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.” 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.


Read These Kids’ Horrifying Tales of Abuse in U.S. Detention Facilities

clips, words


For | Earlier this year, a 13-year-old boy was taken into U.S. Customs and Border Patrol custody in Hidalgo, Tex., separated from his sister, and placed in a holding cell among adult men for three days. According to a complaint filed in June by the ACLU in conjunction with four other nonprofits, two adults in the cell that night threatened the boy, telling him they’d “ ‘eat him up’ while he slept.”

The boy, identified as J.P., was sexually molested. Then he was molested again.

“J.P. repeatedly tried to report the abuse to CBP officials,” the complaint reads, “but they ignored him. J.P. continues to feel afraid when he remembers what happened to him.”

According to the graphic complaint, which was delivered in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security on June 11, immigrant children and teens in U.S. detention facilities have been enduring brutal abuse for years. With the recent surge in the number of apprehensions of unaccompanied minors making national news, the question now is whether such incidents are becoming more frequent.

One in four migrant children caught entering the U.S. and taken into CBP custody “reported some form of physical abuse, including sexual assault, beatings, and the use of stress positions by CBP officials,” the ACLU complaint alleges.

Assuming the ACLU sample is representative, extrapolating it to the number of juvenile migrants currently in CBP custody would mean the number of underage abuse victims potentially totals more than 13,000.

Over the last three years, the ACLU has been agitating for information related to sex abuse perpetrated against immigration detainees held in the United States. After Freedom of Information Act requests went unanswered, ACLU lawyers sued for the public records.

Children reported being forced to eat spoiled food, getting sick from a lack of medical attention, and being verbally and physically abused by agents. Verbal abuse was reported to include agents calling children “dogs,” “parasites,” and “sluts.” One teenager, identified as C.S., said, “The only drinking water available…came from the toilet tank in her holding cell.” A female J.P., age 12, and her sister “required medical treatment for dehydration” after their release from custody in Texas. A 19-year-old mother said that during nine days in custody, she had only been allowed to change her infant daughter’s diaper once. Five-year-old O.M., an asylum seeker accompanied by his mother, reportedly ate a single cookie each day for three days straight, sleeping at night on the hard ground with no bedding.

These children and teens are a new subset of the “most vulnerable” detainees, up until now regarded as women, gay, and transgender immigrants.

The problem isn’t that a protective framework doesn’t exist. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was revised in March 2014 after a damning investigation by Frontline in 2012 found that the large majority of sex abuse complaints in immigration detention centers were never investigated, let alone resolved. On Nov. 20, 2013, a Government Accountability Office report agreed: Hotlines for reporting abuse had been set up, but no one bothered to answer the phones. Certain reports of abuse vanished. A quarter of all cases under investigation had been closed because of “lack of evidence”—that is, the victim had already been deported. No one was tracking the government agency’s responses to allegations of abuse.

The new, expanded federal PREA guidelines are supposed to make all facilities under the Department of Homeland Security umbrella, including immigration detention, subject to standardized reporting.

But meaningful change, oversight, and accountability could still be a long way off. The June 2014 abuse complaint against the Department of Homeland Security, filed months after the PREA update was passed, is strikingly similar to one the ACLU filed in 2011.

Abuses by immigration officials “have been documented and reported to DHS for years,” the ACLU noted in its letter. “But the government has not implemented reforms or taken any action to hold agents accountable.”


Tijuana’s ‘tent city’ shelters deported immigrants | PHOTOS

clips, mainstream media, photojournalism


Written by Michelle García, photographs by Erin Siegal McIntyre. 

TIJUANA, Mexico — There was a time when Javier Reyes conferred with architects about building plans, when a day’s work meant constructing new homes for Californians near Bakersfield. But the world of bricks and plywood he once knew has been replaced by a sea of brightly colored tents. Now he uses his quiet authority to bring a semblance of order to an informal camp of homeless people, many of whom were, like Reyes, tossed out of the United States.


On a recent morning, a tension comes over the camp. A man grabs a woman from behind and pushes her to the crowd. “She’s pregnant,” someone yells. A security team — men who live in the camp — is dispatched to break up the scuffle. Meanwhile, a tall man with a thick mustache and heavy jacket saunters up to the table and slips a paper across the table where Reyes sits — another deportee from California on the streets of Tijuana searching for refuge… 

Read the full story published by Al Jazeera America:

Latest Clip: New York Times

clips, photojournalism, Pictures

The rise of stem cell industry catering to customers who may pay tens of thousands in cash for miracle...

I photographed Dr. Javier Lopez of Tijuana’s Instituto de Medicina Regenerativa.

The story, “Stem Cell Treatments Overtake Science,” is by science writer Laura Beil.

“Maggie Alejos arrived here in June from St. Anne, Ill., with her husband, her daughter and a cashier’s check for $13,500, payable to the Regenerative Medicine Institute.

Rail-thin, with an oxygen tube anchored above her upper lip, Ms. Alejos, a retired Army nurse, has coped with emphysema for a dozen of her 65 years. Once she came close enough to a lung transplant that doctors prepared her for surgery, only to discover that the donor lung was unfit.

At a hospital here, doctors affiliated with the institute extracted about seven ounces of fat from her thighs, hoping to harvest about 130 million stem cells and implant them in her failing lungs.

Across the Internet — where Ms. Alejos learned about the Tijuana institute — adult stem cells are promoted as a cure for everything from sagging skin to severed spinal cords.

On the surface, the claim is plausible. Scientists have discovered that fat, bone marrow and other parts of the body contain stem cells, immature cells that can rejuvenate themselves, at least in the tissue they are naturally found.

But it has yet to be proved that these cells can regenerate no matter where they are placed, or under what conditions this might occur. Moreover, questions about safety remain unanswered.

These sober realities do not appear to have slowed the rise of an international industry catering to customers who may pay tens of thousands of dollars in cash for their shot at a personal miracle. (Some foreign operators offer creative variations on the theme, like cells from sharks and sheep.)…”

Read the full story on the New York Times website:

“Immigration and assimilation: Finding a cultural foothold … in a gang” | Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2013

clips, words


“Immigration and assimilation: Finding a cultural foothold in a gang,” by Erin Siegal McIntyre, from the July 7, 2013 cover story package on immigration for the Christian Science Monitor. 

In 1979, at age 7, Alex Sanchez and his younger brother left El Salvador. They didn’t want to immigrate to theUnited States, but they had no choice. Five years earlier, their parents had made the journey north. The young brothers had spent most of their lives believing that their neighbors, who acted as temporary caretakers, were family.

“It was a hard transition to come into the United States to meet these new people,” Mr. Sanchez explains. “We’d been calling someone else Mom and Dad in El Salvador.”And once the family was reunited in Los Angeles, the children’s situation got even more difficult. Sanchez’s parents fought. “We started getting beat for things like not calling our dad ‘Dad,’ ” he says. His father often left the family, and his mother sank deeply into religion.

At school, Sanchez was ridiculed for not speaking English, and the other Spanish-speaking Latino kids derided his Salvadoran slang. “There was really nothing to help us to integrate into society,” he says, describing what experts call “downward assimilation,” integrating culturally but not into the mainstream culture. “It was difficult for us to understand what was happening. We just knew that we hated this country, that we hated our parents. We hated everybody and everything around us. There was no American dream. And in some ways, it became an American nightmare.”

The family moved to South Central L.A., then Koreatown. Finally, at a new school, Sanchez found a group of other immigrant children whose experiences mirrored his own – including being humiliated and bullied. Among his new clique, Sanchez found the sense of love and belonging that had eluded him since moving to the States.

“Instead of responding individually to harassment, they responded with unity,” he says. “And eventually, this became known as the Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13.”

Today, the US government recognizes the high-profile gang as a transnational criminal organization. According to the FBI, which has a task force dedicated to battling the gang, the organization operates in more than 42 states and boasts between 6,000 and 10,000 members.

At first, Sanchez says, the gang felt like home. At age 11, he got his first tattoo. By 15, he’d been shot. His adolescence was spent bouncing in and out of juvenile detention, and by 20, Sanchez had served three separate jail terms for various offenses. “For us, going to prison was a rite of passage,” he recalls today. “You got recognized by the gang; you were someone to be reckoned with.”

By 1994, after his third prison sentence, the gangster glamour of doing time started to tarnish. Sanchez was 21 and realized he wanted to turn his life around. After another arrest, he signed voluntary deportation papers, weary from the intensity of gang life. Perhaps deportation, Sanchez imagined, could serve as a vacation of sorts. 

He was wrong...

Million Dollar Makeover? Behind Baja’s New Image

clips, radio

In a hushed beige room at San Diego’s Hotel Handlery, clusters of well-dressed American public relations executives mingled. The February luncheon — formally titled “How PR Shaped Baja California’s Resurgence” — was an insider’s look the inner workings of a highly regarded campaign.

The pay-per-plate event, thrown by the Public Relations Society of America, paid tribute to the ongoing PR campaign that recently won a 2012 industry award for “outstanding public relations tactics.” Attendees dined on tilapia and eggplant parmesan while listening to panelists talk about the nuts and bolts of Baja’s image overhaul.

“We’re here to talk about an extremely successful PR campaign that really changed the conversation about Baja from media attention on violence to one focused on Baja’s food, arts, and cultural scene,” the emcee announced.

Allison + Partners, an international firm with offices in San Diego, was hired by the coastal Mexican border state of Baja California Norte to shift public attention away from violence, in an attempt to “reactivate” American tourism in the region.

The tourism industry withered in recent years, largely due to insecurity and transnational crime organizations warring in the region. Baja’s historic reputation for sun and surf was eclipsed by gruesome headlines including beheadings, kidnappings en masse, and frequent shoot-outs.

But in 2010, the state contracted with Allison + Partners to help fix its image. The ongoing campaign is shifting public attention and generating positive stories to place in the media focused on food, art and wine.

Since the campaign began, tourism is slowly making a comeback in Baja. In 2009, as violence peaked, hotel occupancy in Tijuana dropped to just 35 percent, said Juan Tintos, the state’s Secretary of Tourism. Today, it’s risen to 57 percent. In fact, for every year since 2011, tourism has grown incrementally better.

Despite the intense marketing and advances made in Baja, across Mexico, tourism overall continues to falter.

Pedro Azcárraga Andrade, president of Mexico’s Consejo Nacional Empresario Turístico, announced at a press conference in late January 2013 that the nation’s tourism industry has lost $12 billion since 2008. He issued a call for the federal government to change its strategy to “better the country’s image abroad.”

It might seem like a tall order.

Current travel warnings published by the U.S. Department of State instructs Americans to “defer non-essential travel” to parts of 15 states in Mexico.

Baja California Norte used to be on the list — but it’s not any more. The current State Department travel warning advises against traveling at night, and warns visitors that targeted assassinations continue to take place, sometimes in broad daylight.

It also notes that 25 Americans were murdered in Baja between July 2011 and July 2012.

But compared to American cities, Tijuana’s current murder rates seem to be fairly average. Between July 2011-2012, according U.S. State Department statistics, 351 homicides occurred in Tijuana, a city of an estimated 1.3 million people.

Comparatively, Detroit had 344 murders—but that city’s population is about half that of Tijuana’s, with around 700,000 people.

The U.S. cities of Memphis, Oakland, St. Louis, and Flint, Mich. have statistically more murders than Tijuana.

Still, in Mexico, an accurate tabulation of homicide and crime rates can be difficult to come by. Statistics from the Attorney General’s Office can be incongruent with those of other government bodies.

A recent report from The Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice noted that in 2011, just 16.4 percent of crimes in Mexico were investigated and prosecuted.

Political analysts like Alejandro Hope have called the country’s statistics of homicides related to organized crime “worse than useless,” saying that they only confuse matters since they’re not based on real criminal investigations or evidence.

In 2008, former Rosarito Mayor Hugo Torres told the San Diego Union-Tribune that tourism suffered in part due to “strong smear campaigns from some California media.”

In February, at the PR luncheon, Torres furthered his argument, saying media attention to crime and brutality negatively skews the way the public perceives Mexico overall.

Juan Tintos, who served as Baja’s Secretary of Tourism from 1992-2001, has now been back in the position since 2010. To him, the Allison + Partners Baja campaign has been a clear success.

“We encouraged American tourists to visiting and sharing the positive side of Baja,” he said. “We used key messages by very famous people, testimonials, celebrities, and the American ex-pats. The key message is that Baja California is a safe destination.”

Tintos added that planting “positive” sources and prefabricated pro-tourism organizations in the news media has helped.

So has bringing movie stars and celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain to the region, a move he said helped shift the focus tremendously from murder to food and wine.

“We went through a drought with the film studios here in Baja, where for about seven or eight years, we didn’t have any type of productions,” Tintos said. “We reactivated the film industry, bringing people here to the state like Sylvester Stallone, Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, and most recently Robert Redford…”

Powerful media outlets including The New York Times and the New Yorker published stories on Tijuana’s food scene, heightening the positive buzz.

American ex-pat Marjorie “Maggie” Drake keeps track of the negative side of coverage on her blog, “Maggie’s Madness Drug War Chronicles,” which she’s penned from Baja since 2006. Drake’s own amalgamation is an antidote of sorts to the positive stories: She details and translates stories about regional crime and violence as reported by the local press and eyewitnesses like friends and neighbors.

Baja California spent a reported half million dollars on public relations in 2009 alone, with Mexico’s federal government shelling out another half-million. Back then, the firms Fleishman-Hillard and 1st Strike Creative were retained to help repair the state’s image.

Today, neither Tintos nor Allison + Partners will disclose the price tag for Baja California’s new image. Tintos said he prefers to think about the cost in terms of cost-benefit for the tourism industry, an amount he said is in the millions.

But a new image has emerged: The state has evolved from being best known for dismembered bodies to being hailed as a culinary epicenter with a vibrant art and music scene.

“A big part of our campaign is actually bringing journalists across the border to experience Baja for themselves,” said Annie Drury, an account executive from Allison + Partners who has worked on Baja’s image for years. “Journalist fam trips, sometimes they’re individual trips, sometimes they’re group fam trips… ”

“Fam trips” are what’s known as familiarity trips, or paid junkets to Mexico used in promotion. The current Baja campaign by Allison + Partners snared a 2012 a Bernays Bronze Award, given in recognition of “outstanding public relations tactics.”

The PR firm tracks this change in perception by using results from an independent polling company working with the Mexican research institute COLEF to evaluate the efficacy of their tactics. In December, 600 Southern Californians were surveyed.

“Respondents who perceive Baja as unsafe, that decreased by 16 percent over the past year,” said Richard Kendall of Allison + Partners. “Those who would not visit Baja because of a perceived danger, crime, or drugs decreased by 44 percent.”

But perception and spin aside, Consul General Andrew S. E. Erickson at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana said the State Department maintains its travel warning for Baja California Norte for a reason: continued security concerns.

“Tijuana has come a long way from 2009,” Erikson said. “Look, we continue to have concerns about security. That’s why we have a travel warning… There continues to be situations in which American citizens are killed. The majority of those murders seem to be related to transnational organized crime, narcoterrorism, or narcotics-related murders. As a general rule, however, people in tourist areas are not targeted.”

Originally aired by the Fronteras Desk

VIDEO: City As Blender: Tijuana’s New Mix Of Music, Crowds, And Cultures

clips, TV & Video

TIJUANA, Mexico — By 2009, Tijuana had become a shadow of its former self. Known for bars, clubs, and general debauchery, the city’s nightlife had ground to a crushing halt. Drug violence scared away tourists, and even locals stayed indoors.

Today, the city is emerging from hibernation.

Reuben Torres is a producer with the Tijuana trio Los Macuanos, a band he formed with Moises Horta and Moises López.

“When we started doing music, nobody was doing anything in the city,” Torres said. “It was around the time when there was violence, so everything stopped. The parties died. For the three years we’ve been doing this, we’ve persevered… we were like, it doesn’t matter that nobody cares. But now people have started caring.”

It’s true: people are not only caring, but now sometimes traveling in packs just to hear new music. On a recent November weekend, not one but two music events arrived in Tijuana: the All My Friends Music Festival and the musical residency Norte Sonoro.

The concept behind Norte Sonoro is simple. Each year, a hand-picked curator chooses six international musicians, and brings them to a pre-selected Mexican city for a week of immersion in local sounds, food, art, and culture. At the week’s end, the artists perform in a showcase, and collaborate on a digital album.

Esteban Sheridan Cárdenas, founder of the Norte Sonoro, says that choosing Tijuana as this year’s Norte Sonoro host city was an obvious choice.

“It made perfect sense to have it happen here,” he said. “Tijuana is very Mexican. Some people might not think it’s very Mexican because it’s so pocho, but I think it’s really the future of Mexico. The upper middle class in my generation, we grew up listening to a lot of Anglo music. And then, you suddenly realize that México has such amazing sounds.” 

For 2012, Brooklyn resident Jace Clayton, who performs as D.J. Rupture, curated the residency. Clayton is also a professional music journalist who’s written extensively about modern Mexican sound.

This year’s artists included Venus X and Sun Araw from the United States, Psilosamples from Brazil, Poirier from Canada, and Cardopusher from Venezuela. Once the musicians arrived, they spent a week exploring and spending time in the studio with Tijuana’s own Los Macuanos.

“The idea is that it’s not some easy sampling pulled off the internet, you know, or some cheesy remix,” Clayton explained. “The idea is really getting the social context that gave rise to these sounds that we’re working with, and trying to engage in that in a socially responsible way, as we’re meeting each other, as we’re getting to know the city.”

Clayton thinks that Mexico is undergoing a musical renaissance of sorts. “It’s a really interesting and fertile time for Mexican music,” he said. To him, Tijuana is “a crazy creative hotbed for different people doing really exciting new music and art.”

Moni Saldaña is a promoter with NRMAL, a music and arts promoter from Monterrey, Mexico. Saldaña said that the local sounds sampled by the musicians-in-residence included movimiento alterado, corridos sierreño, banda sinoloense, and indigenous music.

“We just decided to choose traditional sounds,” she said. “Local sounds are very important and very big in this area– not only in Tijuana, but in Ensenada and Mexicali.”

At the end of the residency, Norte Sonoro artists collaborate to produce a digital album. It’s available for free download online, and organizers say that it should be ready in January.

The Norte Sonoro 2011 music project free digital E.P. cover.

The Norte Sonoro 2011 music project free digital E.P. cover.

You can download the first Norte Sonoro digital E.P, published in 2011, by clicking here.

After Norte Sonoro on Friday night, the highly publicized All My Friends Music Festival attracted hundreds of young people to Tijuana the following day. The crowd for the all-day concert included Americans from San Diego and Los Angeles. Many stayed late into the night.

The festival showcased of more than 30 bands from Mexico and the U.S. performed on three separate stages at Tijuana’s Casa de la Cultura. Two stages were set up outside, with one inside. The musical genres crossed boundaries, and included dubstep, punk rock, jazz, cumbia, no wave, norteño, banda, noise, techno, and more.

Tijuana resident Marco Antonio Apodaca, known locally as DJ Yelram Selectah, mixed tribal guarachero, a robust electro-blend heavily influenced by tropical cumbia, traditional Mexican folk songs, and a touch of dubstep.

The crowd melted into a dancing frenzy.

VIDEO: U.S. Military Veterans, “Banished” to Tijuana

clips, TV & Video

TIJUANA, Mexico — Hector Barajas lives in a rundown apartment in Rosarito, Mexico. His small living room is cluttered with makeshift items appropriated as furniture: upended 20-gallon bucket chairs, chipped TV dinner trays trying to stand alone on teetering bent legs. There’s even a door-less broken fridge that serves as a bookshelf.

Full story here:

VIDEO: Caravana Por La Paz Comes To The U.S.

clips, TV & Video


The Mexican poet and activist Javier Sicilia traveled around Mexico and the United States in the name of peace against the Mexican drug cartels.  He was joined by hundreds of Mexicans who have lost loved ones due to the violence.  This is their story, in English.

Directed and Produced by Erin Siegal
Filmed by Erin Siegal and Eros Hoagland

Watch the video here:

VIDEO: In Tijuana, Less Bullets, More Paintballs (ABC/ Univision)

clips, TV & Video

In the stark, rolling hills that join Tijuana to the coastal port town of Rosarito, a battle is raging. A 15-year-old boy reloads his weapon behind the rusted hulk of an abandoned pick up truck. He signals his nearby comrade with gloved fingers, raises his head for one last look and then sprints ten long meters to a section of corrugated water pipe. His heart races as he pumps round after round down range at a man twice his age wearing paramilitary battle webbing and camouflaged fatigues.

You can watch the video at ABC News here:

Tear: Adela Bello Navarro in The Toronto Star

clips, mainstream media

A new story by my friend and colleague Myles Estey is in today’s edition of the Toronto Star newspaper.

“The authorities of Baja California know who the drug dealers in the state are, but they have not detained them.”

So reads the opening line of a feature story in Tijuana’s weekly newspaper, Zeta, which goes on to name known drug dealers and provide photos and details of their whereabouts.

In other parts of Mexico, this would be a death sentence for the writer. Mexican authorities say 75 journalists have been killed because of their work since the National Action Party (PAN) took power in 2000. Zeta saysthis number as low. Its investigation found that 69 journalists had been killed in the six years since Felipe Calderón started a military offensive against the drug cartels, and 101 since 2000. Another 12 are missing. And, in 2011 alone, it found 11 media offices across Mexico had been shot at or attacked with grenades.

You can read the full article here:–mexican-journalists-risk-death-to-do-their-jobs#article

Finding Fernanda: Pictures from an Investigation

clips, photojournalism

The New YorkerFinding Fernanda: Pictures from an Investigation

Finding Fernanda,” the first book by the photojournalist and investigative reporter Erin Siegal, uncovers pervasive fraud in the international adoption industry, specifically between Guatemala and the U.S. It’s not a photo book, but photographs are central to its conception.

The story began in December of 2007, when, on vacation in Guatemala, Siegal found herself surrounded by over a dozen American couples leaving Guatemala City airport with newly adopted children. “There was something very surreal about the scene because of the quantity of children leaving,” Siegal told me. “At first, I thought I’d shoot a simple photo story on international adoption, using images alone, and maybe some audio, but the more clips I read, the more I realized that the subject matter didn’t seem well-suited to visual reportage.” Nonetheless, as her reporting unfolded, Siegal found herself relying more and more on photography as a tool to inform her writing. “I needed to be able to describe scenes visually in the book, to keep things vivid, and it really helped having photos and video to rely on for description,” she said. Photos alone would not be able to tell the complex story Siegal was uncovering, but the story could not be told without them, either. “The road to this book included a lot of reflection on photography and the limitations of the craft, in terms of being able to tell in-depth investigative human rights stories,” Siegal told me. “I never meant to write a book; the story simply demanded it.”


Latest Tear: Businessweek


Last month, I photographer perfumist Yosh Han in her apartment studio in San Francisco, California. It was a blast! Yosh is really nice, and sent me home with a little sampler of a few of the scents she sells at department stores. Here’s the clip, from Businessweek magazine!

Contributed Reporting: NYT cover story

clips, words

BAXTER, Minn. — Beechestore and Rosecarline, two Haitian teenagers in the throes of puberty, were not supposed to be adopted.

At the end of last year, American authorities denied the petition of a couple here, Marc and Teresa Stroot, to adopt the brother and sister after their biological father opposed relinquishing custody.

Reluctantly, Mr. and Mrs. Stroot, a special-needs teaching assistant and a sales executive with four children of their own, decided to move on.

Then on Jan. 12, a devastating earthquake toppled Haiti’s capital and set off an international adoption bonanza in which some safeguards meant to protect children were ignored.

Read the whole piece on the New York Times website! It’s by Ginger Thompson, and I contributed reporting.

Latest Tear: New York Times

clips, words

Finally, I’m finished with grad school and back to work! My first assignment back in the photo world was for the New York Times last month.  I met NYT reporter Jim Dao in Santa Clara, California, to work on a piece about Vietnam veterans from the 11th Armored Cavalry’s Alpha Troop. Alpha Troop was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation at a banquet on the Sunday of that weekend, September 12, 2009.


One of the experiences I was able to listen to was that of 58-year-old Ray Moreno, an Alpha Troop vet. During the second day of the assignment, I stayed in the room alongside Jim while he recorded the interviews that went into the final multimedia package. Some of the stories were, expectedly, heartbreaking. The final multimedia piece can be seen and listened to on the NYT site here. The editors combined my pictures and pictures from Vietnam to make the end product, a series of slideshows that play while audio from each A-Troop vet recounts their experience.


Overall, it was a great assignment. The 11th Cav guys were a boisterous and hospitable bunch, and I felt blessed to be able to bear witness to one of their reunions. I left with a notebook packed with names, email addresses, and instructions from various vets regarding where and how to email them photos. Many of the guys there weren’t exactly fans of the “liberal” New York Times, and told me I should get a better job working for Fox News. It was also the first time I’ve ever been photographed while taking pictures- kind of amusing.

I left wondering about all the stories that will be taken to the grave by the thousands of vets who- like some members of the A-Troop- came home to shame and stigma, drowning memory in silence.

United Nations General Assembly, 2009

clips, words

I’m in NYC for the next two weeks, working as a United Nations staff photog for this year’s General Assembly. It’s mostly shooting images like this, but there’s occasionally a little low-key differentiation.

GA pm

Personally, I’m having a blast taking pictures of the actual building itself, and various U.N. accoutrements. Yeah, I said it, accoutrements. Hey, half the building’s signage is in French! It begins to rub off. This is a photograph I took early on, while I was supposed to be shooting a rather dreary press conference. Yup, it’s true: the U.N. covers its electrical outlets in wallpaper.

un outlet

American Youth Book


The website for the new Redux book launched today! 

“American Youth”, published worldwide by contrasto, will be in stores and available online May 2009.

The book was edited with the help of Bill Black (Reader’s Digest), Karen Frank (Conde Nast Portfolio), Jeanne Graves (BestLife), Armin Harris (Fortune), Katherine Harris (The Daily Beast), Jane Hwang (, Michelle Jackson (freelance art buyer, owner of SnapIndigo), Nadja Masri (GEO), Brenda Milis (Men’s Health), Bruce Perez (Redbook), Dora Somosi (GQ) and Allyson Torrisi (Popular Mechanics).

By the photographers of Redux Pictures:

Marc Asnin
Ben Baker
Nina Berman
David Butow
Peter Frank Edwards
Danny Wilcox Frazier
Eros Hoagland
John Keatley
Andy Kropa
Erika Larsen
Gina LeVay
Joshua Lutz
Preston Mack
Kevin J. Miyazaki
Darcy Padilla
Mark Peterson
Michael Rubenstein
Greg Ruffing
Q. Sakamaki
Erin Siegal
Angie Smith
Ben Stechschulte
Brad Swonetz
Nathaniel Welch
David Yellen

What a privilege it is to be among such great photographers! Thanks goes to the wonderful Jasmine at Redux for her faith in my work.


Latest Tear: Newsweek

clips, LBGT, mainstream media


Latest tear accompanies the cover story of this week’s Newsweek, on gay marriage. My picture is the top right corner, a couple who were married (legally, that is!) at San Francisco’s City Hall last spring, on the first morning the state officially sanctioned it.  It’s funny seeing the other photos in the layout, as most of the subjects contained within the images were shot by just about everyone taking pictures that day. Out of all the Northern California press photographers, Getty’s  Justin Sullivan nailed the day best. He’s pretty damn good, and his blog is, too.