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‘We Had Everything but Freedom’: Inside Mexico's Shelter of Horrors

Some 450 children, and six infants, lived in squalid conditions at La Gran Familia, a group shelter now under investigation in Michoacán.

by Charbell Lucio
Jul 21 2014, 11:05pm

Photo by Andrés Garcés

Mexican authorities have released an elderly operator of a group shelter after federal officials raided her facility in western Mexico and found deplorable conditions, such as rats and maggot infestations, while allegations of sexual abuse and other horrors among the 600 children and adults who lived there have begun to emerge.

Rosa María del Carmen Verduzco, a 79-year-old well-regarded figure in her home state of Michoacán, left federal custody on Sunday without charges and was transferred to a hospital near Guadalajara for supervision over a heart condition.

Six employees of La Gran Familia shelter who were detained after the July 15 raid remained in custody on Monday after witnesses accused them of sexual assault, mistreatment, and being held in the squalid complex against their will. Two others were released.

Yet there is uncertainty in the case of Rosa Verduzco’s shelter, as the public view of her does not match the reality revealed inside the facility.

“Mama Rosa,” as Verduzco is affectionately known, remained steadfast this weekend, receiving adoring visitors to her hospital beside and telling Mexican daily El Universal that she expected to recuperate her shelter in the city of Zamora and keep it running.

While federal investigators claimed last week that La Gran Familia was a focal point of crime and abuse, decades worth of Verduzco’s built-up relationships in Mexico have resulted in an outpouring of support from prominent figures, ranging from celebrated author Elena Poniatowska to Mexico’s former president Vicente Fox. Fox on Sunday said he’d pledge his charity's support to help reopen La Gran Familia.

In the hours and days since the raid, supporters of “Mama Rosa” have demonstrated by the hundreds in favor of her release and in support of the shelter, while others who saw the suffering inside have rallied against her. And in a sign of the political ramifications of the case, the leading figures coming out in defense of “Mamá Rosa” are predominantly members of parties or movements in opposition to the currently ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

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The dormitories in La Gran Familia had no beds, only decrepit metal frames. Photos by Andrés Garcés.

‘It was like a hell’
What remains indisputable are the squalid, filthy conditions federal agents found at La Gran Familia, and the testimonies of the 278 boys, 154 girls, 109 men, and 50 women — as well as six infants — who were found living there.

José Gómez, 14, lived in the shelter along with nine siblings. With regards to “Mamá Rosa,” he said that she should “pay for what she did.”

“Beatings, more than anything,” Gómez said. “They used to hit me, they would lock me up without food sometimes, and wouldn’t let me out until she told them to.”

Yet, “we do have some support for her," he went on. "Right now, my brothers and I would be out there, I don’t know, dead, or kidnapped, or on drugs. This was like a home. We had everything, but freedom.”

One former resident, a 20-year-old who declined to reveal his name, said he lived in La Gran Familia for “four years, four months, and two days.” He said he eventually escaped.

“When I was inside, it was like a hell, everything was: the food, the rooms, the treatment toward us,” the man said. “It was a bad, ugly situation.”

Relatives of residents inside the shelter wait their turn to take a DNA identifying test to claim their loved ones.

Others interviewed by VICE News outside of the shelter — family members who were waiting for information on their children, siblings, or grandchildren — indicated that once their loved ones had been admitted to Mamá Rosa’s house, communication with those inside was rare.

“I came to see my son in April. They ran me away terribly. They didn’t let me see him or give him money. They told my son that I hadn’t come to see him, and every time I would call on the phone they wouldn’t let me speak to him,” said Raquel Gallegos, who took her son to the shelter as a way to discipline him.

“I signed for him to be sheltered there until he turned 18 years old, but they wouldn’t let me get him out,” she added. “Now he is 20 years old and they are finally going to return him.”

Mothers said they had managed to contact their children only to discover that, like others who were admitted, they had already created their own families inside.

“I have a 22-year-old son. He has been admitted for about six or seven years,” Libia Magaña, who had spent three days outside the shelter hoping to enter, told VICE News. “He was definitely being treated poorly. I snuck contraband supplies to him so that he could eat. He has even made his life there. He has a daughter, a six-month-old girl.”

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A girl dances in a door to one of the shelter's dormitories.

Inside the shelter
La Gran Familia opened its doors in 1947. For more than six decades, families in Michoacán and neighboring states left their children in the care of Rosa Verduzco hoping she’d offer them a better life or turn them away from bad behavior. There, “Mamá Rosa” promised to transform her wards into “good people.”

She had plenty of experience. Abandoned as an orphan herself, Verduzco began caring for unwanted minors as a teenager, eventually formalizing her work and establishing the shelter she called La Gran Familia in the same place it sits today.

The government authorized media access to the shelter’s interior late last week. From the street, the smells of excrement, urine, and mold were pungent.

The shelter has three patios, which residents inside referred to as the first, second, and third “lives.” It wasn't clear why the patios were labeled this way, but residents said visitors, when they were permitted, were only allowed to enter the first patio. The kitchen and dining area give off an almost unbearable odor, and were found to have a stockpile of rancid food, and leftovers that had been accumulating for years.

'Mamá Rosa said that I couldn’t go out, because we had already signed a contract until we were 18, and I had to wait.'

On the patio referred to as the “second life,” mountains of trash, broken toys and appliances, books, magazines, and every kind of rubbish invaded the space that was designated for children’s play. The surrounding rooms were piled with enormous amounts of trash, making it impossible to enter, while the occupants’ rooms were set-up on the second, third, and fourth floors.

The rooms were protected by metal bars, which were occasionally locked with padlocks, indicating jail-like conditions.

Although the poor state of the facility was apparent, some of the youths who were still inside when we visited acknowledged that Verduzco was responsible for multiple abuses, yet said they were still appreciative of her. In some cases, some of the young girls, although still minors themselves, said they became mothers inside La Gran Familia.

Karen Edith, a 16-year-old girl and mother of a child she had with one of the shelter’s staff, said she had been housed at the shelter for four years. She said she was “grateful” to “Mamá Rosa” for offering her shelter.

“For good or for bad, Mamá Rosita has supported us,” Edith said as she cradled the six-month-old daughter she had with a man who is now 22. “I did want to leave, to go to school and to work, so I could give my little girl a new life, but Mamá Rosa said that I couldn’t go out, because we had already signed a contract until we were 18, and I had to wait.”

In some cases, according to parents and family members of residents, “Mamá Rosa” requested money in order to free their children from the shelter. The majority of the families, however, are low-income families that were unable to cover the 50,000 pesos that was asked of them.

On Monday, authorities continued transferring former residents of La Gran Familia to other government shelters and homes, reports said. Authorities said they lacked evidence to keep Rosa Verduzco in custody, and it remained unclear what would happen to the facility in Zamora as the investigation continued.

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