Families tell of horrors at raided Mexican shelter


ZAMORA, Mexico

Relatives of youths rescued by police from a refuse-strewn group home where employees allegedly beat and raped residents are telling of how they tried to remove their loved ones, only to be met with demands for thousands of dollars for their release.

Mainly poor parents and other relatives thronged outside the home Wednesday as a garbage truck finished hauling away an estimated 20 tons of trash from what Mexican authorities said was an insect-infested shelter that had housed 607 adults and children, often against their will.

Maria Valdivia Vasquez, 65, waited to be allowed in for a brief visit with her 17-year-old grandson, Jose Antonio Martinez. She said his mother sent him to The Great Family group home a decade ago because of behavioral problems. Relatives were allowed to visit him only twice a year, and shelter employees had recently been sitting in on the visits, apparently to monitor residents’ comments, she said.

Valdivia Vasquez said that when she decided to ask that the boy be released to her, shelter founder Rosa del Carmen Verduzco, known as “Mama Rosa,” demanded 70,000 pesos ($5,400) for his release.

She said Jose Antonio often barely spoke in front of the shelter employees, but said once that “he wanted his mother to suffer the same thing he was suffering there.”

Officials have said the home’s residents were kept in deplorable conditions, fed rotten food and made to sleep on the floor among rats, ticks and fleas.

Raquel Briones Gallegos, a 44-year-old housewife, said she tried to get her 20-year-old son, Luis Oropeza Briones, out of the shelter in April.

“They ran me out of the house and said insulting things,” Briones Gallegos said. He would call her on the phone in recent months saying that “he wanted to leave, to please get him out of there,” she said.

Shelter residents were still being kept at the home while officials look for places to transfer them. Federal authorities said they were ensuring that the residents were being fed properly, and youngsters were also being checked by doctors.

Police and soldiers standing guard outside let small groups of relatives in for brief visits. For some families, it was their first time inside in months.

Prosecutors said early statements given by residents contain harrowing tales of sexual abuse, beatings, hunger and filth in a once well-regarded group home.

Some were forced into sex by shelter employees and others told of being locked in a tiny punishment room without food or water, officials said. Ten of the residents were so malnourished police couldn’t even determine their age.

“Victim No. 4 said she had been held in the group home against her will since she was 18,” said Tomas Zeron, federal chief of criminal investigations. “She was sexually abused by one of the administrators, and got pregnant as a result of the abuse. The same person beat her to cause an abortion, beating her in the stomach on several occasions.”

Two boys told investigators a male staff member had forced them to engage in oral sex and warned one of the boys that “he would kill him and sell his organs if he refused,” Zeron said.

In total, the police raid on Tuesday freed six babies, 154 girls, 278 boys, 50 women and 109 men from the filthy shelter.

Nine employees of the shelter in Zamora, a town in the western state of Michoacan, have been detained and are being questioned.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said some other employees apparently tried to protect the children.

“There are statements that truly hurt, that make you angry,” he said. “But there are others that save your faith in humanity, about those who truly converted themselves into protectors of the children.”

Authorities have said the shelter had been highly regarded and the government sometimes gave money or even entrusted children to the shelter. It was often visited by politicians, and local media published photographs of the owner with former President Vicente Fox, former Michoacan Gov. Leonel Godoy and other officials.

Murillo Karam said the home was subject to government oversight, but the “institution’s prestige may have made the inspections less intense.”

The investigation began after five parents filed complaints last year with authorities because they weren’t allowed to see their children at the home.

One was a woman who grew up and gave birth to two children at the home, which has been open for at least 40 years. That woman was allowed to leave when she was 31, but the home’s owner allegedly kept the youngsters, who were registered under the owner’s name.