The father of Hania Aguilar, the 13-year-old girl who was abducted, raped and killed in North Carolina last month, was unable to attend his late daughter’s funeral because a temporary visa request to travel from Guatemala to the U.S. was denied.
According to CNN, US Embassy officials declined Noé Aguilar’s request because he “didn’t have enough ties to his home country, Guatemala,” an explanation the father’s attorney Naimeh Salem contests.
“That is not true,” Salem told the news outlet. “He has family there and his own business.”
Hania was kidnapped outside her mobile home in Lumberton, North Carolina on the morning of Nov. 5. She waiting for a relative to drive her to school when a man, now identified as 34-year-old Michael Ray McLellan, forced her into a family member’s car, which she had earlier turned on. Authorities and community members searched for the teen’s body, which was found in a body of water in Robeson County on Nov, 27, for weeks.
During her funeral on Saturday, hundreds gathered to say goodbye to Hania, including school officials, classmates and friends who tearfully sang songs, recited poetry and read letters. But her father, who stayed connected with his late daughter through phone calls and letters, was not present.
“I had hoped they would find it in their hearts to let me be there for my daughter’s funeral,” Aguilar told CNN in a brief phone interview Friday.
During the service, a letter he wrote to Hania was read aloud.
“You were and you are my treasure,” he said. “Rest in peace, daughter, my gorgeous princess. … You were gone before me, my gorgeous princess.”
Hours before the funeral, McLellan was arrested in connection to Hania’s killing. The man, who has been linked to another sexual assault in 2016, faces 10 felony charges, including murder, forcible rape, statutory rape, kidnapping and larceny.
He is currently being held at the Robeson County Detention Center, where he was denied bond, and is scheduled to appear in court on Monday.
Sex workers in the Dominican Republic, where the profession is illegal, are vulnerable to violence, but many don’t feel safe reporting these crimes to law enforcement because, in many cases, it’s police officers who are responsible for their abuse.
This month, Amnesty International released a report detailing how law enforcement in the Caribbean country rape and torture women sex workers. The study, harrowingly titled “If They Can Have Her, Why Can’t We,” includes interviews with 46 cis and trans sex workers who discuss the abuse they experienced at the hands of local police.
According to the report, of the 24 cis women interviewed, at least 10 had been raped by law enforcement, several at gunpoint. Similarly, many trans women disclosed being violently mistreated, some even tortured, by officers.
“The interviews reveal how a deeply engrained culture of machismo within the National Police, coupled with intense societal stigma and discrimination and conservative religious values, embolden law enforcement officials to unlawfully abuse their powers and punish women who engage in sex work as a form of social control,” reads the report.
One woman shared her account of being gang-raped by three policemen. In October 2017, the woman was pulled over by an officer who spotted her waiting for clients when he forced her to enter his police van. There, he and two other patrols started groping the woman and ripping off her clothes.
“I was afraid. I was alone. I couldn’t defend myself. I had to let them do what they wanted with me,” she told Amnesty International. “They threatened me, that if I wasn’t with them they would kill me. They (said) that I was a whore, and so why not with them?”
The woman, whose shocking account influenced the title of the report, said that the officers called her a “bitch,” among other expletives, adding: “They saw me, I guess, and they thought ‘Well, if they (clients) can have her, why can’t we?’”
This mentality isn’t uncommon. The report notes that the government, and society at large, often views sex workers as less than human and are thus “deserving” of the violence they experience.
“The harrowing testimonies that Amnesty International has gathered from the Dominican Republic reveal that police routinely target and inflict sexual abuse and humiliation on women who sell sex with the purpose of punishing and discriminating against them,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said. “Under international law, such treatment can amount to gender-based torture and other ill-treatment.”
While this particular study looked at the problem in the Dominican Republic, Guevara-Rosas says police violence against sex workers isn’t unique to the region but rather follows a pattern of gender-based violence across Latin America and the Caribbean. She calls it an “epidemic” and notes that marginalized women, like sex workers, are at increased risk because of fear arrest.
On Friday, Netflix dropped an original true crime documentary series about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, a then 3-year-old British girl who was abducted at a Portugal resort in 2007 while her parents dined at a nearby restaurant. Her case, which remains unsolved, immediately garnered widespread coverage from international media, and, after the release of The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, it has become the topic of conversation again.
One of the most heavily-reported missing person cases of modern history, there are numerous theories about what happened to the girl, and many are investigated in the eight-episode series. One of the most widely-believed premises is that Madeleine was abducted and sold into a sex-trafficking ring. The now-15-year-old child’s body has never been found, leaving her parents to believe that “there is still hope that we can find Madeleine.”
While Madeleine’s case is horrifying, it’s unfortunately not unique. In the US alone, an estimated 460,000 children go missing every year. A majority of these youth are of color. According to Robert Lowery, vice president for the Missing Children Division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, about 35 percent of them are Black and another 20 percent are Latinx, CNN reports. Unfortunately, while these young people were abducted, ran away and/or forced into sex trafficking in our own backyards, news of their disappearances hardly make local news, let alone national or international headlines.
This was apparent in 2016, when two young women in New York went missing and were soon found murdered in New York within a week. One of the women, 30-year-old Karina Vetrano, who was horribly beaten, raped and strangled to death while taking a jog in Queens, received national headlines. The other, 20-year-old Dominican-American Maylin Reynoso, whose lifeless body was found floating in the Harlem River, was barely covered in local news.
This particular case of media racism isn’t distinctive, either. Zach Sommers, a law and science fellow at Northwestern University School of Law, investigated the anecdotal theory that women and girls of color receive different treatment from the media when they go missing. According to his research, both race and gender play a role in the amount and type of coverage they receive.
“A person’s race plays into the types of assumptions we make,” Sommers recently told Refinery29. “The labeling of teenagers as runaways tends to be racialized. There is a hierarchy of victims in the media and in society, where we are more willing to label a young white girl as blameless.”
Below, we highlight a sample of the countless Latina girls who are missing, some who have disappeared as recently as this month and others whose cases have remained cold for decades.
Sofia Juarez went missing on February 4, 2003, the day before her fifth birthday. Her disappearance, which remains unsolved, triggered Washington’s first-ever Amber alert. A 10-year-old relative reported seeing the young girl walking down the driveway with a man dressed in a black sweatshirt, black pants and sneakers. Officers considered her grandmother’s boyfriend Jose Lopez Torres, a neighbor with a record of minor sex offenses Kevin Ireland and the girl’s father as possible suspects, but no arrests have been made. Sofia’s mother died in 2009, but her family vowed to continue their search for the girl.
Haley Romero-Menendez was last seen in her Northwest Washington, DC neighborhood on Tuesday, March 12. The Metropolitan Police Department is currently asking for the public’s help in finding the “critically missing” 16-year-old Latina. Standing at 5’5” and 130 pounds, she was last seen wearing a green hoodie and blue jeans.
Reyna Alvarado-Carrera was last seen in her Norcross, Georgia home in 2005 at the age of 13. Few details are known, but authorities believe she was abducted by a non-relative male named Jose Carlos Gatica Luna who was 34 years old at the time of the disappearance. The girl, who went by Gaby, is now 27 years old.
Manhattan Latina Sulay Andino was last seen on March 20, 2018 at the age of 16. Standing at 5’5″ tall and 145 pounds, the girl, now 17, is believed to be in the Bronx, though there are few details around her disappearance, including what she was last wearing, who last saw her and what she was last seen doing.
Diana Belinda Alvarez has been missing since May 29, 2016. The girl, then 9 years old, was last seen in her Fort Myers, Fla. home wearing a short-sleeved shirt and blue shorts. Jorge Guerrero, who is currently incarcerated on possession of child pornography charges, is the prime suspect in the now-11-year-old girl’s disappearance. The girl’s mother, Rita, visited Guerrero in jail in July 2016, where the man told her that her daughter was alive but did not tell her where she was.
Henrietta Geck Cruz Avila went missing the summer of 1960, when she was 17 years old. She was last seen in Garden Grove, Calif., where she lived with her husband who she had dated for a month before they wed. News reports refer to the marriage as “no overwhelming success.” The summer of her disappearance, Henrietta’s parents contacted her husband, Merle, to ask where she was. He stated she had packed her bags and left him. A mysterious telegram signed “Henrietta” was sent to the family after the conversation and a collect call was made from someone claiming to be her, though they hung up as soon as her mother took the call. Henrietta’s parents hired a private investigator and offered a $1,000 reward for information on her remains, as they believed she was killed, but she, now 76, remains missing.
Alissa Albizu disappeared from her home in Philadelphia the night of October 16, 2015. Officials have classified her case as an “endangered runaway.” Last seen at age 13, when she was 5’2”, 112 pounds and wearing a red shirt and blue pants, Alissa, who has a tattoo on her right hand, is currently 16 years old.
Agueda Arias disappeared from Longview, Washington at age three on November 16, 2001. The girl was last seen with her mom, Guadalupe Barajas Castro, shopping with an adult male friend. The vehicle the mother, who was pregnant at the time, was driving was found abandoned in California. Neither she nor her mother was seen again in a case authorities have said had “suspicious circumstances.” She would be 20 years old today.
Manuela Carina Caz Choc
Manuela Carina Caz Choc, 16, was last seen June 10, 2018 in Culpeper, Virginia. The girl is believed to be with a man, named Oscar Quinich Tut, who was posing as her biological father. Manuela, now 17, was 5’0″ tall and 92 pounds at the time of her disappearance. She also had gold caps on three of her front teeth with a half moon shape in the middle and a skin condition causing discoloration on both her arms and back.
Aileen Rivera was last seen in Warminster, Pennsylvania on March 10, 2019. Reading police are asking for the public’s assistance in locating the missing 15-year-old. She is 5 feet 4 inches tall and about 120 pounds.