Mexican prosecutors say victims told harrowing tales of sexual abuse, beatings, hunger and filth in a once well-regarded group home where authorities freed a total of 607 adults and children in a raid.
Some were forced into sex by shelter employees and others told of being locked in a tiny punishment room without food or water at "La Gran Familia" (The Great Family) group home in the city of Zamora. Ten of the victims 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 (local time) freed six babies, 154 girls, 278 boys, 50 women and 109 men from the filthy shelter, where Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said inmates lived among 20 tons of garbage.
Police detained the owner, Rosa del Carmen Verduzco, and eight workers for questioning. Verduzco was hospitalised soon after for treatment of high blood pressure and diabetes, but was in good condition. Murrillo Karam said there had been testimony that might implicate her, but he would not say to what degree.
Verduzco, known in Zamora as "Mama Rosa", is a noted local children rights activist whose group home was often visited by politicians. Local media on Wednesday published several photographs of her with former President Vicente Fox, former Michoacan Governor Leonel Godoy and other officials.
Murillo Karam said some staff apparently tried to protect the children.
"There are statements that truly hurt, that make you angry," Murillo Karam 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 that the group home had once been highly regarded and that the government had sometimes given money or even entrusted children to the shelter. While it was subject to government oversight, Murillo Karam said that "the institute's prestige may have made the inspections less intense".
Earlier on Wednesday, the mother of a boy held at the group home said that she was allowed to see her child only three times a year and that the home's owner demanded US$2800 (NZ$3213) to release him.
Veronica Gamina told The Associated Press by telephone that four years ago she took her then 9-year-old boy to The Great Family group home in the city of Zamora because she had to work and couldn't take care of him.
When she returned to reclaim her now 13-year-old boy, "they told me to write letters explaining why I wanted him back, then they asked me for 37,000 pesos (US$2800) but I make 800 pesos (US$60) a week and couldn't get the money together," Gamina said. She spoke from outside the home, which was being guarded by police, and where she said about 70 parents had gathered.
Gamina, a 28-year-old sandwich shop worker, said she went to authorities after hearing about conditions at the home from someone who escaped.
The federal Attorney General's Office said the children remained in the home Wednesday and authorities made sure they were being fed while officials looked for places to transfer them. The youngsters were also being checked by doctors.
The investigation began after five parents filed complaints last year with authorities because they weren't allowed to see their children at the home, Michoacan Governor Salvador Jara said.
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 kept the youngsters, who were registered under the owner's name, Zeron said.
Murillo Karam 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 and many were never allowed to leave the premises.