In an odd and contradictory tale of abuse and protection, authorities say they rescued nearly 500 children from a shelter in the western state of Michoacan, where they were reportedly exposed to bug-infested food, rapes and filthy conditions.
Yet almost immediately after the announcement earlier this week, Mexico's former president and several other prominent public figures rose to the defense of the elderly woman running the shelter, further muddying an already confusing picture.
What is clear is that some of the estimated 600 children and adults lived in squalor inside the Gran Familia (Great Family) group home in Zamora, Michoacan, about 250 miles west of the nation's capital.
Television images Thursday showed crowded, trash-littered bedrooms and a fetid kitchen in disarray, with rotten or outdated food and insects. Residents have reported being beaten, raped and held against their will, sometimes for many years.
Others, however, said the shelter offered them protection that may have saved their lives, authorities said.
“There is testimony [about abuse] that really hurts, that makes you angry,” Mexican federal Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam said in a news conference. “But there are other statements from people who said they were protected and hidden … statements about people who really became protectors of the children.”
The government investigation, Murillo said, would try to discern “who protected and who abused.”
The investigation began after several families complained they had been denied access to their children, many of whom were sent to the home because of behavioral problems. Other residents were street children rescued by the Great Family staff, authorities said.
In police raids that started earlier this week, six babies, 154 girls, 278 boys, 50 women and 109 men were freed from the shelter, authorities said. The home's director and eight staff were arrested, then rushed to a hospital after complaints of health problems.
Lydia Cacho, a well-known journalist who has crusaded against sex trafficking and the abuse of children, was among many who came to the defense of shelter founder Rosa del Carmen Verduzco, 79, also known as Mama Rosa.
Likening Verduzco to Mother Teresa, Cacho said the shelter founder worked for decades “to give a family to those who didn’t have one.” She provided food, shelter, education and music lessons to around 6,000 street or abandoned children and orphans when the government and most other agencies ignored the problem, Cacho said.
But Cacho added that Verduzco had more charitable than administrative skills, and that the economic crisis of the last few years had taken a toll.
“Rosa del Carmen was exhausted, and like others who try to save children trapped between a narco-trafficking culture and the impunity of family violence, she ended up isolated and without resources,” Cacho wrote in a column Thursday in the Internet news site, Sinembargo.mx
“The lesson here is Mexico has to protect and take care of its girls, boys and youths,” she wrote. “We cannot continue to ignore a humanitarian tragedy.”
Other supporters of Verduzco included former President Vicente Fox, eminent historian Enrique Krauze and leftist writer Elena Poniatowska.
“The hypocrisy of the government has no limits,” Poniatowska said in her Twitter account. “Mama Rosa is being jailed for taking care of children who no one wanted.”
But prosecutors spoke of horrific tales of abuse told by the home’s residents.
Some residents were forced into sex or denied food and water as punishment, said Tomas Zeron, head of criminal investigations for the attorney general’s office. One woman told authorities she had been held against her will since she was 18, and was forcibly impregnated by a home administrator who then beat her to force a miscarriage. Two boys said they were forced to have oral sex with another administrator, Zeron said.
On Thursday, marches were being held in Zamora -- both against and in support of Mama Rosa.
Times researcher Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.
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