Witness to an Abduction

Nadya Labi, author of the November 2009 story “Snatchback,” explains how she ended up following a trained kidnapper around the globe

It was a conversation with my sister that first piqued my interest in the “Snatchback” story. She told me about an English judge she knew who specialized in the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction. My sister thought I’d be intrigued by the international treaty because in the past, I’d profiled a man who takes kids against their will—but at the behest of their parents—to reform schools in the U.S. and abroad.

Early on, I spoke with a man named Walter Benda, a father who told me he’d co-founded the Children’s Rights Council of Japan after his Japanese wife of 13 1/2 years disappeared with their two young daughters. During our conversation, Benda mentioned another father who had tried to recover his kids—and failed. That father, Benda said, had turned to a man who specializes in child recoveries: Gus Zamora. “Zamora used to brag that he has a 90 percent success rate,” Benda told me.

I suspected right away that Gus might be a character worth investigating. When I first spoke to him in July 2007, he was in Germany doing “recon” to help a mother and two girls escape Turkey. The next time we talked, Gus was in Turkey preparing to grab the girls; by our third conversation, he was with the mother, grandmother, and girls in a different country.

I asked Gus whether I could accompany him on a job, and he agreed. A ride-along was ethically fraught—I would be witnessing an act that could be against the laws of the country where the child was being held. Still, I felt there would be journalistic value in observing one of the missions Gus called “snatchbacks.” And at a deeper level, I wasn’t sure what I thought about Gus’s work. If I were a parent and my child had been taken from me, wouldn’t I feel justified in seeking out someone like Gus?

In November of 2007, Gus called to tell me that a California businessman, Hal Berger, had hired him. Hal’s four-year-old son, Liam had disappeared, and he suspected the boy had been abducted to South Africa by his estranged wife, Linda—for the second time in three years. After the first abduction, Hal had won a Hague application, ordering Liam’s return to the United States. Gus invited me to jump on a plane and meet him in Johannesburg.

When I arrived in South Africa, a newspaper confirmed Hal’s hunch: Linda had turned up at a court in Pretoria. She claimed that Hal had made death threats against her. In addition to Gus, Hal had hired an investigator in Johannesburg who said that she and Liam traveled everywhere with armed bodyguards. On Hal’s previous trip to South Africa, he’d been jailed on what he said were trumped-up charges, so he was afraid to enter the country again. He flew to Windhoek, Namibia, to be nearby.

Gus and I made two trips to southern Africa. On the second trip, Hal was indeed arrested and jailed when he drove from Namibia into South Africa. I started to take more seriously Gus’s insistence that I get a bulletproof vest in case a snatchback was required. I was relieved that the situation was resolved peacefully when the South African courts ruled in Hal’s favor during one of his court-ordered visits with Liam.

But I had yet to witness a snatchback, and Gus’s business ebbed in 2008. I kept in close touch with him as he talked through possibilities in India, Spain, and Brazil that didn’t pan out. In September, however, Gus started talking about a case in Costa Rica involving a lawyer in Florida—Todd Hopson—who wanted to recover the boy he’d raised, Andres, from Andres’s biological father. Gus was headed to San Jose to do reconnaissance and meet Andres’s mother, Helen Zapata. When next we spoke, he was furious, blaming Helen for backing out on their plan—even though he hadn’t initially intended to snatch the boy during the trip.

Gus didn’t waste much breath grumbling about Costa Rica, however. Business seemed to be picking up, and he was eager to update me on some possible jobs in Tunisia and India—“My Indian clients are always business, business, business and ready, ready, ready.” By January of 2009, however, Costa Rica was back on the agenda. Gus was also planning to travel to Japan to help an American father recover his 10-year-old daughter. I spoke to Todd, the client involved in the Costa Rican case, and debated which trip to take. From my conversations with Gus, I suspected that the girl he’d been hired to recover in Japan might balk; sure enough, Gus later told me she’d “screamed bloody murder.”

Gus called in late February and invited me to meet him with his son and Todd in San Jose. On the evening of my arrival, I met Helen. She hadn’t known that I would be coming but she agreed to talk to me, inviting me to spend the night at her place. The assignment seemed straightforward at first: Gus planned to take the boy, Andres, during a Friday visitation in Siquirres. When Helen couldn’t get away with the boy, however, things began to fall apart. We returned to San Jose, and Helen began acting erratic and paranoid, saying that she’d changed her mind about participating in the snatchback. Gus and Helen were at each other’s throats, doing little to hide their dislike of one another.

But the hardest part of the assignment was not the snatchback in Costa Rica, or the escape to Panama. It was phoning Andres’s biological father, Jason Alvarado, once I returned to the United States. It was difficult to make that call, knowing that he would be feeling as bereft as Todd had when Andres was in Siquirres. But I’d known from the beginning that I wanted to include Jason’s perspective, and I felt that talking with him would serve his interests as well as the interests of the story. I hope he feels the piece gives him a fair shake.