The Continuing Search for Rebeca
by Martin Boyle
I flew to Brazil on 15th February this year  for the long-awaited hearing over the reversal of the fraudulent adoption of my daughter, Rebeca, who was kidnapped 16 years ago by her mother. I and my Brazilian lawyer, Alexandre, had been building up to this since I was arrested and imprisoned on trumped up child support charges in Brazil in July 2008, when I went there in a desperate attempt to locate my daughter after years of non-cooperation from her mother.
I had also hoped that by campaigning relentlessly on the Internet through social networking sites and sites for left-behind parents and by trying to lobby parliamentarians and others, as well as by pleading with my ex-wife’s family, I could effect some kind of change of heart and reach a settlement that would allow me to see and develop a relationship with the daughter I had not seen for 16 years. All of this campaigning created a lot of publicity for my case, but it did nothing to soften my ex-wife’s stance or persuade the Brazilian and UK authorities to do the right thing.
Government Support Amounts to Nothing
My most recent attempt to garner support through the European Parliament was unsuccessful – a sad sign of how seriously our government and politicians truly take the issue of international child abduction. On one occasion in Strasbourg, the image-conscious MEP, Michéle Striffler, who had previously corresponded with me about child abduction in Brazil, waved me imperiously out of her office with barely-concealed contempt and told one of her minions to deal with me. I did not put this down to her being French. My local MP, Julian Brazier, had done the same thing when I visited his office in Kent in 2009, only he didn’t have a lackey to deal with me. The dismissive impatience and unconcealed irritation was the same, but instead of a waft of Dior and haute-couture leather, I caught the heady odour of cow manure and grass from his green corduroys and wellies – the mark of a true gentleman farmer who had far more important things to worry about than a case of child abduction in a far-away country of which he knew little.
The jovial Keith Taylor, a UK Green Party MEP, did offer support and sympathy, as did Ana Maria Gomes, of the Portuguese Socialists, but I really needed some big guns. I had seen the hero of the 1968 Paris student barricades, Danny ‘the Red’ Cohn-Bendit, talking in the parliamentary chamber earlier on but he seemed to have taken up the cause of the North-Atlantic horse mackerel, so I guessed that he’d be a non-starter. More blind alleys included the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Prime Minister’s petitions page, the Brazilian Central Authority and so on.
Maintaining My Focus on Rebeca & The Brazilian Court
I had worked on this every day since I last left Brazil in 2008, had spent a small fortune that could have gone into Rebeca’s bank account and had generated thousands upon thousands of pages of emails and documents.
But I still had not even spoken to or located my ex-wife or daughter.
All the time, and in parallel, Alexandre had beaten a determined path through the Brazilian judicial system. Finally, my day in court was going to come and my ex and her co-abductor were going to be hauled before me and a judge to answer for what they had done.
Alexandre had assured me that there would be no problems when I arrived at the airport since I had given the release papers to the girl at passport control on the way out of Brazil in 2008. On arrival at São Paulo international airport, though, I was immediately detained and taken to the Federal Police station. My name was still on the national police computer, despite their having told me when I left in 2008 that it would be taken off.
Luckily, Alexandre was at the airport to meet me and went up to the police station to explain the situation. He found me sitting in exactly the same seat I had sat in three years before with my guts churning and the same delegado and police officers there. I was even charging my mobile phone in exactly the same socket so that I could send a round robin text out – ‘arrested in Brazil – tell the press – don’t pay a penny!’
If he had not been there, I was in no doubt that my experience would have been exactly the same as last time – prison. The delegado shook my hand, and Alexandre and I left the airport and drove into São Paulo, where he dropped me at the house of my friends, Ana Luiza and Francisco, who had kindly offered to put me up while I was there. They, along with another couple of friends, knew the story well and had agreed to be my witnesses at the hearing that was scheduled for 22nd February.
I spent the days leading up to the hearing discussing the case with Alexandre and contacting friends and gathering information. Alexandre suggested that, in order to avoid any more problems with the Federal Police, he should put in an official request to have my name removed from the police computer. In addition, he told me that my ex-wife, Mara Silvia Oliveira Rezende, and Rebeca’s stepfather, José Augusto Dos Santos Sá, a technician with Petrobras in São José dos Campos, had been regularly attempting to renew the spurious claim for child support against me that had landed me in prison in the first place and that, in order for him to follow this for the next year, I should need to pay the equivalent of £1000GBP.
In the meantime, he gave me a letter explaining the situation to present to the police in case I was stopped at any time. As far as the court hearing was concerned, Alexandre had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that Mara, José Augusto and Rebeca would actually be in court. He had inserted a clause in the papers saying that if they did not turn up, the case would automatically go against them. However, just before the actual hearing, he told me that they had not actually been officially summonsed because of a series of errors by the court clerks and officials. He was confident that the papers had been served, but that Mara and José Augusto had not signed that they had received them because they had simply juggled addresses and were not at the address that they had provided to the court. The result, he said, was that they would probably turn up anyway because they had lodged a defence and it would not be in their interests not to turn up, but that they probably would find an excuse not to bring Rebeca.
That is what I thought too.
On the day of the hearing, Alexandre took me and one of my witnesses to São José dos Campos, while Ana Luiza and Francisco followed in their car with another witness. We arrived at the vara de infancia – the family court – on what was a blisteringly hot afternoon and hung around outside trying to keep in the shade. There was no air conditioning in the public part of the court building, the electric fans were broken and the rickety brown patent leather seats had left me itching and sweating. My stomach was churning and I was dripping with sweat. I had been aching for years for the chance to finally get these kidnappers into court, but I also wanted all of this to be over.
The Hearing: Face-to-Face with Rebeca’s Kidnappers
The hearing was scheduled for 3.40pm of 22nd February and at 3.30pm Mara and Rebeca´s stepfather walked up to the court building – he with his arm around her. I recognized Mara straight away, even though it had been 16 years since I had seen her in the flesh; I was appalled at the extent to which she appeared to have deteriorated physically and emotionally. This was also the first time I had ever seen the man who had never been man enough to approach me or identify himself to me and to tell me that he wanted to be my daughter’s father and whose name, if they had had their way, I would never have found out in the first place. He was slight, dark and goateed and Mara seemed to dwarf him both physically and psychologically. They had three witnesses with them who looked overwhelmed and intimidated. They turned out to be domestic cleaners who had worked for Mara over the years. I turned to Alexandre and my witnesses and said “that’s them” as they ignored us and walked into the court building. Rebeca was not with them, but the feeling in my stomach switched from anxiety to anticipation. There was a chance.
We followed them upstairs a few minutes later and waited in the oppressive humidity of the public waiting room while the court clerk sorted out names and details. Rebeca’s stepfather, José Augusto, in an attempt to prolong the ongoing narrative of fear and secrecy that Mara had started off and kept returning to, made a point of asking the clerk if they could keep their current address secret. I bridled internally, but decided not to challenge him and just smiled.
The judge called Mara, José Augusto, me and the two lawyers into the courtroom and, after a brief preamble and a few formalities, started questioning me. “Mr Martin Boyle, do you speak the Portuguese language?” he asked in Portuguese. “Yes,” I said, “although it’s a bit rusty,” I replied. That seemed to satisfy him and he went on to ask me what I hoped to gain from the process I had initiated. He kept reiterating that any victory I might have would be merely pyrrhic. I was a bit overwhelmed and suddenly tongue tied and confused that something, for which I had been preparing for years, and which should have appeared so easy to explain just stuck in my throat. Everything that I had written and thought over the years was suddenly gone as I bowed my head and clasped my hands between my knees. Composing myself, I said that it was very hard for me to express how I felt because the whole experience had been so traumatic, that I couldn’t even find the words in English, but that I loved my daughter and that I had been living a nightmare trying to find her.
I told him that I was constantly worried about Rebeca and just wanted to be able to speak to her and explain the situation and have a relationship with her. I couldn’t understand why I was being asked to justify myself in this way, in what should have been a clear case of child abduction and fraud. The judge leafed through the case file in front of him.
It was this same judge who had authorised the fraudulent adoption in the first place although, to give him his due, he did not know at the time that Mara and José Augusto were committing fraud and perjury. It was going to be hard for him to go back on his previous decision and annul the adoption.
“Mr Martin Boyle,” he said, “you know that, even if you win this case, Rebeca can go down to any public records office and change her name as an adult, since she is now 18. It has been many years now, and she has a new family.”
Ignoring the blatant logical fallacy, I tried to explain as diplomatically as I could that time did not turn something unjust into something just, that there was also natural law and the fact that Rebeca wasn’t even there to put her side of the story – independent of her mother and stepfather – and that I had never had a chance to speak to Rebeca spoke volumes.
This, in fact, was what Mara and José Augusto had planned all along – to drag things out through subterfuge, lies and non-cooperation until Rebeca had reached the age of 18 and it could be turned into a done deal – that the alienation would be complete. It was clear that, since she was not there to hear my side of the story and had not been told that I was there, she would simply follow her mother’s orders.
As I talked I could see Mara out of the corner of my eye. She looked drained and was crying in a way that caused the judge eventually to tell her to leave the room while I continued with my evidence. I told the judge about the efforts I had made to find Rebeca – the efforts made by the consulate, the Brazilian authorities, Interpol, social services – and my imprisonment when I had come over to Brazil in 2008.
The judge pursed his lips and nodded sympathetically.
He excused me from the room and called Mara back in to give her evidence with my lawyer present. Apparently, when he asked her about my imprisonment and whether it was true that she had danced for joy and said I would never see Rebeca again, she curled her lip at him and snorted. He asked her again what she had done when she found out I was in prison in Brazil and she retorted rudely, “Huh, I don’t know. Ask my mother!” The judge then stared at her sternly for a full minute and asked her again. She reiterated her claim that I had never taken any interest in Rebeca, that I had abandoned the family and that I had disappeared without a trace. By all accounts, Mara did not do herself any favours during her evidence.
The Kidnappers are Doing This to Protect Me?
When she came out of the courtroom after her evidence, Mara approached me and offered me her hand, as if to shake it. She started off cooperatively and I hoped that we might reach some kind of agreement but, as the conversation progressed, she said the following a) she and Rebeca’s stepfather had become evangelical Christians and that they had never said anything against me to Rebeca, b) that I should thank José Augusto for having raised Rebeca c) that Rebeca had been on the point of going to the UK to visit her cousins and that they were trying to get the money together for this and that d) Rebeca was scared to go out alone in case she was kidnapped and that she did not want to come to court because she was scared.
The degree of manipulation and deceit shook me but, on reflection, I was not surprised. I did not believe that Rebeca had ever been told that I was looking for her. Mara insisted on speaking in English, even though I speak fluent Portuguese and José Augusto does not speak English. When I asked Mara why she was doing this, she said slowly and gravely as if talking to a five year old child, “it’s to protect you, Martin. We are in a court here.”
As the discussion continued, she became more and more controlling and animated, holding her hand up to stop José Augusto from speaking, jabbing her finger at me and gritting her teeth, her mouth a tiny taut triangle of hate and venom. Her voice was slow and strange – almost creepy – and her eyes were empty. Mara did all the talking and her partner just nodded his head. Alexandre had warned me not to engage with José Augusto, but I was itching to pull him to one side to explain to him how much he’d been taken in by this woman and I had to control myself.
After the witnesses had given their evidence, two of my witnesses said to Mara that all I wanted was to see Rebeca. She snapped that Rebeca did not want to see me. Rebeca was not there to speak for herself. They left abruptly, with Mara making threats that I would never see Rebeca ‘this way’. Then they were gone and I was left in the court grounds with Alexandre and my witnesses. The judge had asked at the end of the hearing when I had to leave Brazil, and then said that his written judgement would be out in between 30 and 50 days.
Later in the week, Alexandre attempted mediation through Mara’s lawyer – a new one hired at the last minute.
He said that Rebeca did not want to see me.
Looking Up Old Faces
I had gone to Brazil more in hope than expectation in the first place – I knew in my heart that Mara would do everything in her power to stop Rebeca from seeing me, so I went to São José Dos Campos again and visited the two addresses that I had for Mara and José Augusto. The gate guard at the most recent address, Rua José Augusto Dos Santos (coincidentally, the same as the stepfather’s name), 86, said that they had left in 2009 and returned very rarely to collect mail. I told him who I was and he was sympathetic and told me quite a lot about Rebeca and the ‘family’- that she was shy and withdrawn and had not had much schooling, that she looked very much like me, that the ‘family’ fought a lot with the neighbours and that they left her alone at home much of the time. He seemed to know quite a lot about them.
Later on, I visited a man who had been a witness at my wedding in 1988. At one time, he had been my ex-father-in-law, Milton’s, best friend, but said that they had not spoken for many years. He had seen Rebeca when she was small and she seemed very bright and clever – he was shocked by what I told him about the news I had received about her.
I then went to see Mara’s former therapist. She told me that Mara was clearly very sick – that she was possibly psychotic and paranoid, that she hadn’t spoken to her since 2008, when Mara had called her out of the blue to talk about random issues and said that I had disappeared without a trace when she asked her about me. I put her straight on the story – I had been sitting in a prison cell in Brazil when this phone call had taken place. The therapist was unwilling to believe that this kind of thing could happen in the Brazilian legal system – that patrio poder – or father’s rights – could not be removed like this, that no judge would authorise an adoption when the father was still alive and that I must have been badly counselled. I told her that it would never have happened if I had been living in Brazil, had had a parent who was a lawyer and an endless supply of money with which to fund interminable legal challenges and access requests.
After that, I contacted the priest who married us in 1988. He is also a psychologist and has known Mara since she was a child. He had not spoken to her for many years, but said that he would try to find a way to speak to Mara’s parents. We joked that, since Mara was now a born-again Christian, it was unlikely that she would be happy about an intervention from a Catholic priest.
I also emailed Milton, Mara’s father, on the off chance, not really expecting a response, and spoke on the phone to Mara’s 94 year-old grandmother. She said that Mara had disappeared many years ago and that nobody in the family had seen her since – that she was ‘crazy’. That evening, I got an email from Milton, asking me to call him. I and the people I was staying with were amazed and I resisted the urge to call him immediately, preferring to sleep on it. The next morning, I called him and we talked for an hour. He said that Mara had not spoken to them for 5 years and that she had cut herself off from them completely, that his family life was in tatters and that he was distraught and on his knees – that my emails asking where Rebeca was had been like a knife to his heart. He said he hadn’t seen Rebeca for 5 years. He did not know that I was in Brazil, he said, or that I had been in court and seen Mara.
I felt sorry for him initially, but then remembered everything that had happened – the imprisonment, the long years fighting his family’s pact of silence, his wife’s manipulation and connivance in my imprisonment and all his emails rejecting my attempts at negotiation and blaming me.
I hadn’t seen Rebeca for 16 years and had been thrown into a filthy cell with 20 hard-core bandidos when I attempted to find my daughter, while he whined on about not seeing his granddaughter for five years. I gave him the priest’s number.
Final Day and No Rebeca
That afternoon, the day before I left Brazil, I went to SJDC again and spoke to the gate guard and to other neighbours who gave me more information about Rebeca. I told them who I was frankly and honestly, and they called other neighbours out to meet me. They were sympathetic and talked about a ‘weird’, ‘strange’ family, a desperately shy girl with no friends and how they had always suspected that there was something wrong. I had to contain myself and walk away round the corner and go back some time later.
On my last day, I went to the airport with Alexandre. He had assured me that everything would be OK as long as I had the court documents with me, but I was not so sure, so I insisted that he go with me. In the run-up to my departure, friends had even called the Brazil Desk at the Foreign Office in the UK to ask them to intercede with the Brazilian Federal Police to make sure I was allowed out of Brazil. They were all rebuffed with the usual Foreign Office mantra about third parties not being able to get involved.
Thanks, Brazil Desk!
Images of 2008 and Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service’s sterling efforts to bring me a comb and shampoo when I was in prison raced in my mind. We went to the Federal Police station first and got a letter signed by the delegada to say that I could leave the country. My name was still on the police computer. They told me to present the letter with my passport at passport control. I did this. The girl looked at it, put it to one side, started typing my passport details into the computer, opened her mouth panicked and shocked and jumped up and took my passport to the back desk. I had to spend a gut-churning half hour with two PFs at the desk between passport control and duty free while they discussed how to put the authorisation into the system and joked about the Brazilian system and vindictive Brazilian women. The cop’s parting words after he had stamped my passport were, “you’re just child support – it’s nothing. Have a nice trip.” I said I wished they’d said that in 2008 and made my way to my flight.
Kafkaesque In Finality
Thinking over people’s reactions to this whole story, what is most galling and frustrating, perhaps, is the way in which some of the people I try to explain this to either simply don’t believe that it could have happened or start to interrogate, pick holes and offer advice on what I should have done as if I had never thought of these things. “Why don’t you open a Facebook page?”, “Why don’t you write a letter?”, “Why don’t you go on Brazilian social networking sites and try and find her that way?” “Why don’t you negotiate over child support and access?”, “Why don’t you get a private detective?” “Why don’t you ask a lawyer to ask for access?” as if these are things I had never done.
I have been ripped off by lawyers and private detectives, while Rebeca and I have been betrayed by the British and Brazilian governments and people who promised ‘to do the possible and the impossible’ to help me. I even ended up offering an impossibly large bet that nobody could think of anything that I hadn’t tried or thought of.
Nobody has come up with anything yet.
The endless, grinding, maddening, disappointing, frustrating, exhausting, soul-destroying head-battering, gut-wrenching, heart-squeezing no-words-left-to-describeness of this is beyond Alice through the Looking Glass.
It is worse than Kafka.
You can understand Kafka in Prague, with its suffocating, threatening, Central-European darkness, but this is Kafka in tropical Brazil, with its alegria and felicidade, its samba and its surface-level joy.
It is a dark Kafkaesque Carnival of Despair.