Truth is a Foreign Object by Mary Scherf

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photo of luis and birth certificate adoption

Close to midnight, nine hours after my arrest, I heard the charges against me read. The court clerk spoke en Espanol. Enrique Gonzalez Rodriguez, a lawyer the embassy arranged to represent me, sat too close to me, translating. The forced intimacy and the smell of his Polo cologne made me queasy. I had come to Guatemala to adopt three-month-old Luis. Less than a week after my arrival, his birth mother accused me of kidnapping him.

Sr. Rodriguez explained the status of the adoption to the officer, described the completed file waiting on a Family Court judge’s desk; but this was not the time to argue facts. No bail was set. I was held at Santa Theresa, the women’s prison, for three days. Concrete bunks, cold showers, meals I couldn’t eat served from buckets twice a day.

A half sheet of paper documents my conditional release: No. 76009 dated  GUATEMALA,       28     DE          SEP     DE 19   92.” I got out of jail on my 37th birthday.



Before I went to Guatemala, I followed three rules for risk taking: don’t risk a lot for a little, don’t risk more than you can afford to lose, weigh the options and follow your intuition. There was no risk in the decision to adopt Luis. Applying the rules wasn’t necessary. Then the adoption agency World Child moved our travel date up by two months from November to September. They said the police had begun raiding the foster homes that cared for World Child’s waiting babies. I didn’t ask why and ignored my doubts during a week of hasty travel preparations. I would go first. My husband, Steve, would follow in two weeks, when the immigration papers were complete.

Years later, I read that Karl von Clauswitz, the renowned Prussian military theorist, believed that the first step in war should not be taken without considering what might be the last. His principle has become my fourth rule.




Prefer two-parent families; usually 28 to 43 years of age; minimum marriage length of two years. Final adoption prior to child’s travel. Parents may use escort. Birth parent has right to reclaim child until second signing at the end of the process. Wait to travel after assignment varies from four to nine months.


When I was a little girl, I wanted impossible things: a twin, a pony to live in our row house garage, my mother’s acceptance. I was pale and round, inattentive, and often physically uncomfortable. It was easy to believe my parents when they said I brought out the worst in them. I didn’t know it was their excuse for hitting me. An unhappy childhood can quench a nurturing spirit or kindle it. I dreamed of having children and hoped to be a better mother than my own.

After a diagnosis of unexplained infertility and a disrupted domestic adoption, my determination to be a mother grew fierce and unrelenting. Because this was a second marriage for both Steve and me, the choice of overseas programs available to us was limited. Most permitted only one divorce per couple. When Lutheran World Child recommended the ease of their Guatemalan program over the instability in Bolivia, our other option, we accepted their advice.

I thought only of the babies who needed homes. Their mothers weren’t real to me. Understanding the impact of a decades-long war on the people of Guatemala came later. I hadn’t learned to see that the grinding poverty in Central America could force a loving mother to relinquish her child or to recognize that my desire to be a mother would be fulfilled because someone else had renounced her own.



No. 3:    Typically the stay in Guatemala is very short, but incredibly hectic. Please stay patient and flexible.

Luis came to me on the Sunday evening I arrived in Guatemala, unceremoniously thrust into my arms in the doorway of my hotel room by one of the local attorneys who worked with World Child. In those first moments alone with him, I forgot everything I knew about taking care of a baby. Listen to your baby, a friend’s voice whispered in my head. He’ll tell you what he needs.

We muddled through the first few nights and days. I sterilized bottles in the bathroom sink, found a doctor to treat his fever, learned to hear in his cries whether he was hungry, tired or wet. On the morning of our sixth day together, he was grinning at me through the bars of his crib when I woke up. I saw myself reflected in his eyes. We were in this together now. He would know that he was loved.

That afternoon, the police arrested me in the hotel lobby.


The conditional release I was granted three days later restricted my movements. I was not allowed to leave Guatemala without libertad simple. Simple liberty could not be issued unless Estella Garcia, Luis’s birth mother, withdrew her complaint. Investigators working for the embassy found Estella at home in Escuintla and brought her back to Guatemala City to make an official statement. She retracted her complaint under oath, then asked for her son to be returned to her. Fighting for him would have been futile. I left Guatemala the next morning without authorization. A consular officer escorted me to the plane.

After returning to Philadelphia, I perfected a one-sentence answer to deflect the interest of anyone who asked about my arrest. “They said I stole Luis at the bus stop.” At first I said “she,” not “they,” but I grew weary of defending Estella. No one understood that we were both pawns; she had lost far more than I had. Her parental rights were terminated during the adoption. Luis went to an orphanage. Both of his mothers went home alone.



Study a map of Guatemala City. Find the old, second-class bus terminal at the western edge of Zona 4, the place where Estella would have arrived when she traveled to the capital. The Hotel Casa Grande, where I stayed with Luis before my arrest, sits on Avenida Reforma, a wide leafy boulevard several neighborhoods away. The route between the two locations could have been drawn with an Etch-a-Sketch, a mile and a half of sharp angles and turns.

Picture Estella arriving on one of the crowded chicken buses, stepping down hard from the high bottom step, Luis strapped firmly to her back in a sling. How could I have unbundled him and run? I was out of place in Guatemala. The other women in the prison called me probecita blanca as they pawed me and stroked by hair. I would not have gone unnoticed on the streets of Zona 4, or made it all the way to the hotel with Luis in my arms.

The evidence did not support the charges against me, but I cannot go back in time and clear my name.



Guatemala cast a long blue shadow across my life. I viewed the world with the chastened vision of a prisoner, seeing sorrow everywhere. Weary-eyed passengers rode the El, work-worn bodies trudged the sidewalks of Philadelphia. On my way to court, or to a meeting, the mere presence of police officers gathered outside their entrance at the northeast corner of City Hall was enough to set my heart racing. If the sheriff’s bus was unloading prisoners who had court appearances, I saw myself in their blank expressions and darting eyes. I was a lawyer, but no longer at home with the way power was wielded in any judicial system. The gray space that had existed for me between innocence and guilt had expanded to occupy most of the field.



No. 9:    Please let your coordinator/attorney know your itinerary.

Rosa Corea was the Guatemalan attorney who handled Luis’s adoption for us. I didn’t know that she was an experienced, respected business attorney, or that she had been recruited to do adoption work by a group of reform-minded lawyers who were determined to create a foster care system that would bypass the poor conditions in government-run orphanages. All I knew was that she was unable to explain why the completed adoption file for Luis was still sitting on a judge’s desk. Throughout the time Luis was with me, Rosa made and broke several promises to provide me with custody papers for him until late on Thursday afternoon. During those days of uncertainty, I left the hotel only once to take Luis to the doctor.

I had no trouble keeping her informed about my itinerary after my arrest. I meant to call her from police headquarters, but she was already there. She had been detained several hours before me. Together, we were fingerprinted and taken by armed escort to Santa Theresa after dark. I thought she had made some kind of procedural mistake, or worse yet, betrayed me by doing something illegal. It wasn’t until Sr. Rodriguez agreed to represent her, too, that I began to trust Rosa.

She was my interpreter and protector while we were incarcerated. Her friends brought us McDonald’s burgers once a day and kept us company during visiting hours. When the other prisoners lined up to consult with her, she answered their questions patiently, introduced me as an American lawyer, and discussed their situations with me. We practiced each other’s language while comparing the treatment of women in our respective legal systems. Two reporters, Francisco Goldman and Lucy Hood, visited us on Sunday afternoon. Rosa helped me understand their explanation of the corrupt adoption system in which we had become ensnared.

Long afterwards, I grasped how much deeper her fear must have been than mine. She had grown up in Guatemala, had a husband, mother, and two small children who were at risk. She knew how many ways there were to suffer in her country, how the members of her family could be made to pay for her activism.

After we were freed, Rosa filed a complaint against the police. She needed to restore her reputation. Since I was back in Philadelphia, she asked the embassy for help to secure my statement to bolster her case. The consular officer who contacted me in December 1992 on her behalf said that Sr. Rodriguez, the civil rights lawyer who presented both Rosa and me, recommended against my involvement in her case. I followed his advice and refused her request. I didn’t stay to fight for Luis and now I was afraid to help Rosa.

In prison, I kept a notebook. One entry reads, “The reporters who came today said I am very brave. The lawyers say I have a strong character.” After turning down Rosa’s request for help, I no longer considered myself to be the woman they described. Perhaps she never existed except in their eyes. Wanting only to forget, I buried reminders of Guatemala in the garage and the basement, at the back of drawers and the top shelves of closets. Still, I could not escape the soft brown rot of shame that ate away at my spirit.



The next time I heard from my contact at the embassy was in February 1993. I had been waiting for word about my request for libertad simple. Instead of confirming that the request had been granted, she told me it had never been filed and now Sr. Rodriguez was in trouble. Among his clients was Carole A. DeVine, the widow of the American Michael DeVine who had been murdered on their coffee finca in the highlands of Guatemala in June 1990.

Sr. Rodriguez had succeeded in linking DeVine’s death to a Guatemalan army officer on the CIA payroll. The day before a brief in the case was due, Sr. Rodriguez disappeared. A colleague found a copy of the document saved to a disk and was able to meet the court’s deadline. Two days later, when the news became public that the case would move forward,

Sr. Rodriguez turned up in a hospital, barely conscious, the alleged victim of a one-car accident.

That day I stopped waiting for a final resolution of my case.



No. 15:  A tour of Antigua is a must.

In the two months before I traveled to Guatemala City, numerous human rights violations occurred there. A few stories received news coverage that I might have found had I been looking. A leftist activist was kidnapped from the sidewalk in front of her son’s daycare center; a 50-year-old American archaeologist was found dead in his hotel room. After eight days, the activist was forced to give a videotaped statement saying she went into hiding voluntarily. The archaeologist’s death was ruled “suicide by machete,” despite evidence of a struggle and more than one blood type at the scene.

Rumors of child kidnappings began around the time I was arrested in 1992. They became more fevered over the next 18 months. Stories were reported in tabloids and passed along by word of mouth claiming children were being stolen so their organs could be harvested for sale to foreigners. No evidence was ever produced to support these claims, but they spread, increasing the suspicion of Mayan Indians towards strangers arriving in their villages. In his book Silence on the Mountain, Daniel Wilkinson wrote that the rumors were most likely Guatemalan government propaganda; their purpose was to keep human rights investigators away from mass graves scattered throughout the highlands.


In the months after I left, fear for the safety of Guatemalan children grew and violence by villagers against female tourists escalated. In April 1993, an American female traveled to Antigua, once the Spanish colonial capital of Central America, the same must-see destination that World Child was so eager for adopting families to visit. Antigua’s annual Easter rites had become increasingly popular among travelers. While there, the American took pictures of children taking part in the celebrations. Some residents thought she was there to steal the children she photographed. She was sexually assaulted and beaten so severely that she fell into a coma. She survived the beating but was left permanently disabled. In another village around the same time, a Guatemalan mother misunderstood a German tourist’s statement “I like your children” for “I want your children.” The mother hacked the woman to death with a machete.



After three decades of fighting, Guatemala stumbled towards peace in the mid-nineties. The military and the insurgents grappled like boxers propping each other up in the late rounds of a fight. Negotiators on both sides found common ground in the effort to hide evidence of their respective atrocities.

The war ended in 1996. Two years later, Bishop Juan Gerardi released “Guatemala Never Again,” the official Report of the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala. In four volumes, the Recovery of Historical Memory Project documented that the human rights abuses which occurred during Guatemala’s 36- year civil war were overwhelmingly carried out by the military.

Two days after issuing the report, Bishop Gerardi was murdered. Immediately, rumors spread suggesting that his death was the result of a sexual encounter with a male that went wrong. According to Francisco Goldman, the bishop’s death was eventually linked to the Guatemalan army. Goldman chronicled the investigation at great personal risk in his book The Art of Political Murder. In the years since Goldman had visited me in Santa Theresa, little had changed.



Ten years ago, at the beginning of the summer, I dreamed of living in a city built along the shores of a deep lake. All the residents dumped their trash in the water. The waste sank to the bottom and no one gave it another thought, until one harsh winter, the lake froze over and all the junk was pushed up to the surface. The view of the horizon was obliterated by the jagged edges of scrap metal encased in steel blue ice.

The sharp edges and icy cold of the dream became embedded in my chest. I began to write in pencil on loose leaf paper, hoping to extract the debris. No matter where I started, by the third page Guatemala and Luis appeared. Instead of avoiding the memories from a dozen years earlier, I surrendered to them. Each day, I wrote what came back to me, until there seemed to be nothing more to remember. Writing renewed my courage. I retrieved all the banished artifacts from their secret places: pictures of Luis and me, a baby journal, the prison notebook, the purse I used as a pillow in cell block D, mildewed adoption files, the Ziploc bag that held the sweater, shirts and embroidered bonnet Luis wore the night he came to me.

Near the end of that first summer of writing, I had another dream. This time, I was in the basement of the house where we had hoped to raise Luis. The stone walls were damp and slick with moss, like a grotto. I rooted through piles of boxes and books until I discovered my childhood jewelry box. When I opened it, there was a single item inside, glowing red in the shadows. I removed the object and raced outside. I opened my hands in the sunlight and saw that what I held was my heart.


Governments tell lies with impunity. They cover up atrocities, not just false arrests like mine. Truth is a foreign object in the body politic. Sometimes it works its way to the surface.

“Operation PBSUCCESS: The United States and Guatemala, 1952- 1954,” CIA History Staff document by Nicholas Cullather, 1994. Excerpt.

A narrative history of the CIA’s role in planning, organizing and executing the coup that toppled Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on June 27, 1954. Cullather, now a diplomatic historian at the University of Indiana, worked on contract for one year with the CIA, where he was given access to thousands of agency records and secret operational files in order to produce this overview. The result is a surprisingly critical study of the agency’s first covert operation in Latin America. Beginning with a review of the political, economic and social forces that led to Arbenz’s presidency in 1951, the document is an intimate account of how cold war concerns convinced President Eisenhower to order the removal of the democratically-elected leader by force. It also provides countless new details of a covert mission plagued by disastrous military planning and failed security measures: according to Cullather, “Operation Success” barely succeeded. The CIA scrambled to convince the White House that it was an unqualified and all but bloodless victory, however. After Arbenz resigned, Eisenhower called the Director of Central Intelligence, Allan W. Dulles, and his senior covert planners into a formal briefing of the operation. Cullather’s account now reveals that the agency lied to the president, telling him that only one of the rebels it had backed was killed. “Incredible,” said the president. And it was. At least four dozen were dead, according to the CIA’s own records. Thus did the Guatemala coup enter agency lore as an “unblemished triumph,” Cullather explains, and become the model for future CIA activities in Latin America.

In Guatemala, of course, “Operation Success” had a deadly aftermath. After a small insurgency developed in the wake of the coup, Guatemala’s military leaders developed and refined, with U.S. assistance, a massive counterinsurgency campaign that left tens of thousands massacred, maimed or missing.


In 2009, thirteen years after the end of the civil war, the Guatemalan Peace Archives issued a report based on records from the government’s secret archives. The report grounded the rumors of stolen children in fact. Children had been kidnapped, but not by me or by foreigners intent on organ harvesting. The military stole the children. After torturing and slaughtering parents in the insurgency, the army gave their children to its officers to raise as their own, or placed them in orphanages where they could be adopted with false papers. Kidnapping is a tactic in dirty wars everywhere.



The details that have come to light about the fate of Guatemalan children are fragments of the truth. For me, the additional facts place what had been an incomprehensible experience into the broader context of a long and brutal war. I have allowed myself a partial measure of forgiveness for pursuing an adoption in a war zone without considering the consequences. Abandoning the adoption and leaving Luis behind were what I had to do to survive.

No matter how much new information emerges, one thing hasn’t changed. Shame has a long half-life. My liberty still feels conditional.

Mary ScherfMary Scherf is a writer and lawyer. She lives with her husband, Stephen, in suburban Philadelphia. Their son and his family live nearby. When she is not volunteering at Gompers Elementary School library in West Philadelphia or teaching workshops for Mighty Writers, she edits a small business newsletter in the company of an aging gentleman corgi. She contributed an essay to Oh, Baby! True Stories About Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor and Love, published in October 2015 by In Fact Books. She is completing a memoir about a failed Guatemalan adoption. Find out more at and @mascherf9.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Provided by author.

  4 comments for “Truth is a Foreign Object by Mary Scherf

  1. Wonderful essay, Mary! Such a revealing look at the way war and politics creep into every aspect of life, doing untold damage–leaving scars that last lifetimes and beyond.

  2. The blend of personal experience and political backdrop is seamless. The tragedy for the mothers involved and the child represents the suffering of so many children not only in Guatemala but in many countries. Ms. Scherf’s writing is eloquent yet without sentimentality. The context provided enriches the understanding of what she suffered through this injustice rendered against her. As an attorney, I empathize with her lingering discontent with her inability to fully clear her name in spite of all the information that has since been released. Although events transpired years ago, the reality of the corruption which pervades international adoptions is current. I applaud Ms. Scherf’s courage to tell this story which needs to be heard.

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