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ZAMORA, Mexico – For more than six decades, poor parents struggling to support their children or raise troubled youths sent them to a group home in western Mexico run by a woman who gained a reputation as a secular saint.
Rosa del Carmen Verduzco raised thousands of children in The Great Family home. She cultivated patrons among Mexico's political and intellectual elites, and was visited by presidents and renowned writers.
Then, last year, parents began complaining to authorities that they couldn't visit their children at the home. Residents told investigators of Dickensian horrors — rapes, beatings and children held against their will for years in trash-strewn rooms with filthy toilets.
On Tuesday, heavily armed federal police and soldiers raided the home and arrested nine caretakers, including the 79-year-old woman known as Mama Rosa.
The revelations spawned disgust and horror, but also a rush to Mama Rosa's defense by supporters who include some of Mexico's most respected intellectuals and some of the very children who say they were mistreated at her facility.
"It was a great job that she did in Zamora and now, clearly, she is being persecuted," Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico's most prominent writers, told Milenio Television. "What should be done, really, is that the government should take better care of people."
The outpouring of support appears based on the belief that Verduzco was not complicit in any abuse, even if her age and declining health stopped her from correctly overseeing the home. It also reflects deep skepticism of President Enrique Pena Nieto's government, which publicized the raid as an example of its efforts to protect children.
Tomas Zeron, federal chief of criminal investigations, told the Televisa network Friday that he doubts Verduzco will be charged with a crime, saying she lost control of a once-worthy charity because of her age, and would probably go free.
The Great Family appears to have operated more as a commune than a professionally run children's home. In interviews with The Associated Press, current and former residents described a chaotic world where troubled teenagers were overseen by adult residents, many of whom started living there as children themselves, with virtually no professional supervision.
The police raid on Tuesday found six babies, 154 girls, 278 boys, 50 women and 109 men, federal officials said. Prosecutors said 10 people were so severely malnourished they couldn't determine their ages.
Children and adult residents couldn't leave the home without a chaperone. Sex inside the facility was common, both consensual and, according to the government, rape and sexual abuse.
Luis Perez Juarez, 32, a waiter at a local bar, said he fled the home in 2003 after almost a decade there.
"She punished me, she hit me, she pulled my ears and she left me without food for a week," prompting other children to sneak him food, Juarez said of Verduzco. But, "she gave me a bed, a place to stay, food and an education, and I am grateful to her for that."
Many members of Mexico's elite remain loyal to her.
"Filth, abuse. Did that merit a military operation?" historian and essayist Enrique Krauze wrote on his Twitter account.
Former President Vicente Fox, whose administration helped gather donations for the home, wrote in his Twitter account that "a great injustice is being committed .... Mama Rosa, we know you and your great work."
The country's child-protection agency referred many of the children to the home after their parents said they were financially or emotionally unable to care for them. Funding was a mix of private donations and public money. Inspections apparently were lax or non-existent.
Former residents told the AP that Verduzco adopted many of the children, giving them her name.
Paid professionals living outside the home ran the elementary, junior high school and music programs, but most work was done by residents who came as children and stayed on as adults, helping care for youngsters in exchange for room, board and a tiny stipend. Of the eight people arrested with Verduzco, one was a professional teacher and the rest were former residents who stayed on, said Montserrat Marin Verduzco, Mama Rosa's niece. None have been formally charged.
Inside the home Thursday, government workers prepared lunch as the nearly 600 residents lounged and played on blankets and mattresses piled in rooms and on the patio. The children's fate is uncertain, although many will probably be returned to their parents.
Residents said consensual sex was common at the home, as were fights among residents, bullying and physical abuse. Karen Rodriguez Medina, 18, has a 6-month-old baby girl with a young man who also lives there.
"Yes, I am thankful to Mama Rosita for what she has done, but in other aspects no, because she allowed violence among us," Rodriguez Medina said. "She didn't give us diapers or things the baby needed, but she did give us a roof to live under."
Relatives said they were allowed only limited visits and when they sought to withdraw their family members Verduzco requested money for their release.
Maria Valdivia Vasquez, 65, said she was allowed only two visits a year with her 17-year-old grandson, whose mother abandoned him at the home a decade ago. She said when she requested the boy's release, Verduzco demanded 70,000 pesos ($5,400).
Raquel Briones Gallegos, 44, said she tried to get her 20-year-old son out in April. "They ran me out of the house and said insulting things," she said.
Dr. Alberto Sahagun, director of the hospital where Verduzco is under police guard while being treated for diabetes and blood pressure problems, said she was a strict but selfless crusader, adopting children nobody else wanted.
"She had to be tough, to handle several hundred children," said Sahagun.
He suggested that as Verduzco grew older, she may have lost control of the institution. And the iron character that forged her project kept her from delegating responsibility. "Her sin was not asking for help as she grew old."