Who needs family court when you've got Rambo?

The Atlantic investigates parents who resolve custody disputes by kidnapping their own children

Published November 6, 2009 2:07PM (EST)

In this month’s Atlantic magazine, investigative reporter Nadya Labi rides along with a man who kidnaps children for a living. Gus Zamora specializes in the “snatchback” – recovering children who have been spirited away to a foreign country by one parent (the “taking parent”) against the wishes of the other parent (the “left-behind parent”). He asks his clients three questions: “Do they have custodial rights? Do they have an idea where their kids are? And can they afford his fee?”

It’s not cheap. The left-behind parent she chooses to follow, Todd Hopson, a Florida lawyer, pays $25,000 for Zamora to retrieve his nine-year-old son, Andres, from Costa Rica. (And that rate is the recession special!) The ethical issues of responding to an alleged kidnapping with another kidnapping are murky enough. But in her reporting, Labi adds yet another layer of complexity:

Hopson is not Andres’ biological father; Jason Alvarado, a Costa Rican dentist, is. And it’s Alvarado who is the target of the snatchback.

Labi’s piece (and please read it) has all the elements of an international thriller. There’s no question that by the time parents are engaged in abductions and counter-abductions, both have probably lost sight of the best interests of the child. But in choosing to profile a non-biological custodial father, she also raises additional questions about how we define the people who matter most in a child’s life: When two parties disagree, who counts more? The person who sired a child or the person who raised him?

All parties seem to agree that Todd Hopson acted as Andres’ parent, perhaps even his primary parent. His mother, Helen Zapata, spent two years with his father, Alvarado, in their native Costa Rica. By the time she became pregnant, at 19, the two had broken up. (Zapata claims Alvarado asked her to have an abortion; he denies it). She met Hopson while she was pregnant and was living with him in Florida by the time Andres was born. Hopson was the first to hold Andres in the hospital, cared for him by himself during his first week of life, and paid his mother’s $25,000 hospital bill. Alvarado took a blood test and acknowledged paternity, but didn’t pursue custody, preferring to leave the child with his mother. His mother, unfortunately, later developed a drug habit, leaving the bulk of the child-care to Hopson. “I’ve been 100 percent the father, and, over the last year, maybe 80 percent of the mother,” Hopson tells Labi. Zapata adds, “Andres trusts Todd more than he trusts me.”

In June 2008, Zapata went to Costa Rica to kick her cocaine habit. She asked Alvarado to take their son for a few days while she was in rehab, though she admits she “lied to him” and said she was job-hunting instead. When Alvarado learned about her drug use, he decided to keep Andres, and won custody from a court in Costa Rica. He called Hopson to thank him for caring for his kid for nine years. Naturally, Hopson flipped out. “If you’re going to be the father, you don’t let someone else carry the freight,” he tells Labi.

Shortly thereafter, believing he had exhausted his legal remedies, Hopson gets on a plane to Costa Rica, accompanied by Gus Zamora, his kidnapper-for-hire. They snatch the kid at the bus stop, careen through the streets of Costa Rica in a high-speed chase and make it back to Florida, where Andres goes back to private school and Little League. Mission accomplished.

One can muster a certain amount of sympathy for a parent who has the very reasonable fear to believe that he will never see his son again. In the particular case Labi writes about (she cites many others in her full piece), one can certainly understand why both men would figure Andres would be better off with living with them than with their mother (Zapata collaborated with both, in a way; she first dropped off Andres with Alvarado, then became Hopson’s accomplice in the snatchback). But what kid wants to be snatched from a bus stop? How likely is it that all the parents who claim to love this child will be able to sit across from each other and engage in civilized discussion when family disputes are being mediated by Rambo? From a purely pragmatic standpoint, kidnapping your own kid may actually be an effective solution, if the problem is being forced to share that child with others who love him (only about 51 percent of left-behind parents get their kids back by filing an application under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction). And if someone else has kidnapped your kid, hiring a private goon to get him back might work pretty well, too. While a spokesperson for the U.S. state department told Labi that the department frowns upon such things, the woman handling Hopson’s Hague application expressed relief at Andres’ return and told Hopson she wasn’t sure he would have got his son back by legal means. But once parents start treating their children as the spoils of war, you know for damn sure there will be some pretty hefty casualties.





By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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