Mexican police rescue children from 'Jewish Taliban' jungle compound

Ex-Mossad agents were involved in the raid to save the children


Women members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish group are seen at the entrance of the building where they will remain in Guatemala City on September 2, 2014. 230 ultra-Orthodox Jews were expelled from the town of San Juan La Laguna by Mayan indigenous leaders. AFP PHOTO/Johan ORDONEZ (Photo credit should read JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Members of a group nicknamed the “Jewish Taliban” have been forced to leave a compound in the Mexican jungle after a police raid in which children and teenagers were taken into protective custody.

Four Israeli volunteers that included ex-Mossad agents aided Mexican police in the operation to rescue the young people from the Lev Tahor compound in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

Lev Tahor, a Jewish sect sometimes compared to a fundamentalist militia akin to the Taliban, is known for its strict and cult-like practices, including child marriage, harsh physical punishments, and mandatory head-to-toe robe coverings for girls as young as three.

Israel’s foreign ministry has said two members of the group, whose name is Hebrew for “pure heart”, have been arrested on suspicion of human trafficking and serious sexual offences, including rape.

Police entered the residence in the Mexican state of Chiapas on Friday morning after a federal judge ordered them to rescue members of the sect and arrest individuals accused of child abuse. The orders followed a long-running probe into the controversial group by the Mexican attorney general's Special Prosecutor for Organised Crime.

The Israeli foreign ministry confirmed that 26 people were discovered in the compound, including Israelis with dual citizenships of the US, Canada, and Guatemala.

The BBC reports that a Canadian and an Israeli citizen were arrested, while two other suspected abusers fled the compound days prior to the raid. Five arrests were made on suspicion of violating immigration law.

Other sect members removed from the compound are being temporarily housed by the Mexican Ministry of Welfare.

The sect, which is estimated to have between 200 and 300 members across the globe, has frequently crossed borders after receiving scrutiny from national and local authorities.

Aside from Mexico, members are currently known to reside in the US, Canada, North Macedonia, Morocco, and Guatemala. 

One three-year-old boy, the son of Israeli national Yisrael Amir who previously fled the sect, was among the group rescued from the Mexican hideout, and Mr Amri has now flown back to Israel with his son.

The operation was sparked in 2020 after Mr Amir and other relatives of people remaining in the sect requested help from one of the former Mossad agents. 

They undertook extensive surveillance of the sect and cooperated with local authorities, police, and were aided by a Guatemalan private investigator.

The sect had a presence in Guatemala since at least 2014, but an estimated 40 to 50 members illegally entered Mexico in January where they settled in the jungle close to the Guatemalan border. 

In 2015, the JC reported on a group of leading London-based Charedi rabbis who supported a fundraising event for the group, who had already been subject to various child protection investigations.

The sect came under heightened scrutiny in 2018 after nine of its members were arrested in Guatemala following a kidnapping scandal. It centred on a woman who had been attempting to travel to New York with her two children to abscond from the sect. The children had been taken from her as she tried to leave and were found weeks later in Mexico.

Four sect members including its incumbent head, Nachman Helbrans are serving prison sentences over the incident while several are awaiting trial.

The group was founded in 1988 in Israel by the current leader’s father Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans. Helbrans later relocated to New York City after facing backlash for his anti-Zionist views, where between 1994 and 1996 he served a two-year custodial sentence for kidnapping. He died at 54 in 2017 after drowning during a ritual immersion in Mexico.

The sect claims their practices sit within the boundaries of traditional Jewish law and argue that they are under attack for their beliefs.

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