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Two leaders of extremist Lev Tahor ultra-Orthodox cult arrested in Guatemala

Local and US police raid community to nab brothers Shmiel and Yoel Weingarten, wanted in NY for child kidnapping, exploitation; unconfirmed reports of gunfire during operation

Members of the Lev Tahor sect leave Guatemalan city San Juan La Laguna after being forced out in August 2014. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Illustrative: Members of the Lev Tahor sect leave Guatemalan city San Juan La Laguna after being forced out in August 2014. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Guatemalan and US police raided an extremist ultra-Orthodox sect on Tuesday in a joint raid in the central American nation, arresting two of its leaders on suspicion of abusing and kidnapping children, Hebrew media reported.

The suspects were identified in reports, citing local Guatemalan media, as brothers Shmiel Weingarten and Yoel Weingarten.

Sources who have escaped from the cult described the two as the “brains” of Lev Tahor, the Kikar Hashabbat website said.

According to Guatemalan reports, last week an FBI agent and two members of the local police force initially penetrated the secluded community located on a remote farm in the village of El Amatillo, in Oratorio, Santa Rosa.

The infiltrators posed as humanitarian workers and spent days with the sect during which time they gathered information for the coming raid.

Reports said that some 100 US and Guatemalan police officers were involved in Tuesday’s raid, backed up by 40 patrol cars. The large force was summoned as authorities feared a violent reaction against the arrests.

There were unconfirmed reports of an exchange of gunfire between sect members and law enforcement, said Kikar Hashabbat which caters to the ultra-Orthodox community.

US federal authorities filed child exploitation and child abduction charges against the Weingarten brothers, as well as three other leaders, in April.

They were charged by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and the FBI with crimes related to an alleged forced marriage of a child in 2017 and a 2018 kidnapping.

The charges include conspiring to transport a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and conspiring to travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct. The first charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison and maximum of lifetime in prison; the second carries a maximum of 30 years in prison.

According to the US Justice Department’s announcement of the charges, Nachman Helbrans and his team “embraced several extreme practices, including strict, invasive monitoring of members, frequent beatings, and forced marriages of minors to adult members. Children in Lev Tahor are often subject to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.”

Illustrative: A young woman and member of the Lev Tahor community in the Canadian city of Chatham, Ontario, November 29, 2013. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images, JTA)

Young brides in the community were expected “to have sex with their husbands, to tell people outside Lev Tahor that they were not married, to pretend to be older, and to deliver babies inside their homes instead of at a hospital, partially to conceal from the public the mothers’ young ages.”

Helbrans, one of the men charged at the time, arranged a marriage in 2017 between his 12-year-old niece and an 18-year-old man, according to the filing. They were married in 2018 and began a sexual relationship.

Later that year, the girl’s mother escaped from the group and fled to the United States with the girl and the girl’s younger brother, arriving in New York in November 2018.

According to the Justice Department, in December 2018, the five men then kidnapped the girl, then 14 years old, and her brother in the middle of the night and brought them back to her 20-year-old “husband” in Mexico. The children were returned to New York several weeks later by law enforcement but the group tried to kidnap them again on two further occasions.

Nachman Helbrans is the son of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, who founded Lev Tahor in the 1980s, and became the group’s leader in 2017 after the death of his father. The other men charged are Mayer Rosner, Yakov Weingarten, Shmiel Weingarten and Yoel Weingarten.

Lev Tahor founder Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans leaves state Supreme Court in Brooklyn, New York following a hearing, April 13, 1994. (AP Photo/Betsy Herzog)

Yakov Weingarten was arrested in Guatemala in March, on the first day of Passover.

The group was founded in Jerusalem. It fled to Canada and then to Guatemala in 2014 after coming under intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities for alleged child abuse and marrying off children.

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, leaving only their faces exposed. The men spend most of their days in prayer and studying specific portions of the Torah.

Lev Tahor subscribes to a strict, idiosyncratic version of kosher laws. Members believe that genetic engineering has rendered modern-day chickens nonkosher.

“Marriages” between minor teenagers and older members are common.

Guatemalan authorities have been monitoring leaders of Lev Tahor, which is now based in the country, in recent years. Members of the group, which is anti-Zionist, have applied for political asylum in Iran.

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