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The Snatchback
October 16, 2009 1:58 PM   Subscribe

"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."
posted by andoatnp (53 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yeah....this story was interesting in a number of ways. It's rare for an avergae individual to run up against the place where the state ends, in the normal course of their lives....and while it seemed like there were several crimes here, they were crimes that took place between states, and once the players were ensconced within a state they were unreachable....Odd, that, tracing the places where the law ends. That letter from the State Dept. official at the end was something else....
posted by Diablevert at 2:16 PM on October 16, 2009


Am I the only one who just remembered the narrator in the opening credits of The A-Team?
posted by Joe Beese at 2:21 PM on October 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Am I the only one who just remembered the narrator in the opening credits of The A-Team?

I'm still pretty upset about discovering that, as an adult, very few problems are solved by welding something to a truck and driving it through a wall.
posted by mhoye at 2:23 PM on October 16, 2009 [35 favorites]


"In 2008 a crack commando unit member was sent to Costa Rica for an abduction he didn't approve of. This man promptly escaped from the nation's borders to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the Costa Rican government, he survives as a soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire.... Gus."
posted by crapmatic at 2:26 PM on October 16, 2009 [7 favorites]


So as far as we know he's only killed the one guy?
posted by Artw at 2:29 PM on October 16, 2009


Am I the only one who read an implicit assumption in this article that US laws morally trumped anyone else's and that US parents were somehow morally superior?
posted by MuffinMan at 2:35 PM on October 16, 2009 [8 favorites]


It struck me more as classist, MuffinMan. Todd has more resources than Jason.
posted by Monday at 2:37 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


That would be a broad summation of the American attitude to the entire rest of the world, yes.
posted by Artw at 2:37 PM on October 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


So as far as we know he's only killed the one guy?

It says the grandfather died 4 hours after the Gus left, after being yelled at by his daughter a bunch, from a heart attack.

I'm more interested in how long before the biological father hires Gus for the re-return trip.
posted by nomisxid at 2:38 PM on October 16, 2009


"Zamora claims to have returned 54 children to left-behind parents" - this makes me think of some weird parody of Left Behind, where an earth-bound sinner takes children back from the one parent who went to heaven. There'd be risky maneuvers to get into heaven, with wacky costume changes and baffled angels, and an emotional reunion with the sinful parent and the kids. The parent would swear to be a better parent, or maybe just hand the kids some ice cream to make everything better. And near the end of every episode, Kirk Cameron would be shown in cliché angel garb, shaking his fist from heaven. "Next time we'll get you, Gus, next time!"
posted by filthy light thief at 2:41 PM on October 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


MuffinMan: "Am I the only one who read an implicit assumption in this article that US laws morally trumped anyone else's and that US parents were somehow morally superior?"

This is the first time you've encountered that assumption?
posted by Joe Beese at 2:41 PM on October 16, 2009


This article struck me as being totally biased against people who kidnap children.
posted by mullingitover at 2:41 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd also not that the international legal system "failed to bring them back" because they never tried it.
posted by Artw at 2:41 PM on October 16, 2009


Heh, I live near this guy. I saw his license plate the other day driving home from work and thought "douche". He's probably a douche, too, but now I have respect for him.
posted by taumeson at 2:43 PM on October 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


This article struck me as being totally biased against Dog the Bounty Hunter.
posted by mannequito at 2:45 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have to wonder if some of these people were fleeing with their kids from an abusive spouse in the first place...
posted by yeloson at 2:48 PM on October 16, 2009


I'd like to stop here a moment and point out that the movie Domino is not nearly as awesome as it's trailer would suggest.
posted by Artw at 2:48 PM on October 16, 2009


I'd also not that the international legal system "failed to bring them back" because they never tried it.

Not the international system, but it does say the mother hired a lawyer and tried to get the child back through the Costa Rican courts. It doesn't, however, go into a lot of detail about that, other than to say she eventually gave up.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:48 PM on October 16, 2009


Am I the only one who read an implicit assumption in this article that US laws morally trumped anyone else's and that US parents were somehow morally superior?

Certainly one take-away is that it's a bad idea to reproduce with a furriner.
posted by GuyZero at 2:49 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


A team intro!
posted by wuwei at 2:55 PM on October 16, 2009


I'm also curious (as nomisxid said) about when or if we will see a double snatchback. Surely at some point a kid who has been taken by one parent will be retrieved in this manner, and then grabbed back by the original parent who absconded with him in the first place.
posted by andoatnp at 2:56 PM on October 16, 2009


it doesn't, however, go into a lot of detail about that, other than to say she eventually gave up.

It does point out that, prior to her attempts, when the Costa Rican court agreed with the US court, and awarded custody to the US father, they were unable to physically force the biological father to give up the child, I'd hazard to guess that even if the mother had won in court, she would have had no better luck at getting the child back without force of some sort.
posted by nomisxid at 3:00 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


As I read this, I couldn't help thinking about the conversations this reporter must have had with all the protagonists here, and about how awkward or moral-dilemma-inducing some of those conversations must've been.

I mean, the writer (Nadya Labi) is in the car when they snatch the kid, but she's also clearly talked to Jason (the kid's biological father, in Costa Rica). When did she interview him? Before they grabbed the kid? When she might have given the whole thing away or aroused suspicion or maybe even had the urge to just tell Jason, "look, they're going to try to get Andres back"? Or was it later, with Andres back in Florida, with a phone call that is probably going to end with Jason finding out that she was with the people who (from his point of view) kidnapped his son?

Yeesh. I mean, I'm guessing the latter (i.e. she interviewed Jason after the deed was done), but I wouldn't relish either possibility.
posted by chalkbored at 3:06 PM on October 16, 2009


I don't think the article sent the message that US parents are morally superior, no.

I'm sure Zamora's clients all assume they'd be the better parent — otherwise why hire him? And I wouldn't be surprised if that assumption stemmed for some of them from the sense that it's better to grow up in the US than anywhere else. But the author of the article seemed pretty even-handed about the whole thing.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:09 PM on October 16, 2009


I'm sure Zamora's clients all assume they'd be the better parent — otherwise why hire him? And I wouldn't be surprised if that assumption stemmed for some of them from the sense that it's better to grow up in the US than anywhere else.

I assume your assuming that a assumption is based on an assumption is a guess?
posted by Mblue at 3:16 PM on October 16, 2009


So as far as we know he's only killed the one guy?

It says the grandfather died 4 hours after the Gus left, after being yelled at by his daughter a bunch, from a heart attack.


Hmm, I believe Artw refers to Gus' previous career as a gun runner for the Contras with a little murder on the side.
posted by Skeptic at 3:30 PM on October 16, 2009


... And I guess the unstated corollary to my post above is that the prospect of the writer talking to Jason, to Andres, to Todd becomes particularly intriguing when you don't really know what she would have said, or whose side she would have been on. Which I don't.

Unlike most of you, apparently, I didn't really detect a really strong rah!-rah!-go-US-parents tone here; I thought the article was a pretty even-handed description of a difficult and morally ambiguous situation. I mean, yes, there's a kind of presumption that Todd is being at least somewhat reasonable in his assertion that the child is "his" -- but I think enough of an outline of the facts is provided here that you could draw your own conclusions. (Todd and Helen did apparently get "an injunction from a San Jose court ordering Jason to relinquish Andres" -- which he did not do -- which at least suggests that this whole thing is about more than just US people thinking US law trumps Costa Rican law.) Jason is identified pretty early on as the boy's biological father, and Labi includes (though admittedly not at great length) his assertions that he'd sent money to the boy's mother in the US and that this "snatchback" was nothing more than kidnapping by Todd/Helen/Gus. And I thought Labi's take on Gus was also pretty ambiguous -- I mean, on the one hand she includes the glowing quote from his old boss, about how Gus jumped at a case with "little money" but a child in "real danger," but she also includes the story about a grandfather in Germany who (one way or another) ended up dead at the end of one of Gus's extractions. So, complicated.
posted by chalkbored at 3:33 PM on October 16, 2009


(Mblue — are you mocking my writing style or trying to make a point? Sure, that was an awkward couple of sentences, but if you're going somewhere else you'll have to spell it out for me because I don't get it.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:36 PM on October 16, 2009


Yeah, I've known two different people who at least fantasized about running away and taking their kids to some other country to escape from abusive situations in which the courts weren't of much help. I don't think either ever went through with it (I lost touch, sadly), the scenario in this article is harrowing:

So, if they did escape, the abusive parent who was "left behind" could use extra-legal and quasi-military means to re-obtain the children just because they could afford to... well that doesn't make me feel too great.

He who has the money gets the accolades, I guess.
posted by rokusan at 3:44 PM on October 16, 2009


How the heck does this guy get by customs?

What's the conversation like at the airport?
"What's your profession?"
"I travel to foreign countries to abduct children. But I'm just sightseeing this time."
posted by bobo123 at 3:46 PM on October 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


“It breaks my heart,” [Todd] said to me. “I don’t have any control.”

This seems a very telling sentence.

And yes I would agree that the article was very much US-centric, not just legally but also culrturally. Not least the continual euphemisms as regards what the American parent is actually doing, i.e. kidnapping.
posted by biffa at 3:51 PM on October 16, 2009


@nebulawindphone

No mock. The article is mainly about Gus, not the clients. Your guessing clients motivations. I assume said clients are wealthy enough to sign a contract, the reason for the signature isn't clear.
posted by Mblue at 3:54 PM on October 16, 2009


Ah, okay, then I really was unclear. Sorry.

My point was just that I didn't hear any pro-American bias in the author's writing here, in constrast with Muffin Man.

(The bit about the clients' motivations was a side issue. I shoulda said: For all I know, the people described in the article have all sorts of AMERICA FUCK YEAH attitude. And for all I know, they don't. But either way, that wouldn't make the article itself a biased one, just an article about biased people.)

And so I guess I'm wondering where people are seeing that bias. Biffa gave a bit of an answer to that question, although I'm not totally convinced — after all, it seemed quite clear to me that what was going on was kidnapping, even without an explicit THIS IS BAD each time it came up, and I have trouble believing the author thought she could hide that fact from anyone. Hell, the first sentence of the article invokes the specter of "a man who abducts children for a living." Is that how you'd frame the story if you were trying to suggest that this was unproblematic?
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:19 PM on October 16, 2009


I felt the plane repo guy was cooler. :)
posted by jeffburdges at 4:20 PM on October 16, 2009


Assuming I'm agreeable with the unproblematic straw men, I'm guessing no.

Off ballooning with Dorothy for a show.
posted by Mblue at 4:35 PM on October 16, 2009


Hefty fee? Why, I myself fetched $30,000 on the black market. And that was in 1954 dollars.

I suppose one can't argue with success. But this guy's company is in a specialized niche mostly because of the Hague conventions (and the non-signers of the treaty on child abduction). The soldier thing, sounds like the journalist is playing that up... it's a different thing than force kidnappings, etc. like in Columbia where everyone's armed to the gills and sometimes you're better off negotiating.

In these cases, I doubt the other parent has access to those kinds of resources. Which makes me think perhaps that disparity gives greater license to use or threaten to use force. Not necessarily unsavory, but it's a means I'd be fairly uncomfortable with. My wife snatches our kids, heads off to Japan, that's not fair no, and it'd otherwise be a felony, but who's to say I'm the better parent just because I can hire some guy to go get them. If the roles were reversed, would I accept that?
That's the unacceptable part of this. That some countries allow force (not necessarily violence) and not the law to make the determination. And that's what's created this market and why this guy has a job.

..oh, but hey fuck the United States anyway, amirite? Why think about anything when you can just blame it on those fat, stupid, warmongering, U.S.ians.
Why go with the U.S. policy of resolving custody issues based on the best interest of the children without regard to either parent's nationality?
Upholding the treaty and returning a child to his lawful father by force if necessary to a country the U.S. has been antagonistic with for decades - wrong. Because... uh... the U.S. is always wrong.
Not returning over a hundred kids abducted by non-custodial parents, or indeed, any kid, ever, basically ok.

"Not least the continual euphemisms as regards what the American parent is actually doing, i.e. kidnapping."

Totally. Why should some guy be considered the father just because he raised the kid and the law recognizes him and the kid's mother as having custody? Why shouldn't Jason Alvarado just blow off an injunction from San Jose courts and not let the police in to enforce the order?
..oh, right, because it's exactly those kinds of flaws in the law and its enforcement that put Gus Zamora in this kind of business.

I think Hopson should have filed a Hague application. But again - looks like he got a ruling from San Jose, so why would he need it if Costa Rica's own legal system recognizes his right of custody? Because he's American?
I understand the resource disparity argument, how this looks, and how the snatchback business is inherently unfair, but goddamn recognize it for what it is and why it's there instead of instantly jerking your knee. (Judgments as to Zamora's douchebag status notwithstanding. Seems pretty self-obsessed to me too)
posted by Smedleyman at 4:38 PM on October 16, 2009 [7 favorites]


God, Smedleyman, I love that movie.

I hear that voice in my head at least once a week. Usually when I walk past the Huggies.
posted by rokusan at 4:53 PM on October 16, 2009


Zamora was profiled in the Hartford Courant a few years back. For a guy who claims to operate outside the law and with such stealth, he sure does a lot of self-promotion.

(Another 'child-recovery specialist' mentioned in the Courant article, Donald Feeney, was arrested and detained a few months ago in connection with the murder of another contractor inside Baghdad's Green Zone. He was let go after a week or so and the murder remains unsolved. But the point is: are these the kind of guys you want handling your child?)
posted by grounded at 4:56 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


So as far as we know he's only killed the one guy?

It says the grandfather died 4 hours after the Gus left, after being yelled at by his daughter a bunch, from a heart attack.

Hmm, I believe Artw refers to Gus' previous career as a gun runner for the Contras with a little murder on the side.


From the FA:

(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.”)

So it's John Hull, the guy Gus worked with, who is under indictment for murder, if I'm reading this right.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 5:42 PM on October 16, 2009


Actually, Helen and Todd did the kidnapping. Not Gus. Pretty sweet way to collect a fee.
posted by Monday at 5:51 PM on October 16, 2009


"a little murder" presumably refers to La Penca terrorist attack, in which a bomb killed 3 journalists and seriously injured more than 25
posted by papalotl at 6:28 PM on October 16, 2009


That some countries allow force (not necessarily violence) and not the law to make the determination. And that's what's created this market and why this guy has a job.

I dunno if it's so much "what the countries allow;" after they snatched the kid the cops got called and came running, and presumably if the party had been caught before the border, everybody, including the reporter, would have got thrown in jail. Once you're out of the country, that's when things get sticky. Because then you're talking about diplmats and trying to get a writ of extradition and all that --- basically, a situation where no one has to do anything, because there is no real law here.


But the point is: are these the kind of guys you want handling your child?

Well, I might prefer Sherri Lewis and Lambchop, but aside from being dead I don't think they ever graduated from Ranger school. The parents in this situation have already decided to break international law, kidnap a kid and smuggle him or her across several borders. They're way past "and so, do you have any kind of certification in early childhood education"? They went over to the dark side miles back, and are in no position to complain about the peccadilloes of the guides they find there.
posted by Diablevert at 6:31 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


As smedleyman linked, this kind of stuff terrifies me, and most of my friends. I have a friend who's in a shitty, shitty marriage, with a wife that is not exactly in touch with reality. They have a kid, however, and he loves his son. If there were to be a divorce, well, with the guy being a foreigner, and the wife being Japanese, he'd likely never see his son again. So he's decided to put up with everything, every unbelievable demand, every insane act, just so he can be with his son.

In Japan, at least, these aren't rare cases. Japan hasn't signed the treaty, and shows no interest in doing so. As long as a parent can get their child back to Japan, the foreign parent will never see them again. However, if, say, my friend tried to take their kid to Canada, or I tried to take a hypothetical child to the States against Japanese court orders, I'd be arrested at the airport for kidnapping.

International marriages can work, and frequently do, but when things fall apart, it's very, very ugly.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:44 PM on October 16, 2009


“I dunno if it's so much "what the countries allow;"… basically, a situation where no one has to do anything, because there is no real law here.”
Yeah, poorly worded on my part. It’s an abdication on part of many countries not enforcing the law or not signing the treaty. And it’s that abdication, the fact that there is no law, that gives rise to this sort of thing.
And whatever country to blame for whatever acts aside – there’s no way this kind of business should operate. I still have a lot of contacts and we could turn San Jose into a burning wasteland or slip in and out undetected, but unless my child was in danger, I’d find it very hard to justify employing someone like this. Or even doing it myself. But that’s me speaking from a rational state of mind. Not in anyone else’s situation.
But again – s’why we have laws. People can freak out. And it’s unconscionable to simply neglect the issue. Especially when 95% of this is clerical (ok, pulled ‘95%’ out of my ass – but a vast majority).
Most cases whoever the parent is has a job, a home, relatives, it’s not like hunting a fugitive or running down a kidnapping ring. It’s not an intensive operation for a law enforcement agency.
But no, you get these guys making a quick buck off people who have lost their minds because it’s their kids, and you endanger people needlessly, freak the kids out, risk jail, all that. I used to be a hard MFer but even back then I wouldn’t have been ok with my kid watching me and my wife get blown away or hauled off to some 3rd world jail the rest of our lives and they’re powerless to do anything.
I’m not saying I love my kids anymore or less than this guy or anyone else. I just have the advantage of perspective. And I while it’s ok if I risk my life, I don’t think it’s ok to risk traumatizing a kid like that or having them wind up in a dangerous situation - no matter how competent the extractors are. Not even if the ball is in my hands. Kidnapping, some stranger has them – different story, I’d burn the world if I had to or sell everything I had to make the ransom. Something like this, different story. It might take years, yes. But this is not the message I want a kid growing up with.

I mean, some ex-Tokushu Sakusan Gun slip into San Francisco, snatch some kids, hotfoot it back to Japan, folks would be pretty pissed and rightly so. The argument has to be settled by something other than might.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:38 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


What if the cops show up? Would Gus ask for an additional deposit before loading his uzi and dispatching the local constables?
posted by dr_dank at 8:12 PM on October 16, 2009


Random experience: A few years back there was a big deal case where a mother abducted her daughter from the father, claiming abuse, and took the daughter abroad, and the maternal grandmother was refusing to tell where he was. Like most who read the articles, I judged the mother harshly . . . until I realized that I knew the grandmother well personally, and knew what a good person she was and how much she cared about her daughter and grandchild. And then I was just confused.
posted by Peach at 8:42 PM on October 16, 2009


"What if the cops show up?" I think at that point Gus does some pretty fast talking, or has some fix in with the locals. After all, he made Todd and Helen do the actual snatching. Mostly the guns and the swagger are for show, to help sell his services and justify his fee.
posted by coldhotel at 8:44 PM on October 16, 2009


I guess Mr. Zamora's main job is keeping people organized and planning the escape, so he's clearly guilty of conspiracy. Otoh, how can they convict him if they can't convict the kidnapping parent? I suspect he enjoys the travel, planning escapes, giving orders, and the adrenaline, but he seems smart enough to avoid violence, so he's smarter than Xe/Blackwater guys.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:13 AM on October 17, 2009


I wonder how the Hague convention would handle a double snatch like this?
posted by atrazine at 3:58 AM on October 17, 2009


The novelist R.M. Koster wrote about one of Zamora's competitors in his book, Glass Mountain. (http://www.amazon.com/Glass-Mountain-R-M-Koster/dp/039302007X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1255791030&sr=8-1).

I recommend it if anyone is further interested in the subject. It's interesting how Nadya Labi (author of the Atlantic article) writes about Mexico as if it were a haven country, when Mexico itself pursues claims of Mexican children taken away from parents (or grandparents). In the waning days of the presidency of Vicente Fox, there was one such case between Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
posted by tesseract420 at 7:53 AM on October 17, 2009


One other thing: why did the State of Florida fail to recognize the biological father's rights? My guess is that he was not represented in Florida, and unless he has substantial economic means he could not obtain representation in Florida. There's no right to free counsel in family law cases. Florida lawyers would charge in the area of $5000 just to start a case like this, and good luck trying to find a pro bono attorney from Costa Rica. This is a case of a (not even adoptive) father kidnapping a child in derogation of the biological father's due process rights. Other than the word of the adoptive father, there's nothing to suggest that the biological father was not in the processing of establishing a relationship with his son. The case is the reverse of the Elian Gonzalez case, and in that case the Florida courts held that the child should be with his biological father, who, had representation and a fair chance to argue his position before the courts.
posted by tesseract420 at 8:00 AM on October 17, 2009


Snatch it back, and hold it.
posted by box at 8:17 PM on October 17, 2009


tesseract420: I understand your point, but in a situation where one parent has removed the child to a foreign country without any sort of custody order or even notice to the other biological parent or to other guardians, there's a presumption that the absconding parent is acting unreasonably. If the parent took the kid to flee from an abusive home or a similar situation, it may well be justified, but the idea here is that some court has to be responsible for sorting out these kinds of disputes, and all things being equal, it's a lot more fair for everybody if that court is located wherever the child originally lived, rather than halfway around the world.

If the biological father wanted to take custody of his son and move to Costa Rica, he needed to request permission to do so from the relevant court in Florida and seek an amendment of the custody order. By literally fleeing the country with his boy, he is violating a court order and is acting quite unfairly to the other parents in the child's life, not to mention the child himself. As a result, the law is that the child should be returned to his home country so that due process can be handled there. Once the child is back in Florida, a court could well rule that the bio. father should receive custody, but it's absurd to say that the dad should be allowed to whisk the kid off to Costa Rica and then ask permission for his actions. The only exception, of course, is the threat of imminent harm from an abusive situation, and the Hague Convention has safeguards for precisely this case.

To put it simply: there was a custody order, issued by a judge. Bio. father violated said order and fled the country with his son. At that point, the only due process he is entitled to is the right and responsibility to haul his ass before that judge back in Florida, with the boy present, and request an amended custody order. How is this substantially different from a criminal who jumped bail and fled the country?
posted by zachlipton at 10:59 PM on October 17, 2009


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