A court in Peru has ordered the release of an Israeli woman held in the country for two years over allegations of attempted drug smuggling, the Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday.
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’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 Channel 12 news.
An official release letter has not yet been granted, according to the Ynet news site, but the paperwork is expected to be approved in the coming days and Monsonego will be able to return to Israel before the Rosh Hashanah holiday next month.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and former president Reuven Rivlin were both personally involved in efforts to bring about Monsonego’s release. Lapid phoned Monsonego on Wednesday night to share the news.
“In my first week in the office, I appointed a special team to handle Hodaya’s release and worked closely with them. We will not celebrate before we see her land in the country, but this news has already allowed me to rejoice. For me, protecting and caring for young people with special needs is part of my life,” said Lapid, who has a daughter with special needs, in a statement.
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.
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, raise funds, and pressure Israeli authorities to secure her release.