While most girls her age were busy taking selfies and dabbling in virtual reality, 15-year-old “Maria,” whose real name can not be released because she is a minor, was fighting a monkey and a dog for scraps of food in a darkened garage in the Lugano district of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The teenager had been held captive for nine years despite the fact that everyone knew where she was living, and with whom. Apparently even in a super-connected world, it is still possible to be completely disconnected and forgotten.
The teenager was rescued from the home of her legal guardians, identified by the Buenos Aires Herald as Daniel Gómez, 43, and Adriana Barros, 56. According to court documents published in the Argentinian press, the couple was in the process of legally adopting the girl, who had been given to them for foster care by Argentinian child protection authorities in 2001. Her biological parents, who had six other mouths to feed and who lived in extreme poverty in the notorious shantytowns surrounding Buenos Aires, were deemed unfit parents. The last time “Maria” saw her biological parents was in 2005, according to court records, which was the year she was forced into captivity.
Instead of being fed and taken care of as the court had ordered, “Maria” weighed just 44 pounds and suffered from extreme malnutrition when she was found this week. Apparently social service checks were never conducted after the first few years, even though “Maria’s” foster parents continued to collect state aid to care for the child. Authorities say she was kept in a garage with darkened windows along with a monkey and dog, which, according to pictures published after her rescue, were both far better fed than she was. She told local police that she could only remember being taken outside the garage twice in the last nine years, and that her “parents” beat her with a stiff leather belt whenever she tried to eat the scraps intended for the pets.
According to Argentinian press reports, Gómez and Barros were worshipers of the San La Muerte, or Saint Death, Christian-Pagan cult, which is popular in certain parts of Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. The cult is often characterized as part of the Catholic faith despite being condemned by the Catholic Church in Rome. Members of the cult offer body sacrifices and worship the bones of their dead ancestors to ward off earthly evil. The icon of Saint Death is a skeletal, caped figure whose statue is still paraded around certain small villages in South America on November 1 and August 15. More than 100 relics relating to the Saint Death sect were reportedly found in the garage where Maria was kept. Authorities are working on the theory that Maria’s skeletal figure and near starvation were somehow related to her caregivers’ religious beliefs.
“Maria” was miraculously found when her biological sister turned 18 and started hunting for her. The sister, whose name has not been released because she is a protected witness, alerted authorities after spotting a slight figure huddled in the garage when she was spying on Gómez walking the dog and pet monkey in his backyard. She knew that Gómez and Barros were supposed to have her sister, but they had told her she ran away years before. Maria’s sister had a hunch they were lying.
Gómez and Barros have been charged with forced slavery, inflicting bodily harm on a child and false imprisonment. “Maria” has been reunited with her biological family, who still can’t afford to feed her, but who will most certainly provide her a better home.