The children raised in secrecy

How a drug-addict couple who had lost custody of their kids kept a boy and girl behind closed doors in the Canary Islands

One day, when she was 25, Macarena discovered that she was pregnant for the fifth time. She was serving time in prison for theft, and had no idea where her other children might be, since they'd been given up for adoption by the social services due to their state of abandonment. That was in 2002. The father, Yerai, was also in prison and he'd long since stopped taking an interest in his progeny. Macarena, who was a drug addict, tried to conceal her belly every time the social worker came to visit her in jail, but eventually she was found out and the government worker requested that Macarena's baby be taken from her as soon as it was born.

When that day finally arrived, Macarena, who was still recovering from a tubal ligation sterilization she'd had on the recommendation of a nurse, grabbed the baby from one of the cribs in the newborn ward of Las Palmas Hospital, hid it (inside a suitcase, it was thought) and walked out of the building to hail a taxi.

All this time, the little girl has remained concealed inside a housing project for families relocated from shantytowns. But in that small world, the child did not exist. The police say that during all these years they had been on Macarena's trail of marginality, but kept getting stonewalled by an extensive network of relatives who made it hard for them to find the child. And now that they have - thanks to an anonymous caller and several months' worth of investigation - the police have also found an older child that Macarena gave birth to at home so he wouldn't show up in any official records.

"Would anyone in my situation have done things differently? They're mine," says the mother, standing at the door of her house in the Las Palmas neighborhood of San José, on a recent afternoon when police could be seen asking residents for ID and looking for hidden drugs in the palm trees that adorn the area. Macarena is back from visiting her children at the juvenile center where they were taken by authorities. "I doubt that's the right solution. Are they better there than with me?" she asks.

The children, whom we'll call Irena and Mario for the sake of this story, had had no schooling, could not read or write, and had never been to a hospital, where doctors might have become suspicious. The case shook up Gran Canaria, an island society that is very sensitive to children's disappearances. The names of Sara Morales and Yéremy Vargas, who have been missing since 2006 and 2007 respectively, still crop up every time the conversation turns to children, as though their disappearances had created some kind of collective fear among parents here. Both missing kids' faces are visible on walls, airports and road signs. "We will never stop looking for them," reads a sign in a downtown grocery store. 'How can you hide children in such as limited space as an island?' people ask themselves.

Macarena managed it, says a member of the judicial police's family services department. She did so with help from her family, a clan made up of dozens of people who are accustomed to living together under the same roof - a closed world that authorities had great trouble penetrating.

Even so, the tale does not clear up all the underlying questions. How could both of Macarena's children "disappear" if they had always lived in the same neighborhood? Police officials underscore the difficulty of locating the baby girl, Irena, who was spirited away from the hospital before any pictures had been taken and whose name was later changed. The boy, Mario, was born inside the house, and the family made sure he was never registered. And so both children grew up without showing up on any files.

The trail of these "ghost kids" leads to the Mantequilla building, meaning "butter" in Spanish and so called because of its yellowish hue. It is a massive tenement eight stories high and a place of pilgrimage for hashish smokers, according to police reports. This is where Pedro lives. Whereas most men in this building walk around in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, Pedro, 65, never walks out the door without his suit and tie. He is Macarena's father-in-law, the father of Yerai, whom he "never wants to see again" because of all the trouble he's been ever since he fell into drug use. It is Pedro who had raised Mario since he was one year old.

"I found out that my daughter-in-law had had another child that was not born in the hospital but at home - with a midwife, I think," he says. "I showed up at her house and said: 'Look, girl, you can't keep this kid; they've already taken them all from you. Where in hell are they now? Give him to me and I'll take care of him. I'm his grandfather.' As soon as I had him, I ran down the stairs and grabbed a taxi, even though I always take the bus because I have a bus pass. I did it in case she changed her mind."

When Pedro got home - a large three-bedroom apartment - he lay the child on the bed, placed pillows on either side to prevent him from falling, asked a neighbor to keep an eye on him and went down to buy diapers, clothes and medicine. As he got older, Pedro dressed the child like himself. I look like an old man, Mario used to complain. The grandfather visited a school two streets away and tried to enroll Mario, but he was asked for the child's papers. He says he begged Macarena to sign Mario up in the Civil Registry so he could go to school, but she ignored him. The grandfather never tried to register him on his own initiative, afraid that they would take Mario away. The two were always seen together - at the beach, at the supermarket and when grandpa went to the health center for senior checkups. They watched movies together - up to three in one day, once, Pedro recalls.

"I love him more than I love all my own children. When I got sick, he would tell me: 'Don't worry Grandpa, if you die I'll ask the neighbor to call an ambulance.' We spent our lives together. I was always watching him, scared that he would be stolen or taken from me," says Pedro, standing next to a photograph of Mario in a tie. And Pedro certainly has a lot of descendants to choose from: five children, 21 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren (although sometimes he gets confused and adds a number here and there).

Slowly, Pedro watched his young ward grow up. He never taught him to read or write because he was himself illiterate. He bought him a 300 euro video console at the shopping center, paying for it in installments. Occasionally he took him to see his mother. Around this time, Pedro taught Mario to say, if anyone asked, that he was studying at a nuns' school. "What school do you go to, my boy?" one neighbor asked him in the elevator once. "Why, the nuns' school," Mario replied.

Pedro was waiting for Mario to come of age and then disclose his existence to authorities. But time ran out on him. One day in mid-August, the police and judicial authorities showed up. Mario was spending a few days in the south of Gran Canaria with one of Pedro's daughters. "I called her and told her to bring the child over, because they were asking for him. My daughter refused, said she would not hand him over, that he had to be with us, but the attorney picked up the receiver and told her: 'You bring him over here right now or I'll issue a warrant for your arrest." Pedro was taken into custody on several charges, including kidnapping.

Now that he's been released - although the charges against him still stand - a solitary Pedro feels that the house is too big for him. He keeps going back to the room where Mario used to sleep. For now, he has requested permission to foster the child based on the strength of their blood ties and emotional bonds. He has gone to see him at the juvenile center, and Mario has given him homemade cards with messages that say he misses his grandfather, but not to worry because he's being taken good care of. The competence of the handwriting suggests that the text was written by an instructor at the center.

There are many children growing up in similar residences all over the Canary Islands. The regional government says that they are well cared for, but that there is nothing like "the warmth of a home." In late 2010, there were 943 juveniles living in centers and 1,357 in foster homes. Authorities say it is their priority to put these kids in a family environment than in a center, and the regional government funds a foster family program. Special attention is given to single parents with children under one year old (the pregnancy rate in this part of Spain is 28.59 per every thousand women ages 15 to 19, compared to 15.25 in the rest of the country).

This was Macarena's case, since she had three children between 1995 and 1997, always with the same man. She had their names tattooed on her arms and neck. She lost custody of all three after the social services drew up a report detailing how the children spent long periods of time by themselves, and that their parents - both drug addicts who were constantly being arrested - were not caring for them properly. According to Pedro, Macarena concealed Mario's birth, but she was unable to do the same with her next child, Irena, because she was in jail at the time. She gave birth in the hospital and ran off with the baby in her arms, wrapped in a blanket - not inside a suitcase as police had initially thought. Days later she was located by the journalist Marisol Ayala, who got the only interview from her dating back to that period.

"Maybe we'll leave the island, we'll get on a ship," she was quoted as saying in the article. But she didn't have time: the police arrested her before she could embark, and her statements were used against her at the trial for kidnapping. Macarena went to jail for that, but her baby was never found.

Nearly a decade later, the mystery has finally been solved. Some way or another, Irena ended up living with a distant relative, a 53-year-old woman named Dolores. Dolores' husband died in 2000, but before that she had two miscarriages that prevented her from fulfilling her dream of becoming a mother. Irena moved in with Dolores, who lives on the fourth floor of a building for relocated families from the Buque Guerra shantytown. Dolores also has the child's name tattooed on her arm, and asserts that she cared for her like she was her own daughter. Her story sounds a lot like Pedro's when it comes to schooling: she tried to convince Macarena repeatedly to get the girl's papers in order, but the mother refused. After that, Dolores hired a tutor to come home several times a week and give Irena private lessons while she cared for an elderly woman in the building.

Dolores says she took Irena to a private doctor's practice and that the child did not have any health problems. There are pictures of her dancing on a stage. Dolores has also requested permission to foster Irena, and will submit signatures from her neighbors to support her cause. "All this woman did was take care of the child and worry about her, and they go and arrest her like a criminal," says Dolores' niece.

Irena and Mario are now in a juvenile center where relatives may visit them on Thursdays and Saturdays until a judge decides what to do with them. Macarena, the mother, stands with her arms crossed in her neighborhood and greets all passersby. "My idea is to get all my children back and go far away from here, to a better place, and start over. To leave here once and for all," she says, expressing a very similar desire to the one she voiced a decade ago when she talked to the journalist Marisol Ayala. In all that time, Macarena has been unable to escape from reality.

Pedro Castillo, the grandfather who cared for the missing boy (in the photo).
Pedro Castillo, the grandfather who cared for the missing boy (in the photo).FOTO: RAFA AVERO.
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