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Case of missing Lehigh girl sheds light on rampant human trafficking in SWFL

Posted at 6:40 PM, Jun 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-29 11:26:17-04

Tuesday was an emotional day for the family of 14-year-old Catarina Castro. Authorities say Castro was found in Indiana along with several other kids in what appeared to be a human-trafficking ring, just days after vanishing from her Lehigh Acres home.

Experts say the teenager's case is shedding light on a human trafficking problem in the area.

The family says that Catarina just moved to Lehigh Acres from Guatemala a week ago to live with her half brother and his wife.  Catarina doesn't speak English, but her family says she was adjusting well.

The couple says that on Saturday, Catarina was sitting in the driveway using her phone, but when they later went to find her, she had disappeared.

The family was able to contact the fourteen year old on her cell phone, and she explained she was with a woman who was taking her to a man that would employ her so she could pay back the family for money spent to bring her to the country.

"We weren't eating it was so hard," says Dulce Guerrero, Catarina's sister-in-law. "All her phone calls she would be less than a minute."

Guerrero tells Four In Your Corner Catarina called her a few times to let her know she was okay but the calls wouldn't last more than two minutes.

"These people obviously knew she can't be on the phone that long because if anything they can track her down," Guerrero said.

The 14 year old is now with child-protective services and the Lee County Sheriff's Office has since taken over the case from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Federal agents say they no longer think human trafficking was a factor in the case. However, family says there were many indicators pointing to it.

Experts in the area say human trafficking is a growing problem in Southwest Florida. Megan Estrem with Be the Light Human Trafficking nonprofit organization says the Sunshine State is a hotspot for traffickers, ranking third in the country for the highest number of trafficking cases.

"Human trafficking is rampant in Southwest Florida," Estrem said. "We have a really high immigrant population, we have a high tourism population, we have a high transient population. There are people constantly coming and going."

According to Estrem, Catarina would be an easy and typical target for traffickers.

"She's young. Predators look for preteens and teenagers as their prime targets. In this case, she's from a foreign country and didn't speak the language. She was probably naive to the dangers of human trafficking."

"Predators work to build relationships with potential victims," Estrem said. "If you're of the mindset it happens somewhere else or 'it can't happen to me' or 'we're from a good home', those are not factors that negate that your children can fall victim."

Experts say predators use social media as an easy way to meet their victims. Traffickers are usually so successful because they carefully build trust with their victims. The recovery process for human trafficking victims is lengthy and may be difficult.

To help or to report suspicious activity you can call Be The Light at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733 (BeFree).

For more information, about Be the Light or to help put an end to modern day slavery click here.