Children rescued from a squalid shelter home in western Mexico have told horror stories after police raided it over allegations of kidnappings, sexual assaults, beatings and other abuses.
Police found 607 people in total, most of whom were held against their will, living in deplorable conditions when they raided "The Big Family" charitable shelter in Michoacan state on Tuesday.
Authorities arrested the facility's director, Rosa del Carmen Verduzco and eight employees after early investigations indicated that they inflicted "a variety of physical and psychological abuse" on the residents, said Tomas Zeron de Lucio, an investigator at the attorney general's office.
The victims were forced to beg in the street for money, sleep on the floor among rats, ticks and flee, and were fed rotten food.
Maria Ampudia, a children's rights activist who entered the house with a clean-up team, said that the beds were infested with cockroaches and vermin.
The children "hid potatoes because they did not know when they were going to eat", she said.
Some relatives of the youths said that when they tried to remove their loved ones from the shelter they were met with either rejections or demands of thousands of dollars for their release.
Rape and starvation
Some of the residents were forced into having sex with shelter employees, while others said they were locked up in a tiny punishment room without food or water, officials said.
Ten of the victims were so underfed that police could not even determine their age.
Tomas Zeron, a federal chief of the criminal investigations, said that one of the girls who had been held in the group home for years was raped by one of the shelter's administrators and got pregnant as a result. The same person then beat her in the stomach repeatedly to cause an abortion.
Two boys told investigators that 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 her refused", Zeron said.
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 Governor Leonel Godoy and other officials.
Some parents of victims of the shelters' mistreatment said Verduzco's political influence had deterred them from fighting to get their children back.
"At the Michoacan prosecutor's office, they just told me it was impossible to do anything against that lady," Avigail Martinez, who had come to bring home her son, told the AFP news agency.