On Wednesday, Nancy Bailey should hear whether she will spend years in a Guatemalan jail for child trafficking.
Bailey is on a trial facing charges related to three infants adopted through the children’s home Bailey founded in 1997, Semillas de Amor, Seeds of Love.
Guatemala halted international adoptions in 2007 in the wake of international pressure when the system was found to be riddled with corruption. At that point, thousands of babies were being adopted each year, generating high fees by Guatemalan standards. There were documented cases in which traffickers pressured women to give up newborns, or in some cases outright kidnapped babies — and then “sold” them to unknowing adopted parents — claiming they were orphans.
Only international adoptions already in progress were allowed to go forward, with a shift in emphasis toward national adoptions.
Bailey defended herself by saying she was targeted as an American. Bailey says she was only helping babies truly in need, and that Guatemala’s informal systems made obtaining authentic documentation a challenge.
Bailey has been in prison since last October and before that was under house arrest for 18 months. She was charged in absentia in 2012 with human trafficking and arrested when she returned to Guatemala for a visit in 2014.
The “trafficking” charge is based on a change to the Guatemalan penal code from 2009 that makes “irregular adoptions” “human trafficking.”
At trial last week, the Guatemalan prosecution, which has repeatedly declined requests for an interviews, accused Bailey of being the head of a criminal organization designed to produce “irregular adoptions.”
They point to documents from the the three adoptions that they say contain errors, including DNA paperwork in which the sample for the adopted infant does not match that of the birth mother.
Bailey, her attorney and her supporters point out she came to Guatemala in the 1990s and worked with nuns helping orphaned children. She herself adopted two Guatemalan daughters in the 1990s, and she says she has done nothing but dedicate herself to this cause. Prior to moving to Guatemala, she was a psychologist and human resource expert, and had raised two biological sons as a single mom.
All her children testified in her defense.
They believe the case against Bailey is built principally on the uncorroborated testimony of a disgruntled former administrator at the Semillas de Amor home, who testified on behalf of the state in return for a reduced sentence after she herself was charged with adoption fraud.
Gloria Patricia Aldana, a former administrator for Semillas de Amor, testified that a number of cases had paperwork irregularities.
However, none of the names Aldana mentioned matched those of the three infants in the cases that are the basis for the charge.
Bailey’s attorneys also point out that the cases with supposed irregularities occurred in 2007, and therefore cannot be tried under the law enacted in 2009.
Last Friday, Bailey gave emotional testimony. White-haired and struggling with poor health, Bailey cried as she spoke in Spanish to a panel of three women judges who will decide her fate. “I’m not guilty” she said.
“Para mi, la cosa mas importante es la vida de los niños,” she told the judges: “The most important thing to me is the life of the children.”
She told the judges she came to Guatemala to answer una llamada: a call to help. She broke down when she recalled learning that she was being charged with child trafficking.
“I thought a lot about taking my life then,” she said, “because the children are the first priority in my life.” Bailey told the judges she nevertheless returned to Guatemala to face charges because she could not abandon the children and because she wanted to comply with Guatemalan justice.
A number of parents who adopted through Bailey's school, as well as friends, have risen to her defense, saying she was an ardent activist on behalf of Guatemalan children and that she never enriched herself. An online petition gathered more than 700 signatures. The US embassy in Guatemala won't comment on the case, however a representative has attended the trial. The family has reached out to US Senators in California, they say.
Attorneys for the prosecution and the defense delivered their summations before Bailey’s statement. Prosecutor Roy Rodriguez of the Public Ministry, the equivalent of the Justice Department, asked the judges to issue a sentence of 24 years in prison for the American citizen: six years for each of the three cases of irregular adoption and human trafficking in which she is charged, plus an additional two years per charge as the crimes involve minors
The prosecution is also asking for Semillas de Amor to be shut down.
Eleven children are still living at the Semillas de Amor home. Now ages 9 to 17, they had not yet been adopted when the Guatemalan government clamped down on international adoptions in late 2007.
Bailey’s biological son, 42-year-old Joel Peters, believes his mother might have made enemies in the government trying to keep the children out of state custody in the period after adoptions came to a halt.
“She fought hard and legally to protect those kids and that made a lot of people angry,” he says. “I do think that there are certain people in the government that would love nothing more than to point a finger at an American and to say 'oh look they come down here and they take advantage and they take our kids.'”
Peters, his two adopted Guatemalan sisters, and the other children at Semillas de Amor consider themselves a family. The children attend a prestigious bilingual school in Antigua and take music lessons, field trips and have after-school tutors. All of them are bilingual. They say they miss their “Mama Nancy” and want her to come home.
When asked if she regrets making the decision to come to Guatemala 24 years ago, Bailey gets choked up and says that, aside from the terrible suffering and inconvenience this has caused her friends and family, she is not at all sorry, even given everything that’s happened.
“From the day I made the decision to stay, I’ve saved kids’ lives,” she says.
“I feel as if I’ve been their life preserver," she adds. “That they’ve had to hold on to me because it’s generally a very rough ride through the legal system for kids here.”
Bailey’s own ride through the Guatemalan legal system will continue this Wednesday. In the Guatemalan courts, there are no jury trials. The three-judge panel that has heard the evidence in the trial will either acquit or convict. According to various legal experts, if Bailey is acquitted, the Public Ministry will likely appeal the verdict, dragging the case on for at least another 10 months.
Maria Martin is a veteran radio journalist based in Guatemala.