ELEVEN Irish couples returned to Ireland this weekend after a nightmare week in Mexico, heartbroken and shaken by a disturbing ordeal.
Aged in their 30s and 40s, they were all childless and shared a common aspiration: to adopt a baby from the Latin American country.
Instead, they became caught up in an extraordinary investigation into illegal adoptions in a country that has spawned numerous baby-trafficking scandals.
The plight of these couples -- some of whom spent days bonding with babies that they hoped to bring home to Ireland -- is bad enough. Worse still is the alarming trade in babies in which they unwittingly became embroiled, with local reports that impoverished pregnant mothers were paid to offer up newborn children to prospective parents.
For any aspiring parent about to embark on the arduous and expensive process of adopting a baby from another country, theirs was a cautionary tale.
Geoffrey Shannon, the chairman of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, pointed out the seven advisory notices in 15 months, warning prospective adoptive parents not to enter into private arrangements in Mexico.
The country signed up to the Hague Convention, which allows for inter-country adoption between signatories such as Ireland.
According to an account given by their Mexican lawyer, Carlos Montoya, however, these Irish couples did everything by the book and paid thousands in fees.
"These couples were desperate to have children. All they wanted was the affection that goes with having a family of their own, so they handed over the money," he told one newspaper yesterday.
The couples have not been identified, despite a list of names floating about in Mexico. But according to their lawyer, they had all the necessary papers required from the Irish authorities to adopt a baby from another country.
According to their lawyer, the couples alerted the adoption authorities to their intention to adopt in Mexico and trawled the internet for a legal adviser.
That led them to a US firm, which in turn referred them to a legal adviser based in Guadalajara, a city in western Mexico. The lawyer, Carlos Lopez, later claimed to the authorities that he had arranged adoptions for about 60 Irish couples over seven years.
With the adoptions to be finalised through the Mexican courts, the process seemed legitimate, if expensive, with couples paying upwards of $30,000 (€23,000).
Babies were pledged before they were born. Prospective parents were sometimes asked to pay for the pregnant mother's medical expenses and when babies were born, they were asked for more money upfront and urged to fly to Mexico within 15 days.
The sums involved were in the thousands, according to the couple's lawyer, Mr Montoya, who explained: "When they'd arrive here, they would be charged more money for expenses, about $4,000 extra.
"They would also have to pay the lawyers' fees, which would be another $4,000. They had to pay $38 a day in nanny services for the children already born. And for the unborn children, they had to pay the mother's hospital costs before she gave birth."
On arrival in Mexico, the parents were urged to stay in a hotel in Guadalajara and then travel from there to Ajijic, a tourist resort on the coast. According to accounts in Mexico last week, the babies were delivered to the couples in their hotel rooms, to allow them to bond with them.
They believed that the babies were unwanted and had been left by their mothers in welfare centres for adoption.
However, the arrest of a 21-year-old mother almost a fortnight ago suggested a different scenario. She was reported to police by her sister-in-law for allegedly trying to sell her babies for adoption, sparking the investigation that unravelled a suspected illegal adoption racket, involving Ireland and Italy, which is thought to date back more than 20 years.
By Friday, police had detained seven women and two men and 10 babies had been placed in state care. Four of the babies showed signs of sexual abuse. Seven of the babies had been with Irish couples.
Carlos Lopez claimed that he had been duped.
On Thursday, 15 Irish men and women gave statements to the police in Mexico, after which they were urged to return to Ireland by their lawyer, Mr Montoya. It appears that the Mexican authorities believe the Irish couples are innocent. The state prosecutor reportedly said that the Irish had "done nothing illegal".
There are lessons to be learnt from this salutary tale. The discovery of this alleged baby-trafficking ring could raise uncomfortable questions about the provenance of other Mexican babies procured for Irish couples for adoption.
The Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, told the Sunday Independent: "Obviously, for any couple who have been caught up in this, it's a nightmare scenario. Inter-country adoption can be fraught and this is why you have to have procedures.
"If a baby has been registered here and if the Adoption Authority has satisfied itself that everything has been done according to the procedures, then clearly one would expect that those are de facto legitimate adoptions."