For many, child marriage is a horrifying issue that occurs in faraway lands, but for one U.S. Latina, it was a reality that struck right in her South Florida home.
In 2009, a then-13-year-old Guatemalan-American girl, who has not been named, was forced to marry Antonio Juarez, a man in his mid-20s at the time.
After meeting at a Catholic Church the same year, the girl’s parents held a private religious ceremony in their Bonita Springs home, where the child, now 20, and man were married.
Following the wedding, Juarez moved into the girl's parents' home, where they shared a bedroom. The girl, in middle school at the time, woke up at 5 a.m. most mornings to perform tasks like cooking meals and doing laundry before heading to school.
At school, no one knew of her marriage. The girl’s parents warned not to tell anyone, prompting the child to feel like the arrangement wasn’t right.
"No one knew about it. Nobody at school knew about it. It was just within my family, inside my house ... . When I was seeing my friends with their boyfriends at school, they were younger, and mine was like older but my parents told me I can't say nothing,” she said. "They told me to lie."
However, when the young girl became pregnant and gave birth at 14, questions started to arise.
In May 2010, a school resource officer wanted to help the young girl get into a school for pregnant teens, but when speaking with her mother, she was told an imposable story that sparked a red flag. The mom said that her daughter met the father of the baby "through a random phone call" made to their house. When authorities asked for her to bring the teen in for an interview with the child protection team, she refused. Months later, in September, after the girl gave birth, a deputy was investigating it as "a possible sex crime." The teen told the officer that she didn't know the last name or address of the father. Her mother added that she never met him. In the deputy’s report, he wrote that she "was obviously withholding information."
For another five years, the teenager and Juarez lived like husband and wife with her parents. It wasn’t until 2015, when the girl’s mother filed court documents for temporary custody of her granddaughter, prompting Juarez to file for custody as well, that the crime was revealed.
The now young woman went to a lawyer for assistance to keep her baby, where she learned that she was a victim of child marriage, and that it was unlawful.
"What happened to you was illegal," the woman’s lawyer, Toni Latino, told her. "Honey, we're going to the police."
Juarez, 31, was arrested in October 2016. The man, who is from Guatemala, said he was "profoundly unaware" of the laws barring adults from having sex with teens.
"Clearly, ignorance of the law is not a defense, but there was no malicious intent here, if you will, as foreign as it to us," the man's lawyer, Rene Suarez, said.
In Guatemala, which has one of the highest child marriage rates in Latin America, it is common for girls to marry older men. In fact, until 2015, a girl could legally marry in the country at the age of 14.
"The whole thing is weird," Suarez said. "If I hadn't seen it before, I'd be telling them in Spanish, 'Are you all crazy? What's going on here?'"
He continued: "I've had numerous clients from Central America that have run afoul of the law in a similar fashion. I wouldn't say it's an epidemic but it's enough where I can say there's a correlation between the culture and this happening."
The woman's parents were allegedly also unaware of the illegality of marrying a child away. The woman's father told a detective that Juarez assumed financial responsibility of his daughter, which is the norm in Guatemala, and "concluded his statement by explaining that in other countries age is not an issue when it comes to love. (He) stated that he wishes that (his daughter) was more obedient."
Neither of the woman’s parents was charged. Juarez, whose criminal case is expected to close soon with the man taking a plea deal, was charged with lewd and lascivious behavior with a victim between 12 and 16. The felony charge carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, though his lawyer said it’s likely that Juarez will receive probation instead of prison time and possible deportation.
(h/t Orlando Sentinel)