HUIXTLA, Mexico — About 20 members of an extreme ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect overpowered guards and escaped a government shelter in southern Mexico where they had been held since one of their leaders was arrested last Friday on organized crime and human trafficking allegations.
Mostly made up of children wearing long, flowing robes, members of the Lev Tahor sect pushed their way out of the complex Wednesday night, climbing over one guard from a private security company who had fallen to the ground. The federal government’s shelter for children and families in Huixtla usually receives migrants detained by immigration officials.
They climbed aboard a waiting truck outside and headed toward Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Local police, the National Guard, and Mexico’s immigration agency said they did not pursue them.
On Friday, authorities arrested Menachem Endel Alter of Jerusalem, a leader of the Lev Tahor sect on allegations of organized crime and human trafficking in Tapachula near the Guatemalan border. Members of the sect said a second leader was also arrested, but authorities did not confirm it.
Lev Tahor has had legal problems elsewhere.
Last November, two leaders of the group were convicted of kidnapping and child sexual exploitation crimes in New York. They allegedly kidnapped two children from their mother to return a 14-year-old girl to an illegal sexual relationship with an adult male. The sect is known to have members in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, and Israel.
The 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.
Lev Tahor’s moves, machinations, and plans are all murky. Several dozen members of the group were moving around the Balkans earlier this year. Some members of the anti-Zionist group applied for political asylum in Iran in 2018. Documents presented at a US federal court in 2019 showed that leaders of the cult swore allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The group has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban,” because 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.
Luke Tress contributed to this report.