The Snatchback

If your ex-spouse has run off and taken your children abroad, and the international legal system is failing to bring them back, what are you to do? One option is to call Gus Zamora, a former Army ranger who will, for a hefty fee, get your children back. Operating in a moral gray area beyond the reach of any clear-cut legal jurisdiction, Zamora claims to have returned 54 children to left-behind parents. Here’s the story of number 55.
Robert Adamo

Also see:

Sidebar: "Witness to an Abduction"
The author explains how she ended up following Gus Zamora around the globe

Audio: "The Stakeout"
A sound recording of the moment that became this story’s climax

On a humid Thursday afternoon in February, I am riding in a rented van in Central America with a man who abducts children for a living. The van’s windows are tinted, and Gustavo Zamora Jr. is speeding east on a two-lane highway toward Siquirres, a town buried in the lush abundance of eastern Costa Rica. Gus is planning to snatch Andres, a 9-year-old American boy who has been claimed by too many parents. Sitting behind me is one of them: Todd Hopson, a 48-year-old lawyer from Ocala, Florida, who considers himself the boy’s father, by rights of love and U.S. law. Ahead of me in the front passenger seat is Gus’s 22-year-old son and partner, Gustavo Zamora III.

“That’s too far for a switch,” the elder Zamora, 53, is saying, pointing to a hotel 10 miles outside of Siquirres. His plan is to use two vehicles for what he calls the “recovery,” or “snatchback.” Once he gets Andres, he intends to drive a white Toyota SUV to a switch point, where he will abandon the SUV and put Andres in the van. That way, any witnesses to the snatchback will report seeing the SUV headed west in the direction of the capital, San José—while in fact Gus and Andres will be in the van headed southeast toward Panama. But this hotel won’t work. “We definitely can’t come all the way back down this way,” Gus says. “I want to make time.”

Even by the standards of this American age of divorce, when byzantine custody arrangements are commonplace, Andres’s situation is complex. His biological mother, Helen Zapata, who is from Costa Rica but now lives in America, was married to Todd Hopson for just under three years. Now they are divorced—but they continue to share custody of Andres and, until recently, lived together in Florida. Todd never formally adopted Andres, but he and Helen got an official document in Florida in June of 2008 acknowledging Todd’s legal paternity. They also asked a Florida court to declare Andres “born of their marriage,” a request that was granted the following September and applied retroactively to 2004, the year they divorced.

“I got to thinking—what if something happens to me, and Andres has Helen’s last name? Andres wouldn’t be entitled to any rights or benefits,” Todd told me. “I’m a lawyer and should have been thinking about those things earlier, but I didn’t.”

At the end of June 2008, Helen flew to Costa Rica to spend time there and, with Todd’s support, to enroll in a drug clinic to kick a cocaine habit. Every year, Helen and Andres traveled to Costa Rica to visit not only Helen’s relatives, but also those of Jason Alvarado, who is Andres’s biological father. So that June, as usual, Andres went along, though he didn't want to go—he didn't want to miss Little League season in Ocala, for one thing. Before Helen left the U.S., she called Jason in Costa Rica, asking if he would look after Andres for a few days and saying that she planned to go job-hunting in Costa Rica so that she could move there permanently. “I lied to him” to hide the drug problem, Helen concedes. When Jason learned Helen’s true whereabouts, he called Todd in Florida, thanking him for everything he’d done for Andres and telling him, Todd says, that he planned to raise the boy himself.

Todd felt blindsided. He had thought Andres would be visiting with Helen’s mother and told me he had “no idea that Jason had any interest” in having custody of Andres. As Todd saw it, Jason had never previously tried to gain custody or in any way contributed to Andres’s care. “If you’re going to be the father,” Todd says, “you don’t let someone else pay the freight.”

Todd consulted with the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica, which advised him to proceed with his plan to pick up Andres in early August. But when Todd flew to Costa Rica, Jason would not let him talk to the boy. Todd was livid. He had hoped to reason with Jason, but he realized that the man had no intention of backing down. So Todd got an injunction from a San José court ordering Jason to surrender Andres, and he and Helen accompanied the Costa Rican police when they went to Jason’s office to deliver it. Jason still refused to relinquish Andres, and Todd says the police told him that they didn’t have the right under Costa Rican law to enter Jason’s home and take the boy. Todd returned to Florida while Helen stayed in Costa Rica. Later in August, Jason challenged Helen’s maternal fitness in light of her drug habit and won temporary custody of Andres from a different Costa Rican court.

The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction was drafted in 1980 to resolve custodial claims between what are known as the “taking parent” and the “left-behind parent.” To date, 81 nations, including the United States, in 1988, have agreed to the treaty. The State Department, which enforces the treaty in the U.S., currently has more than 2,000 active cases involving nearly 3,000 children abducted from the U.S. or wrongfully retained abroad. In 2008, it opened 1,082 new files, an increase of more than 25 percent over 2007. (The increase reflects a rise in transnational marriages, and consequently transnational divorces, as well as growing awareness of the Hague Convention.)

Todd considered filing a Hague application with the State Department, but he was skeptical that it would amount to anything because he distrusted what he dismissed as the corrupt legal system in Costa Rica. The application, he feared, could take months to process. He wavered between feelings of fury and utter helplessness. “It breaks my heart,” he said to me. “I don’t have any control.” Determined to regain some, he surfed the Internet for security agencies in Costa Rica, thinking, “I’ll hire some bodyguards and just take Andres.” A man Todd spoke to at one agency said he didn’t do child recoveries but could recommend someone who did: Gus Zamora. “That’s all he does,” the man said.

Gus, a former U.S. soldier, has dyed brown hair and a tidy moustache. He wears Oakley sunglasses and a gold necklace with a pendant shaped like a diver. A martial-arts tattoo adorns the back of his left hand. In Gus’s mind, he’s never stopped being a soldier. In Tampa, his home, he drives a royal-blue BMW with the license plate ABN RGR, referring, respectively, to his time as a member of the 101st Airborne Division and as an Army ranger. When on assignment, like on this scouting mission through eastern Costa Rica, he talks about conducting “recon” and moving his “assets.” His dark eyes flit from side to side, taking stock of his surroundings, and he rarely stops talking, dispensing instructions, expletives, and commentary about his travels to 64 countries and counting.

As Gus continues to drive east, evaluating prospective switch points, we pass pineapple fields before turning left off Highway 32 toward Siquirres. In a minute or so, we are at the town square, a stretch of grass dominated by soccer goalposts. Gus points to a bench where he says a bus picks up Andres for school each day.

Musing aloud, Gus runs through potential scenarios. Where’s the best spot to grab Andres? At the bus stop, on his way to school? A possibility, but Jason or Jason’s father sometimes waits with the boy there. At the school itself? Maybe, depending on how far it is from Highway 32. During one of Helen’s supervised visits with Andres at the home of Jason’s parents?

Across the street from the square is a yellow house with a black iron gate. Todd identifies it as the home of Andres’s paternal grandparents, where Helen has her custodial visits. Gus likes what he sees; Helen could walk through the gate with Andres to the waiting SUV. “They could come and get in,” Gus says. “This is a straight shot. The highway’s right up here,” allowing a quick getaway.

“It’s a very short route,” Todd agrees.

“I like that a lot better. She can walk out the door,” Gus says. “She walks down the street, gets in the van. Boom, gone …”

Helen and Jason grew up in Siquirres. They met as teenagers and started dating seriously when she was 17 and he was 19. Jason moved to San José to attend dental school; Helen finished high school and followed him there. After two years, they began to grow apart. Jason told me he broke up with Helen because she cheated on him. Shortly thereafter, Helen told Jason she was pregnant. According to Helen, Jason wanted her to have an abortion. Jason denies this, adding that he promised to take responsibility for the child if he proved to be the father.

A few weeks later, Helen met Todd Hopson, 18 years her senior. The divorced father of an adult daughter, he was vacationing by himself at a golf resort on the outskirts of San José. Though neither spoke the other’s language, he and Helen ended up spending the rest of his vacation together, touring the Costa Rican capital.

When Todd returned to the U.S., he talked to Helen by phone and exchanged letters with her; a friend of Helen’s acted as interpreter. Todd invited Helen to Florida. When she told him she was pregnant, he said he had already suspected that, and reiterated his invitation. Bringing along the friend as a translator, Helen flew to Florida and moved in with Todd. (The translator left after a couple of weeks, and Helen now speaks English.)

Two months later, Helen’s appendix burst, and she was hospitalized in Ocala. The next day, September 6, 1999, she gave birth to a boy. Todd held the infant before Helen did, marveling at his shock of black hair. When Andres left the hospital, a week before his mother did, Todd cared for him. Todd also paid the hospital bills, which came to $25,000, and financially supported Andres from then on.

Shortly after giving birth, Helen called Jason to tell him he had a son. Jason wanted to make sure that the boy was his, so he asked Helen to send him blood samples, which she did. Jason sent the samples to a laboratory in Costa Rica, and when the test confirmed that he was the father, he wanted to acknowledge his son legally.

When Andres was a year old, Jason flew to Ocala to get a copy of the birth certificate, which named no father. Even though she hadn’t intended to cooperate, Helen helped Jason obtain it, and invited him home, where he visited with her, Andres, and Todd. Jason then registered his paternity with the Costa Rican consulate in Miami, but he didn’t pursue custody, because, he told me, he was willing to allow Andres to live with his mother. In 2001, Helen married Todd.

Meanwhile, Todd bonded with Andres. As a toddler, Andres would cry and chase the car when Todd went to work. When Andres grew older, Todd helped him with his homework and shuttled him to and from school. When Andres developed a fascination with baseball, Todd nurtured it, taking him to batting cages, hiring a private coach, and cheering him on at games. In 2008, they attended spring training for the Yankees, where Andres was thrilled to be within 15 feet of his favorite player, Alex Rodriguez.

Meanwhile, Helen chafed at the quietness of Ocala, escaping to Orlando for days at a time. She liked to throw on tight jeans and high heels and revel in the attention she attracted. Soon, she was seeking out more dangerous highs.

“I’ve been 100 percent the father and, over the last year, maybe 80 percent the mother,” Todd told me.

“Andres trusts Todd more than he trusts me,” Helen says.

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Nadya Labi is a writer in New York City.

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