A Valley father is desperate to bring his son home to the United States after being separated from the boy since 2011.
Greg Hawkins, 27, has been fighting to reunite with his son, Santiago, 7, since Santiago's mother took to him to Mexico and never returned.
"It just felt like something was stuck in my throat. My heart was beating real fast," Hawkins told the ABC15 Investigators. "I was scared because I knew. I already knew what she had done."
Hawkins, an American citizen, and Santiago's mother, a Mexican citizen, once cared for their son together while they lived in Atlanta, Georgia. They were never married, and when the two separated, they agreed to an informal custody agreement.
"It would always be in the back of my mind that she would take him – like she would run away and take him to Mexico," said Hawkins.
In March 2011, when Santiago was five, she disappeared.
"The first thought that came in my head was that I would never see him again," Hawkins recalled. He told the ABC15 Investigators he contacted various law enforcement agencies to ask for help tracking down his son and bringing him home.
"It's like I didn't sleep for two weeks when he first left. It was non-stop – looking online trying to find him, trying to find private investigators in Mexico….It was just scary. [I was] scared that I would never see him again," Hawkins said.
Hawkins obtained a custody order in Georgia, granting him sole custody of the child, but according to the U.S. State Department, "a custody order in the United States can be meaningless abroad."
Hawkins eventually moved to Arizona and hired attorneys Charles Sears and Marina Applegate to help with his fight.
THE HAGUE CONVENTION
Hawkins and his attorneys turned to an international treaty, the Hague Convention , with hopes that it would help them recover Santiago quickly.
The international agreement, signed by more than 70 countries, is intended to "bring children back to their habitual residence" and have a "prompt return within six weeks," according to Benjamin Ousley Naseman, the State Department's Chief of Outgoing Abductions to the Mexico Branch.
Prior to being taken out of the country, Santiago had been living, habitually, in the United States for five years. For Hawkins, it seemed obvious where Santiago should be.
"He belongs home. He's an American kid. He belongs back here in America," Hawkins said.
For the past year, Santiago has been living in a Mexican facility (called DIF) that is similar to Child Protective Services in the United States. According to Applegate, he was taken to the facility to prevent Santiago's mother from running away with him again, while the mother and Hawkins argued their cases in court.
The Mexican consulate in Phoenix told ABC15 "the time children spend in DIF custody varies from case to case." It is a precautionary measure, Mexican officials said, to prevent further abductions.
Hawkins hoped his application under the Hague Convention would lead Mexican authorities to release Santiago quickly.
"The treaty has been working for years, and we've seen thousands of children returned," said Ousley Naseman, but there are often complicating factors.
NATIONAL CENTER FOR MISSING AND EXPLOITED CHILDREN
"It's a treaty with a lot of ambiguity," said Preston Findlay, Counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an organization that regularly works with the State Department to find missing children and bring them home. "It's a treaty that doesn't necessarily spell things out."
Findlay said the vague language leaves treaty signatories with a lot of room for interpretation, and many times, that can lead to significant delays, he said.
"The United States and Mexico are two prime examples of countries that take a long time to resolve cases," he said.
For many years, the State Department's Office of Children's Issues described Mexico as a country with a pattern of "noncompliance" in an annual compliance report submitted to Congress.
According to the most recent 2013 report , Mexico improved, but it is still listed as a country with "enforcement concern."
"We really worked hard with our Mexican counterparts, and they've reciprocated," said Ousley Naseman. "It's one of our most important bilateral relationships just because of the number of families that share ties across the border, and in many ways – because of the frequent contact that we have."
Their judges are becoming more aware of their Hague Convention obligations, he said. "It's continuing to get better."
According to the State Department's 2012 records , the United States documented at least 260 new abduction cases to Mexico involving 416 children. In reverse, there were 117 new abduction cases from Mexico into the United States involving 167 children.
Meanwhile, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is currently handling 1,318 active missing children cases involving children believed to have been taken outside the
United States by a parent or family member, according to Findlay.
Some of the cases overlap with the State Department.
Nearly 600 cases are believed to involve children that have been taken to Mexico, he said. Twenty-seven cases involve children believed to have been taken from the state of Arizona to Mexico.
"When we get a report of a child taken to Mexico, we're very aware…that it could be a significant uphill battle," said Findlay.
Findlay said frequent delays in Mexico's cases may be the result of various factors including difficulty locating a child in Mexico, and the ability of parents to file several appeals in a case.
He said the Hague Convention is not the only option for parents who are struggling to find their kids, and NCMEC works to educate parents on all of their options.
Federal law enforcement agencies may be able to help, too.
"There is no one method to return a child quickly from the country of Mexico. It often times takes a variety of strategies," he said.
"I would say the Hague Convention is the single best option that exists globally, and it's the only effort that has involved a large number of countries…but it does have significant flaws," he said.
Although the State Department says Mexico has improved its compliance with the Hague Convention, Hawkins can't help but wonder why it has taken so long for him to be reunited with his son.
Appeals have delayed Hawkins' fight many times.
He has been apart from his child for approximately two years.
His attorneys filed a complaint against the Mexican judge involved in the case and accused her of failing to make appropriate decisions according to the Hague Convention and failing to make a ruling in a timely manner.
While he can sometimes speak to his son on the phone, Hawkins hasn't hugged his child for months.
He's tired of waiting.
Mexico's government officials would not talk specifically about the delays in Hawkins' case, but a U.S. State Department official told the ABC15 Investigators the U.S. government has been in contact with Mexican authorities throughout the process of this case.
Representatives from the Mexican consulate in Phoenix told ABC15 the Hague Convention "works well."
"The Hague Convention is a multilateral treaty with no objective compliance standard. Every evaluation must take into account that enforcement depends on a wide variety of variables, including the right to file legal recourses within domestic courts whenever a return is ordered," according to a statement from the Mexican consulate in Phoenix.
"Sometimes it is not well understood that cases involve litigation. These are not simple decisions to be made by Central Authorities," it said.
"Cooperation with the U.S. is stronger than ever and, as a result, an increased number of children have returned to both countries. We remain committed to our established legal framework, which includes the Convention," the statement indicated.
The consulate also warned that cases should be looked at independently because many have differing circumstances.
"There are longstanding cases in both countries that affect the children involved and also their families. Mexico and the United States work together to bring resolution to each one of these cases," according to the consulate.
The Mexican government said the country handles a parent's Hague application first in a state court. However, there is an opportunity to appeal to the highest state court.
"At the same time, all individuals who consider that an authority has violated their constitutional rights have the right under Mexican law to file a recourse known as an amparo. This process is handled by federal courts," the consulate indicated.
In February, Hawkins and his family members threw a birthday party for Santiago.
They bought Spiderman decorations and a Spiderman cake for the little boy.
They even decorated a poster board with messages for Santiago.
"I wrote, 'Mijo, seven years ago, you changed my life forever,'" Hawkins said, reading the note he wrote to his son aloud. "You made me the happiest dad in the world. You are already such an amazing little man. I wish you only the best in life, and I can't wait to see all the great things life has in store for you. I love you more than you can ever imagine. Happy birthday. Love, Papa."
Hawkins said he saved a piece of cake for his little boy in his freezer, but he's not sure when Santiago will have a chance to taste it.
In April, Hawkins received word from his attorneys in Mexico that a judge was finally prepared to rule in his favor.
The night he received the call, he didn't sleep a wink. Instead, he stayed up late, booking his flight to Mexico City and making plans for what he would say to his little boy when he would finally be able to see Santiago.
The ABC15 Investigators documented Hawkins' trip.
During the three-hour flight to Mexico City, he didn't sleep.
He said he was nervous and
"My only concern," Hawkins said, "is that when I get there, they'll try to pull something and not let me actually see (Santiago) or take him – even though the final custody order has been issued."
Despite his concerns, Hawkins' remained optimistic.
ARRIVAL IN MEXICO
Hawkins flew into Mexico City, but his trip had only just begun when he arrived.
An attorney picked him at the airport in the afternoon, and they immediately headed on a four-hour journey to Acapulco, the city where Santiago had been living for the past year.
"(The highway)…is not as safe as it was the last time we were here, so we're trying to get through as fast as possible," Hawkins said during his ride.
Hawkins planned to reunite with Santiago the following morning.
His plan included reuniting with Santiago, driving back to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to obtain a passport for Santiago, and flying out of the country as soon as possible.
"Hopefully no one will change their mind this time and we'll be coming home. So, we'll see what happens," he said.
Hawkins planned to keep his trip a secret so no one would file an appeal and stop the process in court.
DO THEY REUNITE?
The following morning, Hawkins and his attorney tried to reunite with his son at the facility where Santiago had been staying.
Although they were supposed to reunite at 9 a.m., it didn't happen.
So they waited.
Hawkins said they waited for more than 2.5 hours before they finally received the paperwork they needed for Santiago's release.
By that point, Hawkins realized it would be impossible to return to Mexico City with Santiago to obtain a passport before the U.S. Embassy closed, so he started making alternate plans to fly to the border and walk across the border with Santiago and Santiago's birth certificate.
His plans, however, were never put to use.
The delays continued, and despite the judge's ruling, Hawkins was still prevented from seeing his son.
"They told us, ‘No, we want to keep him for a week or two to do some medical testing or studies'" to avoid a lawsuit, Hawkins said.
There were also other delays, according to Hawkins.
"It was a very aggravating day," said Hawkins. "The judge tried to have my attorney arrested. It's just a lot of stupid problems."
Although his attorney was never detained, Hawkins said the day was rough.
He never saw his son.
By Monday, Santiago still had not seen a doctor to clear him for medical release, and Hawkins learned an "amparo" had been filed in the case.
Hawkins and his attorneys have filed complaints against several people involved in the case.
The ABC15 Investigators asked DIF when Santiago would be released from custody, and a representative responded by saying the agency does not have judicial authority.
Hawkins returned home without ever seeing Santiago in Mexico.
A U.S. State Department official told the ABC15 Investigators representatives from the U.S. government are very involved in this case, and they are working to have an embassy official visit Santiago in the children's facility as soon as possible.
Hawkins said he's not giving up until his son comes home to the United States.
"I know that I'll just grab him and hold him and probably not let him go for a long time," said Hawkins.