Feedback
News

Inside La Gran Familia Group Home - Mexico's 'House of Horrors'

Image: MEXICO-CRIME-CHILDREN

Children stay in a bedroom inside "La Gran Familia"(The big family) shelter, where more than 48 hours ago police rescued 596 people, including 458 children in Zamora, Michoacan State, Mexico on July 17, 2014. Mexican authorities Tuesday found nearly 600 people, most of them children, living in squalid conditions amid rats and insects in a residential facility, after complaints of abuse and kidnapping. HECTOR GUERRERO / AFP - Getty Images

ZAMORA, MEXICO -- This week, Mexican military soldiers and federal police raided La Gran Familia, (The Great Family), a group home serving poor children, most of them abandoned or homeless. When police arrived, they found 458 children living in vermin-infested conditions. The children had allegedly been victims of routinely physical and sexual abuse and starvation. Nine adults are under arrest, including the founder and director of The Great Family, Rosa Del Carmen Verduzco, known as “Mama Rosa.” Charges include holding minors against their will.

NBC’s Telemundo correspondent Cristina Londoño went inside the group home after the raid.

“She would hit us, and feed us food with worms,” one of the boys said on Telemundo’s camera, talking of the rotten food they had to eat. Twenty tons of trash have been removed from the home, according to Mexican authorities.

Image: Children place their hands on a barred window inside a home known as "La Gran Familia", in the western city of Zamora
Children place their hands on a barred window inside a home known as "La Gran Familia" (The Big Family), in the western city of Zamora July 17, 2014. Mexico said it had rescued 458 children from the vermin-infested refuge for abandoned boys and girls, some of whom it believes to have been sexually abused. The attorney general's office said authorities raided La Gran Familia, following at least 50 complaints about its operators. The refuge was run by Rosa Verduzco, who is now being questioned by authorities.HENRY ROMERO / Reuters

Outside, parents of children in the group home became desperate. One mother yelled outside the group home, “I want my daughter back now.” “Support us now,” she cried.

But before family members are able to get a hold of any children, they must first submit to DNA tests, present statements to police, and wait for the results.

Cristina Londoño found the area where “Mama Rosa” would sleep. A number of cans with money sit on her furniture, which according to police, were given to the children to go beg on the streets. The cans were numbered for tracking records. They read, “A little from you, a lot for us.”

Just outside the main playground, there is an isolated punishment room, known as "Pinocho" (Pinocchio) by the children. Its walls have improper windows and an old rusty door, filled with bags of clothing and boxes.

An investigator, who asked to not have his name published for retaliation, showed Londoño the room in which children were kept for several weeks. “When we arrived at the group home, we found two minors. They had cuts on their hands and were being held captive here,” said the investigator.

“One month, sometimes two months, or until ‘the boss’ would say take them out,” was the time the kids would be kept in there, said one boy familiar with the punishment room.

Today, the state is divided by this scandal over the highly-regarded refuge home.

While “Mama Rosa,” continued to be hospitalized after a supposed nervous breakdown, the country has seen a divide among those holding her responsible for what happened in the home and those supporting her, which include local residents and many of the country's leaders and intellectuals. A group of supporters wearing white shirts and pink hats marched on the streets of Zamora Thursday afternoon protesting the government for what they called “an attack against her kind acts.”

Their signs read, “I too am a son of Rosa,” and “Free Rosa.”

Former President Vicente Fox, was among the list of those supporting Verduzco. He sent a tweet of solidarity for “Mama Rosa” Wednesday evening, saying she has helped thousands of kids over decades. Those who support her say she must have lost control of what happened at the group home

But as a group of parents counter-protested the supporters by yelling “get out of here,” some of the children and adults who had lived there had harsh words for the woman held up as a kind benefactor.

Victor Verduzco was abandoned by his parents at the group home as a child and was given Mama Rosa’s last name. He told Londoño the abuse had a long history. “What she did here with the kids was a business. She had us as a business and made us into slaves,” he said. Victor escaped the group home when he was a teen.

Telemundo was taken into the “back garden” by the investigator, a strictly prohibited zone of the group home. Authorities said they are trying to figure out multiple reports that bodies of deceased children were buried there.

Right now, many of the children remain in the home. They have nowhere else to go. The kids range in age from infants to teens.

--Juan Juarez, NBC News