ZAMORA: A nauseating smell of rotting food and excrement hangs in the air inside the Mexican shelter where authorities say hundreds of children lived squalor and endured physical and sexual abuse.
As investigators continued gathering horror stories from those inside and families outside pleaded to get their children back, journalists were allowed to visit La Gran Familia (The Big Family) to document the conditions in which 607 residents, more than 400 of them minors, were kept when authorities raided the shelter on Tuesday.
The three-story concrete building in the western town of Zamora looked normal enough at first, its front courtyard covered in playground equipment and brightly painted in green, blue, red and yellow. But an overpowering stench loomed in the rooms on the other side, where children playfully made faces at reporters from behind barred windows as workers in surgical masks cleaned up large piles of rotting food and other fetid trash.
But worse than the smell were the stories told by children living in the shelter, once a highly regarded facility whose octogenarian founder and director, Rosa del Carmen Verduzco, regularly received praise and funding from local and national politicians.
Verduzco, who has been arrested along with eight staff, has been dubbed the “loving dictator” by Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, one of a list of prominent figures who have rushed to her defense, including former president Vicente Fox.
But to many of the residents under her care, she was a fearsome tyrant at the head of an abusive staff.
“The women who worked here beat the little girls from the primary school... If you tried to escape, the members of staff would haul you in front of ‘The Boss’ (Verduzco) and beat you in front of her eyes,” said Cecilia Vazquez, 19, holding the baby she gave birth to inside the shelter.
“When I was pregnant they sent me to clean the toilets, they hit me. And I had a friend who was abused by one of the workers. There was a lot of injustice here,” she told AFP.
“One young girl had two children. She was hit by a man here — even when she was pregnant. She suffered a lot of violence.”
Investigators say residents have told them of being forced to perform oral sex on adults.
One resident reported being forced to perform “sexual acts in exchange for money” with a shelter employee, said investigation spokesman Tomas Zeron.
Another said an administrator sexually abused her and, upon hearing she was pregnant, hit her to trigger an abortion, Zeron said.
Investigators say they are also digging at a plot of land nearby in search of corpses, based on information given by some of the children.
- Unknown world outside -
Children spoke of being hit or left for weeks without food by Verduzco and her staff as punishment for transgressions such as hiding money sent by their parents or trying to escape.
One of “Mama Rosa’s” favorite punishments was locking children without food inside the “Pinocchio Room,” a dark, closet-sized space with the marionette boy painted on one wall, said 15-year-old orphan Ramon.
“How did ‘Mama Rosa’ treat you?” the prosecution agent leading journalists through the house asked a crowd of children.
“Bad!” they chanted in unison.
Some of the children barely knew the outside world except for a few excursions to perform with the shelter’s music group.
“I don’t know anything about outside. I’d like to go out and learn more about life. I know I can get ahead by studying out there,” said Teresita, a teenager with almond-shaped eyes whose deaf mother gave birth to her inside the shelter when she was 16 years old.
But some residents — such as 43-year-old Sandra who was abandoned by her mother as a baby and moved to the shelter 27 years ago — also defended Verduzco.
“Mama Rosa gave me what the mother who gave birth to me never did, and without her I don’t have anywhere to go, no family, nothing,” she said.
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