Rebecca Montalvo pushed through the busy aisles at Toys ‘R’ Us in Brownsville. It was the start of the Christmas season in 2008. She was searching for the perfect gift for her 5-year-old son Fabricio, who loved everything Spiderman.
Fabby had insisted on wearing his Spiderman costume that morning when she left him with his dad across the border in Matamoros, Mexico. Her ex-husband, Fabricio Renzie Espino, had only seen his son twice. Espino, a Mexican national, had just been released from a U.S. federal prison after nearly five years and deported to Mexico. In the months since his release, Espino persuaded Montalvo to let him spend the afternoon with Fabby.
Montalvo bought her son a Spiderman bike and a new costume and crossed the international bridge to Matamoros.
She arrived at the park where she and Espino had agreed to meet.
An hour passed.
“They must be caught up in traffic,” she thought.
Another hour passed.
She went to the motel where her ex-husband was staying. An employee said he and Fabby had left hours ago.
Horrified, Montalvo dialed Espino’s cell phone again and again.
Two weeks later, he returned her call.
“He told me, ‘You’re going to pay for everything you did to me, and you’re never going to see our son again,’” Montalvo says.
Nearly four years later, Montalvo has yet to recover her son.
Like Fabby, a third of the children in the United States abducted by a parent end up in Mexico. Texas ranks second in the nation after California in the number of international parental child abductions. Between 1990 and 2011, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recorded 494 abduction cases in Texas; in 307 of those cases, the children were taken to Mexico.
Last year, 941 new international parental kidnapping cases were reported to the Office of Children’s Issues at the U.S. State Department, which tracks abductions and helps inform parents about how to retrieve their children.
These international abduction cases have become more common in recent years. There were 43 percent more cases in 2009 than in 2007, though the numbers have dropped slightly since then. Mexico has remained the destination country in about one-third of all cases. But these numbers only offer a snapshot of the problem—experts say many cases go unreported to both agencies.
Although there are international legal means to address abductions, there’s still not a timely or foolproof solution for the “left-behind” parents, as U.S. government officials call them, to retrieve their children. Most parents don’t know where to seek help, and many law enforcement agencies don’t know how to—or choose not to—help them.
Monica Sanchez, who lives in San Marcos, bounced between law enforcement agencies for days after her ex-boyfriend, Armando Muñoz Garcia, abducted their 2-year-old daughter Sarahi in January 2012. Sanchez reported the kidnapping to the San Marcos Police Department, but officers told her they needed proof of legal custody in order to help her. The Guadalupe County Sheriff’s Office said the same thing.
Sanchez had filed for custody of her daughter, but the court hadn’t ruled in the case. Under the law, once a parent files for custody neither parent can take a child out of the country until the matter is settled. Sanchez didn’t know this.
The federal government requires law enforcement agencies to immediately report missing children under the age of 18 to the National Crime Information Center, whether the parent filing the report has a custody order or not. And Texas recently approved a law that makes international abductions a felony. Yet most law enforcement officers refuse to file missing persons reports without a custody order, which requires an attorney and takes time and money to acquire. In the meantime, a parent can slip out of the country with his child before officers can stop him.
“For a lot of parents, that’s the end,” says Pamela Brown, director of the Bi-National Project on Domestic Violence at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “That’s when many people resort to self-help, which can be dangerous because the parent can be arrested in the foreign country.”
Brown is team manager for domestic violence and family law at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a non-profit organization that provides free legal advice and representation to low-income residents in southwest Texas. Together with Mariano Nuñez, a Mexican attorney who specializes in family law, Brown handles roughly 12 international parental kidnapping cases a year and has helped recover more than 50 children since 2001.
She also runs training programs for law enforcement, social workers and lawyers across the state to prepare them for the day when a left-behind parent knocks on their door.
“Even as I’m training [police officers], they start arguing with me, saying the child is with the other parent, so they’re not missing,” says Brown. “None of the police departments puts resources into this, just as they didn’t want to interfere with the [families] when women started to report abuse and family violence in the ’70s. There’s an ingrained notion that these are cases they don’t get involved in because they’re rife with emotions and minefields.”
Sanchez caught a break a few days later when she met retired police officer Judy Thomas, now victim assistance coordinator for the Caldwell County district attorney, who referred her to Sgt. Mike Wellman of the San Marcos Police Department. After establishing that she had parental rights, Wellman referred Sanchez to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Wellman says parents are often turned away because police departments are overwhelmed with custody complaints from angry parents. “That really affects how officers look at some of the initial reports,” Wellman says.
Complicating matters, many of the parents of abducted children from Texas are undocumented and fear contacting police and government officials. These parents think they have nowhere to turn because of their immigration status—an assumption that often puts the child and parent at greater risk.
“They believe they have no power and that if they report something they’re going to be deported,” Thomas says. “That’s what the [other parent] wants them to believe.” Sanchez, who is undocumented, says Garcia, her daughter’s father, beat her while they were together and made her believe if she went to the police she would be deported. When Garcia, who is a legal resident, was arrested and jailed for an unrelated offense, Sanchez fled to a women’s shelter for help.
When he was released nine months later, Sanchez refused to let him see their daughter. Garcia threatened to report her and the friend she was staying with to immigration officers. Sanchez let him see Sarahi once a week to protect herself and her friend from deportation. When he didn’t come back with their daughter, she feared she’d be deported for reporting the kidnapping to the police.
“He used to tell me not to even bother going to the police because they wouldn’t help me since I didn’t have any papers,” Sanchez says in Spanish. “We prayed before going inside [the station], we went inside in the name of Jesus, and nothing happened, thank God.”
Authorities eventually discovered Garcia and Sarahi in a remote area in Mexico.
After returning from Matamoros, Rebecca Montalvo immediately went to the Harlingen Police Department. Officers told her they had to wait 24 hours to file a missing persons report. She called back first thing the next morning. An officer came to her house to take a report, but after hearing the story told her there was nothing police could do.
Montalvo took matters into her own hands, calling a local TV station in the hopes of bringing media attention to the case. She thought the exposure might help her recover Fabby; someone could spot him on the street and alert authorities.
The leads on Fabby and his father’s whereabouts never came. Montalvo thought the news story, the interview in her home, had been useless. Then the call came.
Pamela Brown had seen the news report and wanted to help Montalvo file an application with the Office of Children’s Issues at the State Department.
Under the Hague Abduction Convention, an international treaty concluded in 1980, parents can petition for the return of their children through the civil courts. Mexico and the United States have signed the treaty and each has a government office specifically to deal with these cases. In the United States, the Office of Children’s Issues fills this role. Case managers help parents approach the court in the country their child was taken to; the judge in that court will determine in which country the custody hearing will be held.
Sanchez is also pursuing her case through the Hague Abduction Convention.
Only a handful of lawyers do this sort of work. In most countries, family law judges aren’t accustomed to hearing international kidnapping cases and must be briefed on the relevant laws of both countries involved. This requires a lawyer who is well versed in both countries’ laws or a team of lawyers, one from each country. Few parents have the resources to find and pay attorneys who work these cases.
Nuñez says he’s one of the few lawyers who handles international parental kidnapping cases in Mexico, and that he and Brown are the only two attorneys in the state working on these cases full time. RioGrande’s project of helping low-income residents with international abduction cases is also unique, he says.
On May 29, a Mexican judge decided that Sarahi should be returned to the United States for a custody hearing, but Garcia has appealed the decision. Nuñez is traveling to Mexico next week to meet with the judge.
Sanchez, who is now eight months pregnant, is much closer to reunification than she was six months ago. In Montalvo’s case, her ex-husband’s criminal past complicates reunification. Espino was arrested in 2004 for human smuggling and sentenced to 51 months in federal prison. Montalvo says her ex-husband may be involved with a drug cartel or gang.
In Mexico, few things escape the reaches of the drug war—and parental abduction is no exception.
“In certain places you have to weigh whether you risk your life to go get the child,” Nuñez says. “Sometimes authorities themselves can’t get in because the places are occupied by organized crime and police don’t even want to go in.”
Brown has gotten calls from judges in Mexico admitting they should rule in favor of her clients, but don’t because they aren’t sure what the other parent is “involved in.” They advise her to appeal the decision. If the appellate court rules in favor of her clients, the lower court judges escape responsibility—and potentially violent ramifications—for the decision.
After Montalvo filed a Hague application, a Mexican judge was set to hear her case. If a parent is likely to flee again, the child can sometimes be picked up before the abducting parent is notified of a custody hearing.
Brown requested this measure, and child services representatives in Mexico and law enforcement officials went to Fabby’s elementary school to pick him up. Montalvo says a teacher or administrator from the school called Espino. Minutes later, he showed up with two other armed men. He threatened to start shooting the children if the officials didn’t release his son immediately.
They had no choice but to surrender Fabby to his father. That was two years ago.
Montalvo could pursue criminal charges against Espino, but experts say most abduction cases are resolved in civil rather than criminal court. In criminal cases, arresting the taking parent becomes the object, rather than recovering the child. Furthermore, foreign governments can be reluctant to extradite one of their own, or to return a child to another country.
Before pursuing his return through the Hague Convention, Montalvo went to Espino’s home in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, to get her son. She says Espino beat her, then tried to convince her to stay. He grabbed her by the neck and pushed her face down toward the table, attempting to force her to sign away her parental rights and make Fabby a Mexican citizen.
She later tried to escape with her son. “I didn’t get past a block when he had a bottle in his hand and knocked me unconscious, still holding my son’s hand,” Montalvo says. “My son was saying, in perfect Spanish now, ‘Mom, don’t leave me here. Please buy me my [bus] ticket, I want to go back to Texas!’ I cried the whole way home, but the bus driver kept telling me to calm down.”
Since Montalvo’s trip to Mexico, Espino doesn’t let her talk to Fabby often and calls infrequently. Montalvo is afraid if she tries to contact him he might change his number, so she waits anxiously for a call, only breaking the unspoken rule on birthdays and special occasions.
The last time she heard her son’s voice was the first week of April. They talked for a minute or two before his father grabbed the phone, so Fabby, now 8 years old, wouldn’t reveal their whereabouts.
“The last time I took lots of pictures of him because I didn’t know if it would be the last time,” Montalvo says. “I have one in my mirror that I see every morning. Every day when I wake up I say a prayer. That’s what I live off of.”