ZAMORA Mexico (Reuters) - Children in a squalid home for abandoned and troubled kids run by a controversial mother figure in western Mexico said hunger and regular beatings drove them to offer sex for food and get high by sniffing paint.
Mexican police raided the refuge known as "La Gran Familia" (The Big Family) in the state of Michoacan on Tuesday, finding more than 450 kids in squalid rooms filled with trash and cockroaches.
Many of the children, skinny and listless, described enduring years of abuse at the hands of home administrators including 79-year-old "Mama" Rosa Verduzco, who ran the home in the town of Zamora and has been detained on charges of deprivation of liberty and abuse.
"I wanted to kill myself out of desperation," said Carlos, an 18-year-old resident, showing knife cuts on his arm at the home on Thursday. "I want to get out of here now."
Dozens of families waited outside the home on Thursday, waiting to see their kids who were still being questioned by police.
The home was founded in 1947 and provided kids with schooling, workshops and youth orchestras. It received financial backing from individuals, the government and businesses, according to its Facebook page.
Verduzco had won praise from politicians and respected academics for spending more than four decades sheltering children in Michoacan, one of the poorest states in Mexico and ravaged by some of the worst violence in the country's drug war.
But the raid this week revealed filthy conditions at the home.
Behind dirt-encrusted, barred windows, kids in lodgings that smelled of urine and feces told reporters that many children were raped, beaten and sent out into the streets to beg.
"Mama Rosa cursed a lot and they would hit you if you said no," said a 9-year-old resident who did not know his own name.
Many of the children born in the home were given Verduzco's surname and did not appear to know their first names, referring to each other by their nicknames.
Some residents described youngsters being raped by a caretaker in a bathroom that was known as "pinocho". Others said they were confined there as a form of punishment.
"Once they hit me until I couldn't breathe. They left me on the ground and when I woke up I was locked in the pinocho," said an 11-year-old child called "Payasito", or "little clown".
The allegations could not be independently confirmed but children at the home on Thursday said the abuse drove some kids to seek refuge in drug use, sniffing paint to get high. They faced beatings if they were discovered, they said.
Authorities launched the raid after receiving five complaints from parents who said administrators would not return their children to them. The plan is now to reunite children with their families where possible and find other homes for orphans.
"My hope is to get out of here," said a 16-year-old girl at the home with a 6-month old baby. "So that my daughter will never go through what I went through."
(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz, Writing by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Kieran Murray)