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Disabled Israeli returns home after 2-year detention in Peru on drugs charge

Hodaya Monsonego, 24, had been held in South American country over allegations of cocaine smuggling; family says she was duped

Hodaya Monsonego, an Israeli woman who was jailed in Peru, is greeted by relatives upon her arrival at Ben Gurion Airport on September 24, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Hodaya Monsonego, an Israeli woman who was jailed in Peru, is greeted by relatives upon her arrival at Ben Gurion Airport on September 24, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

An Israeli woman held in Peru for two years over allegations of attempted drug smuggling returned to Israel early Friday.

Hodaya Monsonego, 24, a resident of Hof Ashkelon, was arrested in 2019 in Lima for her alleged involvement in an attempt to smuggle a large amount of cocaine from Peru to Israel. She was jailed in Lima for a year before being released to house arrest in May 2020, where she has remained since.

Monsonego landed in Israel early Friday, where she was greeted by family members.

“Hodaya, welcome home! We’ve been waiting for you,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted.

A court in Peru ordered the release last month.  Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and former president Reuven Rivlin were both personally involved in efforts to bring about Monsonego’s release.

Monsonego’s family says she is cognitively impaired and was likely exploited by a friend and the friend’s former brother-in-law, who is the alleged mastermind of the operation.

According to the family, Monsonego’s friend, identified as Smadar Zohar, invited her on a trip abroad and paid for her ticket.

Her siblings, interviewed on Channel 12 last year, said Monsonego was excited to be going on the trip and did not suspect anything was amiss. Monsonego’s brother Ahiya told the TV channel that he spoke to Zohar before the trip. Zohar explained that she was traveling to Madrid with her sister and nephews and suggested that Monsonego could help out with the children, he said.

Hodaya Monsonego, 24, was imprisoned in Lima, Peru for her alleged involvement in a suspected drug smuggling operation. (Screenshot/Channel 12)

The siblings said Monsonego communicated with them daily from Madrid and sent them photos from the city.

After a week and a half in Madrid, recalled Monsonego’s sister Tehila, Hodaya told her they were flying to Montana. Tehila inquired why they were headed there but didn’t receive a clear answer. After about a day, Monsonego could not be reached, her sister said.

Monsonego never traveled to the US, though she thought that was their destination, according to the report. From Madrid, Monsonego, Zohar and her nephews flew to Lima where they stayed in a hostel for a few days before making their way back to the airport, ostensibly to head home to Israel.

According to the report, the two adult women and the two children traveled with luggage that appeared to be newly bought. Local police officers, which according to the report were trailing them from the moment they arrived in Peru, arrested them after finding a large amount of cocaine in the suitcases.

Monsonego and Zohar were both detained and the children were sent home to their parents in Israel. It was not immediately clear whether the Israeli authorities have also intervened on Zohar’s behalf and where she is currently being held.

Monsonego’s siblings said she was easily impressionable and was often taken advantage of by others due to her cognitive disability.

According to the Channel 12 report, the person behind the smuggling operation is Yoni Mellul, Zohar’s former brother-in-law. According to a criminal indictment later filed against him in Israel, Mellul approached Zohar and asked her to travel to Peru to bring back some suitcases. He suggested she bring a friend along and be accompanied by his children to avoid raising suspicion.

Mellul allegedly bankrolled the whole trip and directed the operation from Israel.

Zohar was to fly back with the suitcases, in which some 20 kilograms of cocaine were hidden.

Mellul has denied the charges against him. According to documents seen by Channel 12, Zohar had traveled to Peru several times in recent years, including one trip with Mellul.

Monsonego’s family mounted a social media campaign in Israel to raise awareness about their sister’s situation, raised funds, and pressured Israeli authorities to secure her release.

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