Rosa Castillo wanted to die.
For more than a decade, she was held in captivity, smuggled back and forth between Mexico and the United States. During the day, she and others were forced to work in fields picking vegetables. At night, she was forced into prostitution.
Her captor was a man whom Castillo hoped would reunite her in the U.S. with her family, which had fled Nicaragua during its civil war. He turned out to be a smuggler and a human trafficker, she said.
She was only 12 years old when she was taken.
“I was basically kept by the smuggler for 14 years,” said Castillo, who moved to South Florida after escaping captivity a decade ago. “I was always locked in a cage. They only fed us twice a week. I was kept with other women and children.”
After previous attempts to escape, she was abused and sexually assaulted.
“At one point, they used me as a personal ashtray,” said Castillo, 34. “I know what it is to be punished. For several years, I didn’t speak. I prayed to die. I prayed to God to please take me. I couldn’t take it (any) more.”
Today, she speaks out in hopes of raising awareness about human trafficking. Castillo, who became pregnant while in captivity, speaks out in hopes of keeping other children — including her daughter — from falling prey to human traffickers.
For the past couple of years, Castillo has spoken to various groups and organizations hoping to help them understand the minds of the trafficker and their victims. She has been involved as a spokesman for the Blue Campaign, an anti-trafficking program established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Described by advocates for its victims as modern-day slavery, human trafficking has become an increasing focus for local agencies amid a rising number of reported cases in Florida.
This past month, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Palm Beach announced a partnership involving a $1.5 million federal grant to investigate human trafficking and provide aid to its victims. Also, a bill has been introduced in the Florida Legislature to require education about human trafficking in health classes for public middle schools and high schools.
“When I was in captivity, they only had girls from foreign countries,” Castillo said. “Now the traffickers, they prey upon our local kids. It’s domestic now. That’s what really touched me. Because I have a daughter myself. She’s now 13. I never want to be in that position with my child. I want to always be able to protect her and if this is one way to protect her and every child in America, I will speak.”
Age 12 — at which Castillo was taken by traffickers — is the average one for children being targeted, said Linda Geller-Schwartz, the Advocacy Chair for the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches.
“There are number things that make kids vulnerable,” Geller-Schwartz said. “From being in foster care, group homes. Inadvertently they go on the Internet and they’ve made a new friend. That friend works for a trafficking organization.”
The coalition has advocated for the bill in the state legislature that would require education about human trafficking. State Sen. Greg Steube, the bill’s sponsor, said the idea came from a high school student in his district who raised concerns about sex trafficking at her school.
Steube, R-Sarasota, said more education could help students identify the signs of trafficking.
“It may prevent young girls from being lured into the sex trafficking trade,” he said.
Castillo said she was left behind with family when her parents escaped Nicaragua in the early 1980s. Her mother turned to a friend for help getting her out of the country.
“They had made a friend of a friend who told them that they knew somebody who could bring me to the United States,” she said. “For $6,000, I would be here in two weeks, which turned out be 14 years.”
She was kept in captivity with men and women, transported to various places, including Arizona, Colorado, Texas and California. Castillo said it was becoming pregnant and having her daughter that strengthened her resolve to find freedom.
“I decided I’m no longer praying for dying,” she said. “I’m praying for freedom.”
She spent years planning her escape, seizing that opportunity one night as her captors were attending a party just outside of Corpus Christi, Texas. She hid her daughter inside a suitcase and pushed it through a fence.
As Castillo fled, she was shot at, a bullet grazing her forehead. She passed out near a highway but was rescued by a good Samaritan and taken to a hospital.
While recounting that day, Castillo pointed to a scar that remains on her forehead.
“I run. I’m screaming,” she recalled. “I fainted. When I wake up, I’m in this place with doctors, police, and I’m telling them what happened. They told me they were looking for me.”
After the rescue, social-services agencies moved Castillo and her daughter to West Palm Beach in 2008, where she received counseling from the Center for Family Services. Barbara Hernandez, the center’s director, recalled that Castillo was initially reluctant to speak about what happened to her.
“Rosa is a story of success and quite an inspiration. But it’s taking her a number of years,” Hernandez said. “Now she has a platform to talk about (trafficking). She has a passion to create awareness.”
Castillo said her message to other trafficking victims is don’t be afraid to look for help.
“There’s always a way to get out if you would like to be free,”she said. “Don’t be afraid to look for freedom, because it’s your right.”