MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican authorities confirmed Tuesday that members of a tiny, mysterious evangelical sect had taken and kept about a dozen children who vanished from a Mexico City children's shelter in 2008.
Prosecutors announced Tuesday that three more of the children had been found, bringing to 12 the number of kids located out of a total of 15 who went missing from the Casitas del Sur shelter.
A federal official says the three newly found people showed up last week at prosecutors' offices in Puebla state, not far from Mexico City. They identified themselves as children taken from the shelter, though two are now adults.
Like many of the other recovered children, they had been given in a sort of illegal adoption to church members. Many of the youths have expressed desires to see their real families, according to the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
The Attorney General's Office said members of the religious group known as The Restored Christian Church ran the shelter, and had given the children to members of the congregation to raise.
The shelter, whose name translates as "Little Houses of the South" because it was located in southern Mexico City, was used by child welfare authorities to house children from broken families or whose parents were temporarily unable to care for them.
By the time some relatives asked for their children back, they had disappeared. The shelter was raided by police in 2008 and dozens of children were removed from it, but some remained missing. The church has previously denied any involvement in the disappearances, but its leaders could not be located for comment on Tuesday.
It wasn't until 2009 that prosecutors located the first of the missing children, who had been moved around various shelters run by the group in Mexico.
Religion expert Bernardo Barranco said the sect took advantage of the Mexican government's lack of adequate shelters for at-risk youth by offering its services under the guise of a philanthropic effort.
"The Casitas del Sur were just a facade for an ambitious indoctrination project ... to take children who were defenseless, trusting, blank slates, who would believe everything the sect told them," said Barranco.
Barranco recalled that, at the time the shelter was finally raided, "The kids didn't want to come out, they didn't want to see the daylight or have contact with people, because the world was full of perversion, it was bad, they were afraid."
While there have been several arrests in the case, there have been few convictions, and children's-rights activist and lawyer Margarita Griesbach — who for a time represented the family of one of the missing kids — said she fears not much has changed since the scandal broke out.
"The authorities bear a lot of the responsibility for all of this" because they sometimes entrusted children to the groups without following proper legal procedure, and without having checked out the shelter enough, Griesbach said.
"Today, the staffing and the procedures for the care of children in the government's temporary shelter continue to create conditions that make another Casitas del Sur case possible," said Griesbach.