One of the most horrific stories from the Haiti earthquake that has captured the public’s attention was the arrest of 10 American nationals for attempting to smuggle 33 Haitian children into the Dominican Republic without proper documentation, presumably for adoption abroad. The Christian Science Monitor has good coverage on one of the underreported parts of the story: the status of the children.

The story, which attracted attention from the international media, calls to mind an equally horrific and underreported scheme that has been going on in many Latin American (and many other non Latin-American) countries long before the earthquake’s devastation: The stealing of newborns and small children for adoption abroad and illegal organ transplants and trafficking.

Events such as the following are part of the reason why international adoption is such a hotly contested issue: On 5 February 2010, La Tribuna, a Honduran daily, reported on the reemergence of the roba-chicos, literally “child snatchers” in Honduran hospitals. The story in La Tribuna tells of a 20 year-old Honduran woman who, after giving birth to a baby girl on 3 February 2010, had her baby stolen by a woman whom she had trusted to help care for the baby.

Sadly, the story of the 33 Haitians and the 20 year-old Honduran woman are not simply isolated incidents, but rather examples of one of the world’s most depraved businesses (and one that strikes a nerve with an international audience): Illegal and/or forced adoptions. The business, like all businesses both legal and illegal, is driven by demand for children and the lucrative reward for securing them. The BBC has an in-depth story about the practice dating back to 2000, focusing on Guatemala, which has the highest per-capita adoption rate in the world. The story, together with recent reports from UNICEF, suggests that the 33 people who received international attention are sadly just a drop in the bucket of an overarching problem facing many poorer countries in the region.