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.

“Don’t drive fast, especially on the wet roads,” Gus counsels Helen, who is standing under the awning of the purple motel, watching the rain pour down. It’s 6a.m. on Tuesday. The parrots are chirping, and the palm trees bend under the weight of the water. “Take your time and get here,” Gus adds. “It’s only a couple of minutes.”

Gus is prepping Helen to snatch Andres at the bus stop. If a stranger like Gus tried to grab the boy, witnesses might intervene, and the police would react immediately. But a mother calling out to her son and inviting him to step into her car might not trigger an alarm. Ordinarily, Gus would ride along in the car with Helen, but he doesn’t trust her. He also has doubts about whether Andres will go with his mother. He has more faith in Todd’s relationship with the boy, so he has decided that Todd should be in the SUV with Helen. Gus and his son will wait in the getaway van at the purple motel, preparing for a run to the Panama border.

Wearing a striped scarf to cover her distinctive auburn curls, Helen drives into Siquirres. Rain lashes the windshield. Schoolkids carrying backpacks walk into the curve of their umbrellas. Hunching low in the middle of the backseat to avoid detection, Todd warns Helen not to drive off the edge of the road, which drops precipitously into a deep gutter.

Helen pulls over alongside a Baptist church. We can see the town square and the bus stop where Andres gets picked up for school, a block away. Cars swoosh by on the slippery road. The windshield wipers swing back and forth. The weather is a problem. The bus stop has no shelter, so whoever drops off Andres is likely to wait with him in the car, to keep the boy dry until the bus arrives.

Todd and Helen are running out of chances. Helen is supposed to have another visitation at the yellow house later today. Todd, Gus, and Gustavo are scheduled to fly back to the United States tomorrow. A solo practitioner, Todd has cleared his court schedule only until the end of the week. And he can’t afford to hire Gus for a third trip.

At 7:00, a white bus stops on the town square. No one boards it. There are no schoolkids at the bus stop. “I don’t see any activity,” Todd says, sighing.

Time passes. The only sounds are the relentless pounding of the rain, the swish of the wipers, and Helen’s occasional sniffs.

Suddenly, Helen sits bolt upright. “That’s Jason. You see?” A blue Camry heads toward us and turns left onto the street perpendicular to ours. She warns Todd to duck down.

“So where’s Andres?” Helen says, perplexed. Why didn’t Jason pull over at the bus stop? Why did he turn onto the side street instead? Could Andres’s bus stop be located on that side street—not by the square, as she had thought? She asks Todd whether she should check out the side street. He encourages her to go.

“I don’t know if we should,” she says, even as she turns the ignition, inching forward and looking from side to side. She turns right, following the route the blue car took.

“Oh, here,” Helen gasps, looking at two boys in identical uniforms—dark-blue polo shirts and khaki pants—standing along the side of the road. She puts down the passenger-side window, shouting: “Come, Andres! Ven, Andres!”

The shorter and slimmer of the two boys, who has close-cropped hair and a light scar on his brow, stares at her. His brown eyes widen, and he steps forward slightly. Then he looks at the other boy, looks back at Helen, and shakes his head.

“He says no,” Helen says, putting up the window.

“Did Chino see me?” Todd asks, referring to Andres’s companion, who is his uncle. Helen says yes. Todd tells Helen to get out of the car and get Andres.

“He doesn’t want me to,” she says.

“Go out and get him, Helen,” Todd says, his voice rising in frustration. “Just go out and get him.” Helen drives on. Todd moves aggressively into the space between the front seats, directing Helen to do a U-turn and return to Andres. She obeys, warning Todd that Andres’s bus is coming.

“I don’t care, because we’re made. Let’s go,” Todd shouts. “I’m going to get him. Just go!” Helen sniffs, and Todd orders her to stop the SUV. He leaps out and goes to Andres, who is wearing an olive-green backpack.

At Gus Zamora’s home in Tampa are two huge black safes containing dozens of machine guns, pistols, and rifles—enough artillery, he explains, to outfit a SWAT team of 10 men. (Gus also trains bodyguards.) Inside his office, the shelves are crammed with textbooks like Shooter’s Bible and The Gun Parts. The closet is jammed with model airplanes and shooting trophies. On the walls are pictures and statues of bald eagles; a clock with a camouflage pattern on its face and bullets arrayed around its circumference; certificates attesting to esoteric skills, including one from the “Methods of Entry School” for a course in “surreptitious entry techniques”; newspaper clippings with photos of beaming families; and a handwritten letter from a third-grader in Texas. “Dear Gus,” the girl writes, “I remember you, and I hope I can see you sometime.”

Born in Gary, Indiana, in 1955, Gus joined the Army in 1977, and served in the 1st Ranger Battalion, an elite infantry unit; a rapid-deployment force based in Vicenza, Italy; and the 101st Airborne Division. He met his wife, Vicki, in the service and left the Army in 1984 to prepare, he says, for the birth of their first child. He received an honorable discharge and started working for a series of private security companies. After a stint with a company based in Brownsville, Texas, Gus landed in northern Costa Rica, working on a report about the Contras in Nicaragua for the U.S. Council for World Freedom. Gus stayed in the area, providing protection for John Hull, an American rancher who helped the CIA deliver aid and weapons to the Contras. (A Senate subcommittee later collected evidence that Hull had been engaged in drug trafficking; he was also indicted for murder in Costa Rica. “What’s a little murder when you’re overthrowing a government?,” Gus says. “That’s part of the process.”) Gus then made his way to Don Feeney’s company, Corporate Training Unlimited, in the late ’80s. Feeney’s first recovery case, involving the rescue of a 7-year-old girl who’d been taken to Jordan by her father in 1988, had touched off an international incident; the State Department ended up expressing regret to Jordan. Gus, who speaks Spanish fluently, covered Latin American operations for Feeney.

After spending time in that Icelandic jail in 1993, Feeney cooled on the child-recovery business. But Gus was hooked. “I remember calling Gus and saying, ‘I’ve got a case. There’s almost no money in it, but I believe the child is in real danger,’” Feeney recalled when I spoke to him recently. “Thirty minutes later, he was at the front door of the office, saying, ‘When do we leave?’”

Gus thrives on the feeling that he’s doing good while having fun. He embraces the travel with the gusto of a tourist, collecting information about a well-placed bar, a cozy Italian restaurant, the best hotel Jacuzzi. When he has to plan an escape route over water, he’ll often go scuba diving for a few days while he makes contacts. Despite his specialized military skills, his real expertise seems to be the ability to network—and to talk his way out of a predicament. He’s more fixer than commando.

Gus is paid to take on risk. But his critics say that he also exposes others to danger. When I asked Feeney whether anyone was harmed during his or Gus’s recoveries, he responded, “No. I’m not going to tell you that nobody ever got smacked around a bit. But by the time we were gone on the plane, they got up and dusted themselves off.” The people guarding the child are not the only ones in jeopardy. If an operation goes wrong, a reclaiming parent risks not only jeopardizing any legal case, but also arrest or physical injury. Even worse, a child may be harmed. (Critics of Gus’s line of work often cite this risk, but I haven’t heard of a case where a child was actually physically hurt.)

Even if a recovery proceeds safely, a child may be traumatized. “One of the most psychologically devastating aspects of family abduction is the sudden, unexpected rupture,” Liss Haviv, the executive director of Take Root, an organization composed of formerly abducted children, explained to me recently. “Being recovered may produce the same result. Whether your situation ultimately improves or not, you learn once again that any- and everything can change in the blink of an eye. How do you trust after that?”

Gus insists that no one has been physically harmed during his recoveries. But military-style operations may result in casualties; that’s what may have happened in 2000, when Gus and George Uhl picked up Uhl’s 2-year-old son in western Hungary. Uhl’s ex-wife, Katharina Gotzler, had left the child there with her parents. Gus and Uhl went to the grandparents’ home to retrieve the boy. What came next is contested.

Gus says he waited in the getaway car while Uhl, an American associate, and two Hungarian “assets” went inside to snatch the boy. (When I spoke recently to Gus’s assistant on the job, she did not corroborate that Gus was in the car during the recovery, saying she could not recall the specific events.)

Gotzler was in Munich at the time. When she didn’t hear from her father that night, she called the neighbors and asked them to check on him, according to her attorney, Donald Cramer. The neighbors found the boy gone, and the grandfather dead.

A German court found that Uhl “had the son abducted with the assistance of armed kidnappers. In the course of this abduction, the grandfather came to his death.” Cramer added, “Zamora’s belongings were checked at the hotel—he had Tasers, weapons of all sorts, and ropes.”

According to Gus, one of the Hungarian men had told him the grandfather smoked a cigarette during the recovery, worrying that he’d be blamed for not protecting the boy. “We had somebody check the phone records from that apartment,” Gus says. “The grandfather called his daughter in Germany. She called him back several times, and when she arrived, he was already on the couch dead. We believe that she literally tore him apart on the phone and stressed him out so much that he had a heart attack and died.” Gus says the autopsy reported that the cause of death was natural and that the estimated time of death was four hours after the abduction. Prosecutors in Hungary did not press charges.

Uhl has not seen his son since he was stopped at the Paris airport on his way home. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)

The day after the snatchback in Siquirres, Diario Extra, a popular tabloid in Costa Rica, reports that while Andres was waiting for the bus, a white Toyota SUV stopped, and two women and a man “violently grabbed” him. The newspaper lists Helen, an aunt, and a U.S. national named “Hotson” as suspects. The article includes a photo of Andres and instructs anyone who spots him to call the police. Jason’s wife is quoted: “We are confident, given that only a few hours have gone by, that they would not be able to take him out of the country.”

But while the police search for Andres in a white Toyota SUV, we are speeding toward Panama in a beige Dodge Caravan. Andres and Helen lie against each other in the backseat, and Todd is prone against the side door. Gus is at the wheel.

“Andres looks good,” Todd says. “That was some shock and awe.”

After nearly an hour, Gus has fought his way through traffic to the turnoff to Limón. Except for some overhanging palm trees and piles of trash, the road is clear. At Gus’s say-so, we sit up. Helen pulls off Andres’s dark-blue shirt so he can exchange it for a white T-shirt that says Cornerstone Middle School.

“You want to go home, right?” Todd says.

Andres nods.

“You remember, I promised,” Todd says. “Did you think Daddy wasn’t going to come for you?”

Andres shakes his head.

Todd tells Andres that he’s left his room exactly the same and that a package has arrived all the way from Japan for him—a customized baseball glove.

“Your hair looks great, buddy,” Todd says, kissing him and observing that he’s grown a little Mohawk. Gus’s son informs Todd that the correct term is faux-hawk.

Andres takes care with his appearance; he is a handsome boy who looks like a miniature version of his favorite Yankee, A-Rod. He tells Todd that he’s started using a hair gel called Gorilla Snot. Later, he asks if he’ll be able to buy the gel in Florida. Throughout the journey, Andres says little, but he seems most concerned about having “forgotten” things—like the hair gel, his clothing, his iPod charger, his NintendoDS, and, most important, two of his baseball gloves. He had taken them with him to Costa Rica, even though he didn’t play much baseball in Siquirres.

As “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” plays on the radio in the background and the ocean crests by the side of the road, Todd tells Andres, “I was so angry when I came down and they wouldn’t let me have you.”

Andres says nothing. But he smiles a few minutes later when Todd cracks a joke about the snatchback, saying: “I was going to tell you, ‘Come with me if you want to live.’”

Gus drives past dilapidated shacks with corrugated-iron roofs, huddles of thin brown cows, and fields of banana plants, their bunches of fruit cradled in bright-blue plastic bags. After an hour, we arrive at Sixaola, a town that shares a narrow river with Panama and lies in the shadow of a border crossing. Trucks idle on a graffiti-covered concrete overpass that runs through the town. Gus’s plan is to get Todd and his family to Panama without passing through an official border stop. Presenting them to immigration officials in Costa Rica at this point is too risky.

Gus frets about finding his contact, a Nicaraguan who owns a motorboat in Sixaola. Luckily, “the Nica,” as Gus calls him, is at his home—a rickety contraption consisting of sheets of iron on a wooden base. The Nicaraguan goes off to fetch the boat. While we wait, Gus reverses the van, rocking it back and forth on the edge of an embankment, which is littered with rotting banana peels and tin cans. Finally, he manages to squeeze the van next to a pigpen in the backyard of the man’s home.

Andres gets out of the van. He plays with a purple band on his wrist and fingers his faux-hawk until a blue boat pulls up to the embankment. He steps into the rocking boat. The engine sputters to life. Minutes later, the captain hops onto Panamanian soil and ties the boat to a banana plant. Todd, Andres, and Helen walk across a stretch of swamp and step into a black pickup with tinted windows that Gus has arranged to have waiting for them.

It’s time for the Little League play-offs between the Red Sox and the Bulls at the Ocala Rotary Sportsplex. Andres—HOPSON displayed on the back of his dark-blue shirt—stands on the first-base line next to his teammates, listening to “The Star-Spangled Banner” with his hat over his heart. The music stops, and Andres’s coach shouts, “All right, gentlemen, let’s go out there and throw some balls!” Soon, Andres is up at bat. He goes down in the count, two strikes against him. He stares through his mirrored sunglasses at the pitcher, a scrawny boy with a mean right arm, and swings at the next ball. The bat connects and he races to first, sliding in safe.

It’s as if Andres never left Ocala. He wakes up every day at 7:10 a.m., takes a shower, and has a bowl of Lucky Charms. Then Todd drives him to the Cornerstone School, a private school with banners along its halls promoting Mutual Respect and Appreciation—No Put Downs. Miss Candice, his third-grade teacher, says she has observed no ill effects from his absence. He does his assignments on time, and he is the Four Square star of the playground. Todd’s relationship with Helen broke down, however, not long after their return, and he asked her to move out.

Todd considered taking Andres to a psychologist, but he decided against it because the boy seemed fine. In response to my direct questions, Andres says that the Alvarados treated him well but that he doesn’t miss anything about Costa Rica. He didn’t play baseball in Siquirres. It’s “funner” in Ocala, where he plays baseball three times a week. He says he knew his dad would come for him. Andres doesn’t like to talk about Costa Rica. If anyone asks where he was, he told Todd upon his return, “I’m going to say it’s a long story.”

But as Jason Alvarado sees it, the story is simple. Helen Zapata and Todd Hopson kidnapped Andres. Andres, he says, had been adjusting well to Siquirres; he had even been president of his class. Jason says he doesn’t want to appear ungrateful to Hopson for raising Andres. Still, he believes Andres’s care should be a matter between him and the boy’s mother. “Now that his mother seems not to be able to take care of him, I don’t see why he has to stay” in the U.S., Jason says. “They have always known I’m the father. I have always been there for him emotionally and economically.” Todd, for his part, says that Jason never spent “one centavo” on Andres’s care; Jason counters that he sent money to Helen.

In theory, the U.S. State Department agrees with Jason’s view. “We cannot condone the violation of the law of another sovereign territory,” a State Department spokesperson says of private recovery attempts. Yet when Todd informed the State Department that he had, with Gus Zamora’s help, recovered Andres, the woman helping with his Hague application responded by e-mail, “We all breathed a collective sigh of relief on hearing that Andres and Helen are back home in Florida with you.” She went on to explain that Costa Rica had “a steep learning curve” about the convention, and said of Hopson’s application, “We frankly do not know how it might have worked in your case.”

Jason is giving them another chance to find out: in late May, he filed his own Hague application, requesting his son’s prompt return.

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