Mexican authorities have raided a compound used by the extremist Jewish Lev Tahor cult along the Guatemalan border and rescued a three-year-old boy whose father had escaped the cult years ago, the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.
The Friday raid was carried out at the city of Tapachula in southeast Mexico and included dozens of local law enforcement and welfare workers. It was approved following an ongoing investigation by Mexican authorities that found evidence of cult members involved in human trafficking, rape, drug trafficking and other serious offenses.
A private Israeli team that was hired by relatives of some of the cult members stood by, as well as Israeli consul Lior Batzov, who was sent to the site to make sure that cult members were not treated with violence and that children are not separated from their parents, according to the Foreign Ministry.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that 26 members of the cult were detained by Mexican authorities, 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, which holds Israeli passports, has so far refused to return to Israel. While the Foreign Ministry said it believed Mexico would agree to deport the group to Israel, it stressed that it would try to avoid a violent confrontation and will continue to try and convince the cult members to return to Israel willingly.
The group will remain in Mexican custody for the next four days, the ministry said, adding that kosher food has been provided to them.
The Foreign Ministry said they were given “clean rooms” and are being treated by welfare workers amid reports in Mexican media that they were being held in “sub-human” conditions.
While the group will remain in Mexico for now, one exception is a young boy who was born into the cult three years ago and whose father, a former member of the extremist movement, had tried to rescue him ever since escaping three years ago.
Israel Amir and his son 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.
“Ever since I managed to escape I had one dream — saving my son from the nightmare of living in the cult,” he added.
“I knew there was no chance I would leave him to live a life of cruel laws, mind control, hunger and misery. My dream came true on Rosh Hashanah,” he said, referring to the Jewish New Year.
In a February Facebook post, Amir described his previous life in the cult as degrading and abusive.
“When I was a teenager in the cult I was always told to cancel myself, that I was worth nothing. They took my childhood away from me, my friends, my family, and basically all I had. But one thing they could not steal from me — my choice of a better life, to not take for granted what others chose for me,” he wrote at the time.
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.
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,” 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.
Luke Tress and AP contributed to this report.