Authorities separated young boys and girls from adult members of an extremist Jewish cult during a raid in Mexico due to fears their lives could be endangered by others in the group trying to prevent their removal, a report said Tuesday.
Mexican law enforcement detained over two dozen people in Friday’s raid on a compound in the southeast of the country after an investigation by local authorities found evidence that Lev Tahor members were involved in human trafficking, rape, drug trafficking and other serious offenses.
The Foreign Ministry said a private Israeli team hired by relatives of some of the cultists was on hand during the raid as was Israeli consul Lior Batzov, who was sent to ensure cult members were not treated with violence and that children are not separated from their parents.
However, citing an Israeli source, the BBC reported that the children were quickly cordoned off from the other cult members, noting that both male and female officers from an elite Mexican police unit took part in the raid because of the women and children in the compound.
“The Mexican authorities did their duty in the best possible way,” the source said, stressing that they acted “very carefully and without resorting to any violence.”
Former Mossad agent Danny Limor, who took part in the operation, also hailed the conduct of Mexican police while noting the cult members did not go willingly.
“The cult members of course did not agree to be arrested and protested this,” he told the Ynet news site. “They did not receive us happily.”
A migrant from the Orthodox Jewish community Lev Tahor interacts with a Mexican National Guard while demanding the release of members of their community outside a SDIF facility, in Huixtla, Mexico, 27 September 2022.
???? epa/EFE/Juan Manuel Blanco#Mexico #epaimages #epaphotos pic.twitter.com/mOtbw2UF0p
— european pressphoto agency (@epaphotos) September 28, 2022
Limor expressed hoped some of the cult members would agree to return to their families in Israel following the “horrible behavior” Lev Tahor’s leaders imposed on them. He noted, though, that small groups continued to exist in Guatemala and elsewhere.
“However, this was a very strong blow. Now that the members of the cult are dispersed and their leadership is finished, [Lev Tavor] is weakening,” he said.
According to the Foreign Ministry, 26 members of the cult were detained in the raid, including two of its leaders. Some of the detained members may face up to 20 years in prison if they are found guilty by a Mexican court.
A state law enforcement official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case, said one of the group’s leaders, Menachem Endel Alter, had been arrested.
Two members of the cult who are wanted by local police were not at the compound at the time of the raid and are believed to have left two days earlier. Five other detained members were taken to an immigration facility and are expected to be deported from Mexico in the coming days to unspecified countries.
The remaining bulk of the group, who hold Israeli passports, has so far refused to return to Israel. The Foreign Ministry said it would continue to try to convince them to go willingly, but noted it believed Mexico would agree to deport them either way.
During the raid, Mexican police rescued the 3-year-old son of Israel Amir, a former cult member who has tried to retrieve his child since escaping three years ago. The two were finally reunited over the weekend and on Tuesday landed at Ben Gurion Airport.
“Now I can start building my new life as a young father in Israel,” Amir said in an interview with “Uvda,” an Israeli investigative and current affairs program on Channel 12.
בנו הקטן של ישראל עמיר, צעיר שברח מכת "לב טהור" – הושב לזרועותיו בעקבות הפשיטה במקסיקו, והם נחתו בארץ pic.twitter.com/673mM6Brxr
— ynet עדכוני (@ynetalerts) September 27, 2022
The extremist ultra-Orthodox sect was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in Jerusalem in the 1980s. The group fled to Canada and then to Guatemala in 2014, after coming under intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities for alleged child abuse and child marriage. Helbrans drowned in Mexico under mysterious circumstances in 2017 and his son took over the group.
An opposition group, Lev Tahor Survivors, has put the cult’s membership at between 300 to 350 people.
The group has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban,” as women and girls older than 3 are required to dress in long black robes covering their entire body, including their faces in most cases. The men spend most of their days in prayer and studying specific portions of the Torah. The group adheres to an extreme, idiosyncratic reading of kosher dietary laws.
Earlier this month, three members of the cult were sentenced by a US federal court for their role in a 2018 kidnapping, part of a case that has already led to the group’s unraveling and seen most of its leadership hauled away to prison.
Tobias Siegal, Luke Tress and The Associated Press contributed to this report.