About 500 people marched through this western Mexico city Thursday in support of the embattled but highly regarded founder of a shelter, raided amid allegations of sexual and physical abuse and filthy living conditions.
Shelter founder Rosa del Carmen Verduzco, known as "Mama Rosa," had been taking in children for about 65 years and drew support from the government, philanthropists and intellectuals for her "Gran Familia" group home.
But after a police raid on the refuse-strewn group home Tuesday, residents of the shelter told authorities that some employees beat and raped residents, fed them rotting food or locked them in a tiny "punishment" room.
Verduzco remains hospitalized under police guard as she is treated for diabetes and blood pressure problems. Eight of her employees also were detained.
"Mama Rosa, we are with you!" read signs carried by the marchers, most of who wore white T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "I, too, am a child of Mama Rosa."
"She was tough, because if she hadn't been, she couldn't have controlled us," said Ricardo de Jesus Verduzco, 32, who lived at the home between the ages of 6 and 24. He now lives outside the shelter and works as a security guard.
Like many shelter residents, Verduzco took or was formally given Mama Rosa's surname, Verduzco. "She gave me an opportunity to study, she gave me tools to survive in life," said Verduzco. He told of trips to movies, the beach and restaurants, saying they were always supervised.
A very different view of the founder could be seen outside the group home, where a garbage truck finished hauling away an estimated 20 tons of trash from what Mexican authorities said was an insect-infested compound that had housed around 600 adults and children, often against their will. Some relatives said Mama Rosa had refused to release their loved ones unless they paid thousands of dollars.
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.
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 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, Verduzco demanded 70,000 pesos ($5,400) for his release.
She recalled that Jose Antonio often barely spoke in front of the shelter employees, but that once he said "he wanted his mother to suffer the same thing he was suffering there."
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.
In total, the police raid on Tuesday freed six babies, 154 girls, 278 boys, 50 women and 109 men from the filthy shelter, federal officials said. Prosecutors said there were also 10 people who were so severely malnourished their ages couldn't be determined, for a total of 607. The National Human Rights Commission put the total number of rescued at 596, apparently counting one fewer adult and none of the 10 people of undetermined age.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said some of the home's 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."
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