An extremist Jewish sect living in southern Mexico may have been forming plans to flee to Iran before their compound was raided last week.
The Lev Tahor compound near Tapachula, in far southern Mexico, was raided early on Friday by Mexican federal police cooperating with a team of advisors from Israel, including former Mossad agents.
Two sect leaders — identified as Menachem Mendel Alter and Moshe Joseph Rosner — were arrested on charges of human trafficking, and roughly 19 women and children from the group are being held at a migrant facility in Huixtla.
One three-year-old boy held by the group was reunited with his father Yisrael Amir, a former Lev Tahor member who has been trying to gain custody since disavowing the sect several years ago.
Lev Tahor, dubbed a ‘dangerous cult’ by Israeli courts, has faced allegations of kidnapping and sexual abuse, and its strict rules mandating head-to-toe coverings for women led the Israeli press to dub the group the ‘Jewish Taliban’.
Officials in Mexico and Israel pushed forward with the raid amid fears that the group planned to relocate to Iran, a move that would put them out of reach of former members such as Amir who hoped to rescue family members.
Leaders of the anti-Zionist sect previously sought asylum in Iran for the entire group, and swore an oath of allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to US federal court filings in a 2019 criminal case.
Lev Tahor members gather outside a migrant facility in Huixtla, Mexico on Tuesday to demand the release of 19 women and children being held there following a raid on the group
A Lev Tahor member argues with a Mexican National Guardsman at the migrant facility. The extremist sect is believed to have been planning a move to Iran
Lev Tahor members protest in Huixtla after an operation by Mexican federal police to arrest leaders of the extremist sect and detain woman and children from the group
Lev Tahor leaders previously sought asylum in Iran for the entire group, and swore an oath of allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (seen last week)
Last November, about 70 members of the Lev Tahor sect who had been living in Guatemala were detained while trying to cross into Iran from northern Iraq. Iraqi officials deported the group to Turkey.
Israeli family members of the sect members were deeply concerned by the group’s apparent plans to move to Iran, fearing that they would be used as hostages against Israel or even publicly executed, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The group’s plans and movements are murky, however, and since its founding in the 1980s the sect has relocated repeatedly over the years, moving between Israel, the US, Canada, Guatemala and Mexico to avoid investigations into alleged child abuse.
The Lev Tahor group raided last week in Tapachula, which is in Mexico’s Chiapas state in far southern Mexico, has lived there since leaving Guatemala in 2014 following friction with locals and tourists.
Israel’s foreign ministry said that 26 people were found in the compound on Friday, and that two of them, a Canadian and an Israeli citizen, were arrested on charges of human trafficking and sex offenses including rape.
Five more were detained for allegedly breaking immigration rules, and the remaining members, including women children, are being housed by the Mexican Ministry of Welfare, Israel said.
Lev Tahor members protest outside the INM office in Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico
Israel’s foreign ministry said that 26 people were found in the compound on Friday, and that two of them, a Canadian and an Israeli citizen, were arrested on charges of human trafficking
The Lev Tahor group raided last week in Tapachula, which is in Mexico’s Chiapas state in far southern Mexico, has lived there since leaving Guatemala in 2014
The women and children being held by the Mexican government hold Israeli passports, but have so far refused to return to Israel, officials said
The women and children being held by the Mexican government hold Israeli passports, but have so far refused to return to Israel, according to the Times of Israel.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it believed Mexico would agree to deport the group to Israel, but stressed that it continued to seek their willing return.
Mexican officials have not confirmed the exact number of women and children being held at a National Institute of Migration facility in Huixtla, where members of the local ultra-Orthodox community gathered to protest their detention on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Moshe Alter, the brother of criminally charged sect leader Mendel Alter, delivered food to about two dozen women and children held at the government shelter.
He said authorities had also taken away a three-month-old baby whose mother was now in the shelter. He said he did not know where the baby was taken.
At the shelter gate, girls and young women wearing long, flowing white hooded robes shouted at officials and banged on the perimeter wall to protest the detentions.
Mexican officials have not confirmed the exact number of women and children being held at a National Institute of Migration facility in Huixtla (seen above)
The hand of a detained Lev Tahor member is pictured from outside the National Institute of Migration (INM) in Huixtla
A woman is seen being held in the migrant facility in Mexico. An estimated 19 women and children were detained, and their future is uncertain as Mexico seeks to deport them to Israel
At the shelter gate, girls and young women wearing long, flowing white hooded robes shouted at officials and banged on the perimeter wall to protest the detentions
Lev Tahor members protest the detention of members of their group. They insist that they have broken no laws
‘They are illegally detained,’ said Nissan Malka, one of the protesters.
Moshe Alter said the group’s trouble stems from what he called a political-religious conflict with former members of Lev Tahor who are trying to dismantle it.
Following the raid, estranged father Amir flew home to Israel with his young son, telling reporters after arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday: ‘From the moment I escaped, I only had one dream: to save my son from the nightmare of living in a cult.’
‘I now look forward to building my new life as a young father in Israel. I couldn’t abandon him to live a life of brutally strict rules, mind control, starvation and misery,’ he added, according to N12 News.
Lev Tahor members in Mexico claim that they are being held in ‘subhuman conditions’ at facility in Huixtla, and that they are being persecuted for their beliefs by the Israeli government, Diario de Chiapas reported.
The families detained in the raid also insisted they had the proper authorization and paperwork to live in Mexico
Yisrael Amir, a former Lev Tahor member who disavowed the sect years ago, is seen returning to Israel with his three-year-old son, who was rescued in the raid in Mexico
Nachman Helbrans, the son of the group’s founder, was convicted of kidnapping and child sexual exploitation crimes last year
Representatives for Mexico’s immigration agency and the Chiapas state attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to messages from DailyMail.com on Wednesday.
Israel’s embassy in Mexico and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs likewise did not return messages.
Among those taken into custody in the raid were Israelis with dual citizenships including Canada, the US and Guatemala, Israel’s foreign ministry said.
Amir, the estranged father seeking custody of his son, and other family members of the sect have been pushing for years for Mexican authorities to crack down on the group.
A four-man volunteer team from Israel, including former Mossad agents, assisted the Mexican police in planning and carrying out the operation, according to a BBC report citing Israeli sources close to the operation.
Federal police and agents of the attorney general’s office carried out the raid following an investigation by the Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime (FEMDO).
Lev Tahor insists that it does not break local laws in the countries where its members reside.
The group, founded in Israel in the 1980s, has moved frequently and become scattered, with members living in the US, Canada, North Macedonia, Morocco, Mexico and Guatemala.
Last November, two leaders of the sect were convicted of kidnapping and child sexual exploitation crimes in New York.
Shlomo Helbrans (pictured left in 1992) founded Lev Tahor in Israel, having been deported from the US for kidnapping a 13-year-old boy. He later gained refugee status in Canada, claiming he was being persecuted by the Israeli government for his anti-Zionist teachings
Nachman Helbrans, 39, and Mayer Rosner, 45, were each sentenced to 12 years in federal prison.
US Attorney Damian Williams said the men ‘brazenly kidnapped two children from their mother in the middle of the night to return a 14-year-old girl to an illegal sexual relationship with an adult man.’
The charges against the men included conspiring to transport a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, which carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life.
Helbrans, the son of Lev Tahor founder Shlomo Helbrans, became the sect’s leader in 2017 and Rosner was his top lieutenant, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said the younger Helbrans and his leadership team seized tight control of the group and embraced extreme practices including child marriages and underage sex.