Channel NewsAsia

Inside Mexican shelter, a world of fear and abuse

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.

ZAMORA, Mexico: A nauseating smell of rotting food and excrement hangs in the air inside the Mexican shelter where authorities say hundreds of children lived in 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 being 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 pervaded 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.

Worse than the smell were the stories told by children living in the shelter, once a highly regarded facility whose 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 to rush to her defence, including former president Vicente Fox and a group of writers and academics who published an open letter praising her work.

Amid the backlash, authorities said they would likely release Verduzco, who has been under police guard in a hospital where she checked in for stress after the raid.

Investigation spokesman Tomas Zeron, who said she would "probably" be released Saturday, cast doubt on whether the 80-year-old would ultimately be charged.

"The shelter did good work in its day," he told TV network Televisa. "Along the way, (Verduzco) lost control a little bit."

Prosecutors are still pursuing others arrested in the raid, including at least one employee who confessed to sexual abuse, he said.

Authorities said they found hundreds of children forced to sleep amid rats and insects and eat unfit food when they raided the shelter.

Parents have also accused the shelter of demanding they pay thousands of dollars to get their children back.

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 Zeron.

Another said an administrator sexually abused her and, upon hearing she was pregnant, beat her to trigger an abortion, he said.

Children spoke of being hit or left for weeks without food as punishment for transgressions such as hiding money sent by their parents or trying to escape.

"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.

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," said Teresita, a teenager 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 - 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.

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia