369: ‘Avoid problems, marry someone over 16’

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‘Avoid problems, marry someone over 16’

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Education may have prevented the illegal arrangement between the middle-school girl and the 24-year-old man.

The man was unaware of the laws. The girl, who was born in this country and is now a young woman, was unaware of her rights.

Toni Latino, the lawyer for the woman, has requested the man be required to record a public service announcement as part of his punishment. The woman said her parents pushed her into a ceremony in their Bonita Springs home. The father admitted to the ceremony but denied it was a marriage, even though he referred to them as husband and wife in interviews with investigators.

The man, Antonio Juarez, is from Guatemala, where until two years ago girls could legally marry at the age of 14. Latino said she worked with Genelle Grant, founder and director of The GRACE (Guatemalan Rural Adult and Children’s Education) Project, to prepare the below script and FGCU’s Human Trafficking Resource Center to secure space for a recording.

Fellow countryman, if you think that you can arrange to marry a young girl here in Florida, be careful. Here, it is illegal to have relations with a girl less than 16 years old. Really.

Even when her parents agree. They and YOU could end up in jail.

I know, because it happened to me. 

Avoid problems and marry someone over 16.

Latino would like to disseminate a similar message informing girls of their rights.

Rene Suarez, Juarez’s lawyer, supports the idea of a PSA because of the cultural gap in knowledge. Juarez is accused of lewd and lascivious behavior with a victim between 12 and 16. “This is a cultural thing that doesn’t translate well under our laws.”

Grant has worked with Guatemalans in Southwest Florida and in Guatemala. Her group tries to spread information about the laws in Guatemala and Florida that protect people from abuse and human trafficking, but she sees a widespread lack of knowledge. She wishes the Catholic Church would become more involved in that education.

“We try to do some of it, but it’s hard to get into that community,” Grant said.

Girls are assumed to be marriageable as soon as they get their periods, particularly in more rural areas of Guatemala, Grant said. Nearly a third of Guatemalan women are married by 18, according to UNICEF. Seven percent are married by 15, though reports have documented cases of girls marrying much younger.

Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships covers topics relating to sexual abuse in its human trafficking prevention program for kids, ARTREACH, said Nola Theiss, executive director of the Southwest Florida organization. They’ve mostly brought ARTREACH to after-school and summer programs and but have wanted to reach kids inside schools, she said. “We need to be in the schools to make sure we’re reaching the kids who are only in the schools when they’re in the world.”

The group received a Southwest Florida Community Foundation grant to work with The Laboratory Theater of Florida to provide education and to produce a play in Lee County schools and are looking for middle and high schools that want to take on the subject matter.

This case does not allege human trafficking, nor does it meet the intent behind human trafficking statutes, said Doug Molloy, a Fort Myers defense attorney who became an expert on human trafficking cases as a federal prosecutor. “Sexual abuse is a hideous crime, but if you are targeting someone from human trafficking it’s because they made money off someone’s hopes and dreams.”