Eleven children have been rescued by police after they were discovered living in squalid conditions in a makeshift compound in rural northern New Mexico.
Taos County Sheriff’s officials said the youngsters, ranging in age from one to 15, were removed from the compound in the small community of Amalia 145 miles north-east of Albuquerque and in an isolated high-desert area near the New Mexico-Colorado border.
Three women, believed to be the mothers of the children, were detained and later released.
Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said they were ‘the saddest living conditions and poverty’ he has seen in 30 years on the job.
He said that other than a few potatoes and a box of rice, there was little food in the compound, which consisted of a small travel trailer buried in the ground and covered by plastic with no water, plumbing or electricity.
The starving children were handed over to state child-welfare workers.
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Sheriff Hogrefe said two men were arrested during the search, which came amid a two-month investigation in collaboration with authorities in Clayton County, Georgia, and the FBI.
He said FBI agents had surveilled the area a few weeks ago but did not find probable cause to search the property.
Siraj Wahhaj was detained on an outstanding warrant in Georgia alleging child abduction and Lucas Morten, was jailed on suspicion of harbouring a fugitive.
A three-year-old boy reported missing from Clayton County since December 2017 was not among the 11 children found at the compound but officials believed he had been held there recently.
That changed when Georgia detectives forwarded a message to Sheriff Hogrefe’s office that initially had been sent to a third party, saying: ‘We are starving and need food and water.’
The sheriff said there was reason to believe the message came from someone inside the compound.
The group appeared to have been living at the compound for a few months, but the sheriff said it remains unclear how or why they ended up in New Mexico.