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 or $10,000 pesos, a small fortune for a teen mother who earns $180 a month at a sandwich stand and shares a cramped, 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 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.
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 and their lawyer says 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 said.
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.