ZAPOPAN, Mexico — Life seemed to give Karla Zepeda a break when a woman came to her dusty neighborhood of cinderblock homes and dirt roads looking for babies to photograph in an anti-abortion ad campaign.
The woman asked to use the 15-year-old's baby girl in a two-week photo shoot for $755 ($10,000 pesos), a small fortune for a teen mother who earns $180 a month at a sandwich stand and shares a small, one-story house with her disabled mother, stepfather, and three brothers.
But 9-month-old Camila wasn't just posing for photographs when she was taken away.
Jalisco state investigators say the child was left for weeks at a time in the care of an Irish couple who had come to Ajijic, a town of cobblestone streets and gated communities 37 miles (60 kilometers) away, thinking they were adopting her.
Prosecutors say the baby was apparently part of an illegal adoption ring that ensnared destitute young Mexican women trying to earn more for their children and childless Irish couples desperate to become parents.
Camila and nine other children have been turned over to state officials who suspect they were being groomed for illegal adoptions. And authorities hint that far more children could be involved: Lead investigator Blanca Barron told reporters the ring may have been operating for 20 years, though she gave no details. Prosecutors also say four of the children show signs of sexual abuse, though they gave no details on how or by whom.
Nine people have been detained, including two suspected leaders of the ring, but no one has yet been charged.
At least 15 Irish citizens have been questioned, the Jalisco state attorney general's office said, but officials have not released their names. Neighbors say most or all have returned to Ireland after spending weeks or months in Ajijic trying to meet requirements for adopting a child. None was detained.
For Karla Zepeda, the story began in August, when she was approached by Guadalupe Bosquez and agreed to lend her daughter for an anti-abortion advertising campaign, she told The Associated Press. Bosquez later returned with another woman, Silvia Soto, and gave her half the money as they picked the child up. She got the rest two weeks later when they brought Camila home.
"They showed me a poster that showed my girl with other babies and said 'No To Abortion, Yes To Life,'" said Karla, a petite girl cleaning her house to loud norteno music. "I thought it was legal because everything seemed very normal."
Before long, the message spread to her neighbors. Seven other women, most between the ages of 15 and 22, agreed to let their babies be part of the ad campaign. Some already had several children. Some are single mothers. One of them doesn't know how to read or write. Five of them told they AP that they did not even have birth certificates for their babies when they came across Bosquez and Soto.
One said she needed money to pay for her child's medical care, another to finish building an extra room on her house.
All deny agreeing to give their children up for adoption.
"We're going through a nightmare," said Fernanda Montes, an 18-year-old housewife who said she took part to pay a $670 hospital bill from the birth of her 3-month-old. "How could we have trusted someone so evil?"
The women say that Bosquez and Soto persuaded three of them to register their children as single mothers so they could participate in the anti-abortion campaign, even though they live with the children's fathers.
Children's rights activists say that also could have made it easier to release the child for adoption: only the mother's signature would be needed.
The mothers were assured that the babies were being taken care of by several nannies and checked by doctors. The babies often returned home wearing new clothes.
Some of the mothers said they began having second thoughts. But when they declined to send their children back, they say, Bosquez and Soto insisted they would have to pay for the strollers, car seats, diaper bags and everything else they had bought for the babies.
Investigators say that Bosquez and Soto were taking the children to a hotel in Guadalajara, where they met with Irish couples who believed they were going to adopt them.
The plan began to unravel on Jan. 9, when local police detained 21-year-old Laura Carranza and accused her of trying to sell her 2-year-old daughter.
Investigators said Carranza denied that allegation, but acknowledged she was "renting" her 8-month-old son. She then led authorities to Bosquez and Soto.
Both are now being held on suspicion they ran the alleged anti-abortion ad campaign as a front for an illegal adoption ring. It was not clear if they have attorneys and they have not yet been brought before a judge to say if they accept or reject the allegations.
Carranza is also being held, as is Karla's mother, Cecilia Velazquez, who hasn't worked since she lost both legs in a traffic accident in 2010. Karla says her mother's only fault was agreeing to the ad campaign.
Seven of the mothers interviewed told the AP that the children had most recently been picked up by Bosquez and Soto between Dec. 27 and Dec. 30 for an alleged photo shoot. They returned the babies on Jan. 9 and 10, saying "there had been problems." The mothers said they didn't notice anything wrong with the babies or any signs of abuse.
Then state police investigators showed up at their homes and drove them and their children to the police department for questioning. The babies were taken from them and put into state protective custody. The women complained that only four of them have been allowed to see their babies since, and only once.
A statement from Jalisco state prosecutors' said authorities seized Carranza's two children and the other seven while they were with Irish couples. Prosecutors didn't respond to requests by the AP to clarify the discrepancy.
Residents of Ajijic, a town on the shore of Lake Chapala favored by American and Canadian retirees, say Irish citizens looking to adopt Mexican children began appearing there at least four years ago.
Jalisco state prosecutors' spokesman Lino Gonzalez wouldn't confirm the Irish had left, but said none had been charged with a crime.
Even if they had adopted the children, Ireland might not have accepted them because the adoptions were handled privately, said Frances FitzGerald, Ireland's minister for children.
"Obviously, for any couple caught up in this, it's a nightmare scenario," she said.
"What you can't have in Mexico is people going to local agencies or individuals doing private adoptions because they come back, there is going to be a difficulty."
Prosecutors say they have been trying without success to reach the attorneys who were handling the adoption paperwork in the neighboring state of Colima.
Custody release statements signed by all of the mothers carry the logo of Lopez y Lopez Asociados, a firm owned by Carlos Lopez Valenzuela and his son, Carlos Lopez Castellanos. Authorities raided the office last week.
The release statements were shown to the AP by a local advocate for missing and stolen children, Juan Manuel Estrada of Fundacion FIND, who said they had been leaked to him by a state official. He said Lopez Valenzuela had separately sent him a lengthy statement by email declaring that he too may have been duped in the case and denying wrongdoing.
Prosecutors wouldn't confirm the authenticity of that statement, but it mirrors the stories of seven mothers who were interviewed by the AP.
According to the statement Lopez said he had handled adoptions in Colima state for 63 Irish couples since 2004. He said he first met Bosquez when she approached him in 2009 about giving her own unborn child up for adoption to an Irish couple, a process, he wrote, that was completed legally.
The statement said that Bosquez also introduced Lopez to a social worker who together brought him the current case involving Zepeda and the other women from Zapopan, apparently hoping he could match the children to adopting couples.
It says Lopez was told the mothers wanted only to deal with the two women, and he agreed. The young mothers confirmed they never met Lopez.
According to the statement, Lopez said that 12 Irish couples had been paying for what they thought was the medical care of pregnant women on the request of the social worker, though all the children were already born when their mothers first came across Bosquez and Soto.
Lopez didn't respond to emailed interview requests from the AP.
According to the statement, Lopez said he follows the stringent adoption laws set by the Hague Adoption Convention, which Mexico has signed.
Unlike Guatemala or China, Mexico has not been a popular destination for foreigners looking to adopt, perhaps because the process, done by law, is complicated.
"The legal adoption process in Mexico is difficult, but cheating in Mexico is very easy," Estrada said.
Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.