ZAMORA Mexico (Reuters) - To her supporters, Rosa Verduzco dedicated her life to raising and helping thousands of children abandoned by their own parents.
Mexico’s government, however, says she presided over years of neglect and abused the children in her care.
Verduzco, 79, was arrested this week in an army and police raid on the refuge for abandoned or troubled children in Zamora in the western state of Michoacan known as “La Gran Familia” (The Big Family).
The government said the children were living in dire conditions and that some were sexually abused.
The allegations have shocked many Mexicans and Verduzco is the center of attention, portrayed as some by a monster and others as a victim of unfounded rumors.
Dozens of anxious family members waited outside the home through Wednesday night waiting to see the children who lived inside and were still being questioned by police on Thursday.
Accounts of Verduzco from outside the refuge were damning.
“She had cuffs so she could tie us to the wall hand and foot and beat us,” according to Victor Verduzco, a 54-year-old mechanic, who said he used to live in the refuge after being abandoned as a child. “I came because I want to see justice.”
“They had them like hostages,” said Alicia Hernandez, a 58-year-old teacher who said her grandson was in the home. “He told me that they used to hit them, that for up to a month they wouldn’t feed them.”
Outside the home stood garbage trucks piled high with tables and chairs. Discarded waste left a foul smell. Army, navy and police stood guard as families of residents waited.
The government says it rescued 458 boys and girls and detained Verduzco on suspicion of wilful deprivation of liberty and abuse at the vermin-infested home. Verduzco was taken to hospital after being questioned on Wednesday with one local official saying she suffered a nervous collapse.
As security forces interviewed children at the refuge and the government built its case against her, Verduzco drew support from some politicians and academics who knew her and said she worked tirelessly to help children. They included former President Vicente Fox.
Nicknamed “Mama Rosa”, Verduzco favored a simple, austere dress style and spoke in a hoarse, fast voice. She was often curt and bad-tempered with the families of children, according to the people waiting outside.
In a 2009 interview published on YouTube. Verduzco said she charged parents between 80 cents and $8 a month to look after children with behavioral problems and that the kids had to stay in the home until they were 18 years old.
For over 40 years she has run the refuge, which according to a Facebook page was founded in 1947. Funded by private businesses and individuals and government sources, it offered schooling and workshops for children and ran youth orchestras, it said on its page.
The raid on Tuesday came after the government received five complaints from parents claiming operators would not return their children to them. Since 2001, state prosecutors have received 15 other complaints, a local official said.
The government said children had been forced to beg on the streets, eat unsanitary food, and sleep among vermin, and that for years even benefactors were unaware of what was going on.
“Many people thought they were doing a good job, the government sent children there,” Attorney General Jesus Murillo told local radio on Wednesday.
But some prominent figures who admired Verduzco’s life of work with troubled children jumped to her defense.
Fox, who led Mexico between 2000 and 2006, praised her on Twitter. “Solidarity with Mama Rosa, I know you’re strong and all the good you’ve done for thousands of children and young people,” he said.
Widely respected Mexican historian Enrique Krauze also backed her. “The government’s harassment of Rosa Verduzco in Michoacan is impermissible,” he tweeted.
But Maria Esther Patricio from Uruapan, Michoacan, who brought her now 18-year-old son to the refuge eight years ago, said that the place was like a prison.
“They told us they found a hidden grave, which scares me. We want to get them out and for this nightmare to end,” she said.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper, Anahi Rama, Luis Rojas and Christine Murray; Editing by Kieran Murray