MEXICO CITY – Kidnap victims freed from a rehab center in Mexico City said they were snatched from the streets and held in slave-like conditions — beaten, robbed and forced to work 16 hours a day making shopping bags and clothes pins.
Some of the 107 victims said Friday they were forbidden from talking for as long as a week at a time by guards they called the "godfathers" of the Chosen of God center, and were never compensated for months of labor.
"They didn't pay us a single peso," said Efrain Torres, 36, a cargo loader at a produce market who claimed he was hustled into a van at midnight months ago by the center's employees. Torres told MVS Radio the work schedule was 16 hours per day, and "anyone who wouldn't work ... they punished us by making us stand upright in the bathroom for three days."
The Mexico City Attorney General's Office said 23 suspects have been detained for allegedly acting as guards and overseers at the three-story building with barred doors and windows, located in a poor neighborhood on the city's eastern edge. A sign covering much of the exterior wall describes it as an "Institute for Rehabilitation of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction."
The gang that ran the "Chosen of God" rehabilitation center apparently targeted the homeless and other apparently vulnerable people on the streets.
Human rights activists claim city government officials knew about the kidnappings since at least June, and may have tolerated the practice as a way of cleaning vagrants off the streets.
"It is not just this center. This was part of a series of actions known as 'social cleansing,' with the clear aim of making the city look more clean, pretty, tourist-friendly," said Clara Becerra, a social worker for the rights group El Caracol, which filed a complaint with the city human rights commission after street people complained of being forced into vans in June.
Becerra said a half-dozen victims who were taken to the center that time — and later released — complained of similar mistreatment. The victims told her group that a city police car accompanied the vans in which they were kidnapped, "acting as sort of an observer."
Mexico City Attorney General Miguel Mancera said he is investigating that report. He said other victims spoke of sexual abuse, including prostitution, and the 23 suspects are being held on suspicion of human trafficking.