Women waiting to receive social security benefits paid monthly for each child. Photo courtesy Ieva Jusionyte

Doing Anthropology on the Margins of the Law

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Ieva Jusionyte


Where is the line between law and crime located? How is it experienced by those who tread it? And how can anthropologists conduct their fieldwork in this murky legal terrain?

Cameraman working on an investigation regarding illegal child adoptions in Iguazú. Photo courtesy Ieva Jusionyte

In 2010 I arrived in Puerto Iguazú, an Argentine town in the Misiones Province, bordering Brazil and Paraguay; I was there to study local journalists who cover news about violence. Mass media generally portray this border region as a haven for organized crime, such as contraband, drugs and human trafficking. Yet, journalists who live in the area reject such negative representations. Perplexed by this apparent paradox I aimed to explore how the legality of certain practices is created and negotiated through complex social processes, including the reproduction of legal categories in the media. Drawing on my previous background in journalism, and in collaboration with a local cameraman and video editor, I started a weekly investigative television program. Of all the issues the program addressed, child trafficking and illegal adoptions were the most challenging: our journalistic investigation stepped on the formally defined but locally lived boundary between the legal and the illegal.

Between Organized Crime and Informal Fosterage

Previous media coverage of child adoptions left scars on the local community. An editorial of a popular nationwide daily claimed that there existed “an industry of births,” for the sale of children, which connected couples from metropolitan areas to villages “on the verge of total destitution,” and one that was mediated by legal professionals. The press published stories of women confessing of selling their newborns, thereby causing an avalanche of childless couples to come to Misiones in search for easily adoptable babies. One human rights activist explained how local practical thinking was conducive for child trafficking in the region: since people routinely move back and forth from one country to another while visiting relatives and going about their daily business, the presence of a woman with a baby in her arms crossing from Paraguay to Argentina does not elicit the attention of the authorities. The activist agreed that widespread poverty on both sides of the border provide the necessary conditions for the sale of children. The trade in babies has become a profitable business, which involves people specialized in localizar panzas [finding wombs] and psychologically pressuring poor women into giving up their children.

According to one of the best-known Iguazú lawyers, it is about supply and demand; “Everyday we see kids who do not have the possibility to grow or to have a decent life, and people who, for different reasons, have not been able to have children.” In front of our camera he explained that people confused the cultural and the legal, judicially sanctioned, aspects of adoption. Criadazgo, the pattern of informal fosterage, was common in Misiones. When women migrated in search for employment in urban centers, their extended family or even neighbors raised the children they left behind. The practice of criadazgo did not have legal stamps on it. But neither was it persecuted locally as a violation of the law. However, the situation became more complicated when couples from metropolitan areas started to come to Misiones specifically looking for babies to adopt. Since the ordinary legal process was very tedious and restrictive, “as the old saying goes, la espera desespera,” [waiting makes you desperate] quipped the lawyer.

Where Silence is Preferred Answer

Women waiting to receive social security benefits paid monthly for each child. Photo courtesy Ieva Jusionyte

Though many Iguazúenses have encountered or experienced such desperation, either when they were looking to adopt or when they were offered money for their own children, people were cautious about what they said and to whom as a result of the adoption scandals reported in the media. There is a very thin, ambiguous line between illegal and illegitimate, on the one hand, and illegal but socially legitimate practices, on the other, and they were afraid that in the public sphere this line could be misinterpreted. Particularly, since good-willing families, who unofficially raised children that were not theirs, could be implicated as child traffickers.

Stories about successful and failed, legal and illegal adoptions widely circulated off the record: from neighbors knocking on my windows at sunrise, to whispering conversations in bars, to interviews in rooms with blank white walls to disguise the location. Though she refused to speak in front of the camera, my neighbor told me of an incident when a couple from Buenos Aires asked to buy her son. “It is dangerous because the police would show up immediately and start to investigate. I don’t want to meddle in the murky process,” she said, justifying her silence. Another family who adopted a baby from a woman in Andresito, a nearby town steeped in poverty, where some very low-income women saw giving their offspring into adoption as the only solution to their economic situation, also declined to talk on the program.

Residents did not want to have their local knowledge put on the record to be shared in the public sphere. Yet they were not the only ones opposed to finding such stories in the media; the legal corps did not welcome media investigations either.

Argentina does not have a national public information access law. I spent weeks writing official requests and patiently waiting in hallways in order to hear what representatives of the law had to say. But public defender and attorney of the family court both refused to talk, hiding behind the veil of authorizations. In a private conversation behind the close doors of his office, a judge acknowledged that adoptions fell into the grey zone of the law because of the right biological parents had to transfer care of their children to people of their own choosing. The position the judge took was reflected in his gestures: he demonstrated washing his hands.

Challenges and Promises of (Il)legal Anthropology

I struggled as a journalist. Living the local realities, where a morally thick but legally thin line separates the informal practice of criadazgo, which is regulated by and bounded within family and community, and a trade in babies, which uses poverty as the condition that supplies children to rich metropolitan areas, I found it difficult to narrate the complexity of the situation using existing legal coordinates. The forms that the suffering of the materially dispossessed take, whether we call it structural violence or violence of everyday life, rest on the tendency to blame the victim. Iguazúenses do not actively engage in child trafficking, nor do they encourage it, but they understand the circumstances that make the sale of children possible and even tolerable in the region. Therefore, unwilling to be wrongly accused they opt for silence. Though committed local human rights activists toil to help the victims and give the issue more media exposure, conditions for the sale of children and child trafficking are perpetuated in the interstices of strict adoption laws and deep poverty.

I also struggled with this issue as an anthropologist, though it was a productive endeavor. Aware of the complexity of everyday life, as anthropologists we take on the task to challenge the validity of neat binary classifications and construct new categories. We have shown that practices are never legal or illegal in and of themselves, but are created such through processes of cultural production and social negotiation. De-centering anthropology of law from its legal core and exploring those uncomfortable and shady margins between law, legitimacy and crime has brought us closer to understanding the nature of the law: who and what creates it, whom it privileges and disadvantages, and especially why in certain situations people prefer the unstable ground at its edge. At the intersection of the traditional criadazgo and bureaucratic legal requirements of formal adoption lies the grey area, where demand and supply mingle to such an extent that it is difficult to distinguish between law and crime.

Ieva Jusionyte is an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies and the anthropology department. Her teaching and research focuses on the media and the modes of law and governance in relation to organized crime and violence in Latin America.

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