Morelia, Mexico: Parents of some of the 458 children rescued from the festering squalor of a shelter in western Mexico told horror stories on Wednesday after authorities raided it for sexual assaults and other abuses.
Seeking to get their children back, families from around the country gathered at the shelter, "La Gran Familia" (The Big Family), where the children were still being kept under social workers' care after police arrested the facility's director, Rosa del Carmen Verduzco, and eight employees.
Lucia Carranza said she was bursting to see her five-year-old son after only being allowed three visits a year since handing him over to the shelter.
Squalid conditions ... Children rest in one of the rooms of the shelter "La Gran Familia"(The Big Family) during a police raid where 458 children were rescued. Photo: AFP
"My husband and I were day workers, we worked in the countryside and survived by the grace of God, so I couldn't keep my baby and they recommended this place," Carranza, 25, said.
"I thought I would be able to see him every week like at other facilities, but no ... We looked for lawyers but everyone told me it was impossible to do anything against her (Verduzco)," she said.
Police found 596 people, including 138 adults, living amid rats and insects when they raided the home on Tuesday after complaints of abuse and kidnapping.
Relatives of children await outside the shelter "La Gran Familia"(The Big Family) where a police raid rescued 596 people, including 458 children in Zamora, Michoacan State, Mexico. Photo: AFP
Early investigations indicate Verduzco and her staff inflicted "a variety of physical and psychological abuse" on the residents, said Tomas Zeron de Lucio, an investigator at the attorney general's office.
The children were forced to beg in the street, sleep on the floor and eat unfit food, he told journalists.
Some residents were also sexually abused, he said.
Mexican Federal Police personnel stand guard outside the shelter "La Gran Familia". Photo: AFP
The rescued children included six babies, who officials said had been born at the home and registered as the director's own.
One former resident, Bertha Saucedo, told Foro TV that Verduzco had forced her to give up her daughter, who has Down syndrome, after she gave birth at the shelter.
"They took my daughter away from me when she was three months old. When she was six years old I started coming to see her and she (Verduzco) never let me see her because she had Down syndrome and if I didn't pay her she was never going to give her back," she said.
"I didn't file a complaint because I was afraid they would treat her badly, hit her and take her food away."
Authorities did not explain how the adults at the facility had been held against their will.
Support for 'the Boss'
La Gran Familia was founded in 1947, according to its Facebook page, and housed residents ranging from newborns to adults more than 40 years old.
Locals described Verduzco as a respected, and sometimes feared, figure in Zamora, a town of 186,000 people about a 90-minute drive from Morelia, the state capital.
A prominent Mexican writer and historian, Enrique Krauze, spoke out in her defense after the raid.
"The government's harassment of Rosa Verduzco in Michoacan is unacceptable. A life dedicated to taking in orphans. There will be an international protest," Krauze, the director of the literary review Letras Libres, wrote on Twitter.
The shelter's Facebook page shows Verduzco with former president Felipe Calderon and a former Michoacan governor, along with colourful images of children playing musical instruments, marching in a parade and riding on a toy train.
The home "houses more than 600 children abandoned by their parents: delinquents, drug addicts or street children, all adopted by Rosa Verduzco; that is to say, all the children have the last name 'Verduzco,'" it says.
"Inside this home Mama Rosa - or the 'Boss,' as everyone in Zamora calls her - provides them education ... as well as different activities such as art, haute couture workshops, metalworking, bricklaying and music."