In Guatemala, a child's abduction and death inspires stronger child protection laws
By Vivian Siu
JALAPA, Guatemala, 10 February 2012 – On 16 December 2009, Guillermo López and his wife Maribel Agustín’s lives were changed forever. Their 4-year-old son, Keneth, went missing.
VIDEO:UNICEF correspondent Vivian Siu reports on the Alba-Keneth Alert System in Guatemala, a national law passed to ensure the immediate search for missing children. The law was passed in memory of two abducted minors, Keneth López and Alba España.
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Mr. López and his wife immediately contacted the authorities to alert them to Keneth’s disappearance.
“We thought he was playing with children in the neighbourhood,” said Ms. Agustín. “But hours went by and nothing happened. We tried and tried to look for him, and our neighbours helped us. But then night fell, and we started losing hope because he had never been gone for so long.”
Seventy-two hours passed before police began their search for Keneth. Four days later, he was found buried in a neighbour’s backyard.
'The authorities did nothing’
“These women came to live in the house about five months before, and one of them had children the same age, so we never thought they’d be capable of doing something like this,” Ms. Agustín said. “She even had a criminal record, which we found out later. She had kidnapped her own niece. We even helped them with little things they needed, like food.”
Keneth López 's parents, Maribel Agustín and Guillermo López, attend the passage of a law establishing the Alba-Keneth Alert System, on 11 August 2010 in Guatemala City.
Guatemala has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America. In the first seven months of 2011, more than 40 murders were reported each week in Guatemala City alone.
“Kids would often go missing in the community, but it was a hush-hush thing,” said Mr. López. “Nobody would say anything. Sometimes they would file a claim of a missing person, but the authorities did nothing.”
The two women who lived next door to the López family were convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison without parole. But for Mr. López and Ms. Agustín, that wasn’t enough. They wanted to stop this from happening to another child.
An alert to find missing children
Together, with UNICEF and the Survivor’s Foundation, they spearheaded a campaign to pass the Alba-Keneth Alert System, a national law in honor of Keneth and another child, Alba España, who had also been abducted and murdered. The law, modeled after the Amber Alert in the United States, mandates that authorities conduct a search immediately once a child is reported missing.
Guillermo López continues to train parents, teacher and local authorities about the importance of using identity registration cards provided by UNICEF to aid authorities in the event their child goes missing.
“The disappearance of Keneth and his death shook the national conscience in Guatemala,” said Adriano González-Regueral, UNICEF Representative in Guatemala. “It got the attention of the political class and society to react to the need of finding a missing child and preventing the death and abuse of a child.”
Since the law went into effect in August of 2010, the Alba-Keneth Alert System has greatly aided authorities in finding missing children.
“Before the passage of the law, child kidnappings and selling children off for irregular adoption was very common,” said Sara Payés of the Guatemala Attorney General’s Office. “Murders like Alba’s and Keneth’s still do happen, but less so since the passage of the law.”
“This is why we’ve pressed the authorities to immediately start the search once the missing person report is filed, because if the law had been in effect when Keneth was abducted, maybe he’d still be alive,” said Claudia Hernandez, Associate Director of the Survivor Foundation.
ID cards save lives
Today, Mr. López continues to work with families in his son’s memory. He conducts identity registration workshops in local schools for parents and their children. The identity registration cards, made by UNICEF, ask parents to record important information about their children so that authorities have the most recent information available in the event a child goes missing.
Families in Jalapa, Guatemala, are using identity registration cards made by UNICEF to provide vital information about their children. The cards can be used by authorities if a child is abducted.
“These workshops are important because the information is shared in public schools and with parents and teachers,” Ms. Hernández. “Because he, better than anybody else, can explain the content of the law in layman’s terms.”
Low birth registration rates have been a serious problem in Guatemala. Without proper identification, it is impossible for authorities to find children if they are abducted.
“We’re training authorities and citizens and even community councils so they know this law has been approved and they can get help from authorities if needed,” said Mr. López. “I train them to let them know that there is a law that protects the rights of children and children’s lives.”
“Being part of the Alba-Keneth Alert System has helped us,” said Ms. Agustín. “When an alert is issued, we feel like it is us all over again. We can relate to the pain, to the desperation.”
While nothing can ever take away the pain of Mr. López and Ms. Agustín’s loss, they find some solace in knowing that their son’s death has saved other children’s lives.