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.

In July of 2008, Todd says, Andres called him from Costa Rica in tears. Andres said he wanted to go home and asked, “Daddy, would you come and get me?” Todd counseled him to be patient, promising that he would come to bring him home soon.

Todd Hopson does not come across as the sort of person who would hire a kidnapper. His idea of excitement is watching Seinfeld reruns. He is quick with a one-liner if conversation flags. He clears his throat repeatedly, a nervous tic that may be related to his fondness for cigars. During most of our time in Costa Rica, he wore the same outfit—a khaki shirt with lots of pockets, jeans, and bright-white sneakers. But while Hopson may seem like a softie, his resolve is strong: he would rather break the laws of Costa Rica than his word to Andres.

In late August, even before Todd filed a Hague application, he contacted Gus Zamora, who was feeling the pinch of the recession. It had been nine months since his last recovery. “If somebody asked me to find his dog or cat on a roof, I’d do it,” he joked. Gus offered to do the job for $25,000, including expenses—about a third of his usual rate. Still, Todd had to borrow money against his house to pay the fee. Gus planned to take two trips to do the recovery, and Todd agreed to pay him $10,000 before the first and $15,000 before the second.

In September, Gus flew from Tampa to Costa Rica to rendezvous with Helen and do reconnaissance in Siquirres. From the start, Helen resisted doing a recovery; she didn’t want to break any laws and possibly jeopardize her ability to return to Costa Rica. Todd felt he needed her cooperation, however, because she had access to Andres—and Andres’s passport had her last name on it. (A child traveling with adults without the same last name might raise suspicion.) At Todd’s insistence, Helen agreed to meet with Gus.

One day, while doing surveillance with Helen, Gus saw an opportunity to grab Andres. But Helen called him off, deciding instead to rely on the local lawyer she’d hired to regain custody. By February, however, Helen was fed up. She had just returned from a visit with Andres, and she was furious that she could not take him anywhere—not even an ice-cream shop—on her own.

“After I go through all the pain and drama of childbirth, they come and take my son away,” she told me. “Hell, no. I decided, ‘Gus, come here. I’m not waiting for the law, for Jason, for nothing.’”

The assignment seemed straightforward. Helen had access to Andres through her visitation privileges. Todd had assured Gus that Andres wanted to leave Costa Rica. Under these circumstances, how hard could it be to snatch Andres from Jason or from his paternal grandparents, who often cared for him while Jason, the town dentist, was at work? But Gus had learned from the previous recoveries he had conducted—54 of them, by his count—to proceed with caution.

The price of a mistake, after all, could be imprisonment. Agents like Gus risk arrest for kidnapping or related charges if they’re caught. When Gus first started doing child recoveries, in the late ’80s, he worked for a man named Don Feeney, who pioneered the practice through his company, Corporate Training Unlimited, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In 1993, Feeney was arrested on kidnapping charges for trying to recover two American girls from their mother in Iceland. He served one year in an Icelandic jail.

The risks remain high. In 2006, two agents were arrested in Lebanon for taking two girls from their father. The mother, who had hired the agents, spent seven weeks hiding in Lebanon with the girls because she, too, faced kidnapping charges. Gus says he himself has never served jail time—but a warrant for his arrest, for kidnapping, was issued in Mexico in 1997. (The charges were subsequently dropped.) To reduce the likelihood of his being charged with kidnapping, Gus says, he insists that the parent who hires him be present during a recovery.

A successful snatchback is only the beginning of the journey. Sometimes, the child doesn’t want to go. Early this year, Gus says, an American father agreed to pay him $70,000 to recover his 10-year-old daughter from Japan, assuring him that the girl would acquiesce. Gus went to the Philippines to prepare an escape route by boat. He then flew to Tokyo and, accompanied by the father, hustled the girl into a van as she left home. “That little girl screamed bloody murder,” Gus told me. “She was beating at the windows. Contrary to everything we’d been told, she definitely did not want to go.” After a day of unsuccessfully trying to calm the girl down, he released her. (He says he received half of his fee up front; he wasn’t paid the remainder.) Gus says he would never snatch an unwilling child—though he also describes recoveries in which a resistant child grew more willing over time.

Even if a child wants to go, exiting a country can be challenging, because the forsaken parent will usually report the snatchback to the local authorities. In 2000, George Uhl, a neurologist from Maryland, hired Gus to find and recover his 2-year-old son. The boy was traced to western Hungary, where his mother had left him with her parents. After Gus helped Uhl take the boy, French police intercepted Uhl at Charles de Gaulle airport on his way home. Uhl was released that same day, but his son was returned to the boy’s mother. Gus blames Uhl for failing to follow instructions. He says he told Uhl to pay cash for a direct flight to the United States; Uhl’s mistake was choosing to connect through Paris. At the time, however, there were no direct flights to the U.S. from Venice, where Uhl was dropped off.

In 2007, a woman hired Gus on behalf of her daughter to retrieve her two granddaughters, then 5 and 4, who had allegedly been abused by their father, the daughter’s ex-husband, in Ankara, Turkey. The father had won custody in the Turkish courts and kept the girls’ passports, making it hard for Gus to get the girls out of Europe. Traveling with the grandmother and mother, he got the girls to a neighboring country, but the mother could not get papers from the U.S. Embassy for both girls to travel to the States. The mother and the girls have since gone into hiding. (Names and identifying details have been withheld here because the grandmother and mother’s lawyers say the girls are at risk of more abuse if they are located.) The grandmother blames Gus. “I gave him $86,000, and he left us stranded,” she told me. But Gus says he had set up an exit route for the family through a third European country, adding that the grandmother stiffed him for $25,000.

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Nadya Labi is a writer in New York City.

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