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.

Gus demands obedience from his clients, and tends to view questioning from them as an affront. Some of his gripes are justified; his clients can be unreliable partners. “The client can be your worst enemy,” he says. “Every now and then you get a perfect client, but unfortunately in this business, you’re dealing with people who are damaged. They’re on their own special shelf.” Custody battles as intractable as the ones that call for Gus’s services rarely involve uncomplicated actors.

Helen raised Gus’s hackles from the start. He didn’t trust her, but he felt he had to work with her because it was she, not Todd, who had access to Andres. While she visited with Andres on the front porch, Helen explained, the grandfather usually went to karate class. That left only the grandmother, who spent a lot of time talking on the phone. It seemed to be a situation from which Andres could be easily extricated.

So as dusk falls on a Friday in February, a day after our initial reconnaissance, I am sitting in the SUV, parked around the corner from the yellow house, while Helen visits with Andres on the porch, waiting for an opportunity to take him and make a break for it. Gus has told her not to try anything unless she has a few minutes when she is completely unobserved. But she is having trouble. In the seat behind me, Gus’s son is reading aloud text messages from Helen. “She still looking,” Helen texts, referring to Andres’s grandmother. “She don’t move.”

A police car passes by. “We’ve been standing in this spot too long,” Gus says. It’s a normal patrol, he adds, but if the car returns, he’s inclined to leave. Then Helen texts: “We can’t do it today.” Gus puts the SUV in gear and drives past the yellow house and a royal-blue Toyota Camry—Jason’s car—parked in front of it.

The following Monday, I am waiting with Gus and Todd in the parking lot of the motel Gus has chosen as the switch point. Inside, the motel has rooms with mirrored ceilings and rainbow-colored wallpaper; the outside is a garish purple. But Gus has been attracted by subtler selling points: it’s only a three-minute drive from the yellow house, and its parking lot is set back from Highway 32, concealed by palm trees. The SUV and the van are parked there, side by side.

Gus is sitting on the back ledge of the van, wearing black cargo pants and a silky gray shirt. Todd is standing nearby, running his hands through his hair, which is slick with sweat. Every few minutes, he takes his cell phone out of his shirt pocket and looks down at it, pushing his glasses up on his nose. When the phone rings at last, Todd jumps. Helen has arrived for her visit, and she has put Andres on the line.

“Hey, Papi, how are you doing?” Todd says, using his nickname for Andres. “You ready to come home soon? What’d you do if you see me? You come running to me, huh?”

Rain starts pouring down, so we take refuge in the van. Gus says the weather reminds him of his days as a ranger in the late 1970s, when one of his instructors, a Vietnam vet, ordered the men to strip off their ponchos in torrential rain. “Men,” Gus says, recalling the sergeant’s instructions, “the best time to catch the enemy with his pants down is when he’s under a poncho, in a defensive situation, with a cup of coffee, feeling sorry for himself. That’s when you should be moving against his position.”

From the porch of the yellow house, Helen texts that the grandfather hasn’t gone to karate. As it becomes clear that, once again, Helen is being too closely observed to initiate the snatchback, Todd grows visibly frustrated and wonders aloud whether one solution might be to slow down “the old man” long enough to keep him from impeding the snatchback. “What if you hire a couple of lowlifes…?”

“It would take me time to fucking do that,” Gus says. For all his tough talk, he doesn’t seem eager to break down doors.

“Okay, okay,” Todd says. “I was just thinking. I don’t mean hurt him, but just to, to delay him, to stall him.”

Gus doesn’t respond. He later tells me that he hasn’t been paid enough for that kind of job.

Breakups know no borders. Lovers from different countries connect, conceive, and in some cases, combust. Their children must weather the aftermath; in the worst cases, they are abducted by a parent and made to live underground. The Hague Permanent Bureau, which collects information about the Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and advises countries about its implementation, does not keep comprehensive global statistics on this phenomenon. But in 1994, the U.S. State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues, which handles family abduction cases, had four staff members; today, it has 57.

The convention was designed to mediate cross-border tugs-of-war. Any country that has agreed to the treaty promises to respect the custodial decisions of the other contracting countries. The convention’s goal is to secure the “prompt return” of a child who has been “wrongfully removed to or retained in” another contracting country. The convention specifically defines prompt: a judge or administrator in the country where the child is being held is supposed to render a decision within six weeks. The judge is not authorized to make a decision about custody; his job is to determine whether the child should be returned to his “habitual residence” so that the courts in that place can exercise their jurisdiction.

According to the Permanent Bureau’s latest statistics, based on surveys of member nations in 2003, in 68 percent of cases, the parent who initially flees abroad with a child is the mother. After a marital separation, mothers are more likely to have primary custody, and many “taking mothers” cite domestic violence as their reason for running off with their kids. Indeed, the most popular defense against a “prompt return” of a child is Article 13B of the convention—that the child would suffer a “grave risk.” Another common defense is Article 12, which, after a year has elapsed since the abduction or wrongful retention, allows a judge to take into account whether the child has “settled into its new environment.”

“You’ll see this when you look at compliance reports,” says Martha Pacheco, Abduction Unit chief at the Office of Children’s Issues. “The child will not be returned quickly, for whatever reason. A year goes by, two years go by, and then the argument is made by the taking parent that the child has settled in the country and it will be traumatic for the child to go back. It’s not fair—it’s a catch-22.”

The left-behind parent faces tough odds. Many countries, especially in Asia and the Middle East, have not signed the convention. Those countries have a tendency to favor the rights of their nationals, even if they’re the taking parents. Japan has one of the worst records among non-Hague countries. The State Department is handling 73 outstanding cases involving 104 children who have been abducted to or retained in Japan by parents.

The predicament of Walter Benda is typical. In 1995, he was living with his wife of 13 years in her home country of Japan. According to Benda, he wanted to return to the U.S. and she did not. One day, she disappeared with their two daughters. “Please forgive me for leaving you this way,” she wrote in a note she left. The Japanese police, Benda says, would not investigate what they viewed as a family matter; it took him three and a half years to find the girls. He never won visitation rights. “It took a couple of years before the courts even interviewed my children,” he recalls. “By that time, they’d been brainwashed and didn’t want to see their father.”

Sometimes even countries that have agreed to the Hague Convention are no better. For instance, the State Department has more than 500 open cases involving 800 children abducted to or retained in Mexico. The convention has no enforcement mechanism; it’s up to the judicial system of a member nation to make its court’s decision stick. According to the Hague’s own statistics from a 2003 study, only 51 percent of all applications end with the child’s return to the left-behind parent. When the abducting parent does not consent to give up the child, judges take an average of 143 days to order a return—a far cry from the six weeks mandated by the convention. (Costa Rica, which agreed to the convention in 1998, did not respond to the Hague survey, so it is not included in these statistics.)

In addition to pursuing the matter as a civil issue through the convention, a left-behind parent can press authorities to bring criminal charges against the taking parent. This can result in an Interpol “red notice” calling for police to arrest the taking parent, with a view toward extradition. That’s likely what happened last April, when a Russian mother was arrested in Hungary after abducting her daughter in France from her ex-husband, who was badly beaten during the abduction. The mother was extradited to France to face charges of kidnapping and complicity in the assault; she was later freed.

Gus Zamora, for his part, is generally dismissive of what he calls “the Vague Convention.” But he’s seen it work. In 2004, Hal Berger’s then-wife abducted their son from California to South Africa. A year later, he filed a Hague application, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and eight months in South Africa during the litigation; finally, South Africa’s Supreme Court ordered the boy’s return to the U.S. Berger, his estranged wife, and their son flew back together on the same plane. But 10 months later, she took off with the son again, using fake passports to return to South Africa. Berger went back to the South African courts—but this time he hired Gus, in case the courts ruled against him, or his estranged wife fled a third time. After spending hundreds of thousands more, a night in jail, and more than a month in Africa, Berger won his case in the South African courts in December 2007 and flew home with his son.

More often than not, Gus gets involved when his clients have lost patience with the courts. When parents come to him in desperation, he asks them three questions: Do they have custodial rights? Do they have an idea where their kids are? And can they afford his fee?

One morning in November of 2005, an engineer (who asked that his name and other identifying details not be used here because of pending legal issues) left his home in the Midwest for work, carrying the lunch his wife had packed for him. A few hours later, he picked up a voice mail from her saying that she had taken their 2-year-old daughter shopping and wouldn’t be reachable for a while. Only that evening did he learn that she’d fled to India. The engineer flew to Mumbai, hoping to reconcile. But the marriage seemed irretrievable. On his lawyer’s recommendation, he filed for divorce and custody after he returned to the U.S. in January. Ten months later, the engineer called Gus, who advised him to let the custody issue play out in the courts first. Shortly thereafter, the engineer won a default custody judgment in a court in his home state when his ex-wife didn’t show up to contest it. At the end of 2006, he flew to Mumbai and met Gus. He returned home with his daughter days later. A kidnapping case is still pending against the engineer in Mumbai.

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