SAN DIEGO -- At 9 a.m. on a recent Friday, Brian Duzet crossed the border from San Diego to Tijuana by foot. Blonde, with blue eyes, Duzet wears baggy jeans and flip-flops, even on a chilly Fall day. But he wasn't in Tijuana for fun, like many other Americans who come on foot. He had come to see his daughter, Sam.
Three years ago, Duzet and his Mexican girlfriend split up, with shared custody of Sam. But one morning, she picked the little girl up and disappeared. Hours passed. Duzet began to worry. He left multiple messages on his ex-girlfriend’s cell phone. By the next morning, he suspected the worst: Sam had been taken to Mexico, without her father's permission. She was abducted.
With the help of Mexican authorities, the FBI, and the U.S. Department of State, Duzet was able to locate his daughter. U.S. authorities pressed charges against his ex-girlfriend. He has spent more than $100,000 in travel, legal fees and other paperwork to try and get Sam back. Other parents without the means, he said, would have given up already.
“They walk away, and as hard as that might be, they wouldn’t see their kid until their child is old enough to seek them out," Duzet said. "That is the sad reality of the situation. You can’t put a price tag on the hidden costs as well.”
Hidden costs like anxiety, and depression, the father said, both of which can be common among so-called "left-behind parents."
“Someday I’m going to have to explain this all to her," said Duzet, standing outside his ex-girlfriend's Tijuana home, preparing himself to go in for his weekly court-mandated meeting with Sam.
"I don’t think now is appropriate. My daughter is smart enough to know there is something wrong," the father said. "Sometimes kids act more adult than adults do.”
An international child abduction occurs when one parent takes a child to a foreign country and keeps him or her there without the other parent’s permission. If that parent refuses to bring the child back, it’s considered a federal crime in the U.S.
Of all transnational crimes, child abductions can be among the most difficult to resolve. Among the issues are different types of judicial systems, lack of jurisdiction by law enforcement agencies, and things like the rights of a minor, or the legal definition of custody, all of which can vary from country to country.
Thirty years ago, there was hope that an international treaty, the Hague Abduction Convention, would alleviate the problem. It has not, even though it has been signed by the U.S., Mexico and 70 other countries.
In 2008, 300 American children were abducted into Mexico. In 2009 and 2010, that number grew to 500. In response, the state department has boosted its staff dealing with abduction cases from 18 to 65.
"I think there are obvious reasons for that," said Scott Renner, branch chief for outgoing abductions to Mexico and Canada for the state department. "Our very strong cultural and social and economic ties with Mexico, lots of cross-border relationships, lots of immigration back and forth, and a very long border.”
In the last three years, Mexican officials dealing with abductions have also made a greater effort to work alongside law enforcement and the U.S. government to return abducted children as promptly as possible.
The Mexican Consul in San Diego, Remedios Gomez Arnau, does not think it is fair for parents to blame Mexican authorities for unresolved abductions. From her perspective, the answers to abductions must come from the courts, not from diplomacy.
“There are already a very specific set of procedures in place to try to prevent abductions and reunite kids with their parents," Gomez Arnau said. "We help guide the parents through the Mexican court system, but our consulate does not intervene in this process.”
Trevor Richardson, another San Diego "left-behind parent," said he has reached out to the Mexican Consulate, the state department, and the FBI to no avail. His son was abducted four years ago, and he remembered thinking he would be able to get him back in a matter of months.
“I also remember thinking to myself that somehow I would be protected," Richardson said. "Protected by our laws, and our courts, and our law enforcement, our government, the FBI.”
Over the years, Richardson has met other desperate parents who took matters into their own hands, going as far as paying for a reverse abduction. But ultimately, he has come to believe his only option is to continue working within the proper channels.
“We have the laws right now, they are there, they just need to be enforced," said Richardson, holding on to a photo of Andrew, his son. "Maybe when it comes to dealing with immigration policy with Mexico, child abductions kind of fall through the cracks a little bit, because there is bigger fish to fry."
Richardson said he holds on to hope. But he cannot help but feel that in relation to other bi-national issues, his son’s abduction is at the bottom of a very long list.