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.
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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.

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.

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.

“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.

Nadya Labi is a writer in New York City.
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