Two and a half years after Lev Tahor fled Canada amid a variety of legal battles, members of the ultra-conservative Jewish sect are facing a government crackdown in their new home.
Agents for Guatemala’s prosecution service swooped in on Lev Tahor’s Guatemala City compound this week and apprehended several children, according to unconfirmed local reports.
The group’s Toronto-based immigration lawyer, Guidy Mamann, was rushing to the Guatemalan capital on Wednesday to handle the matter, according to his office.
Founded in 1980 by the dissident Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, Lev Tahor members migrated from Israel to the United States, to Canada and, finally, to Guatemala in search of a country that would ignore their contentious religious practices.
Former sect members as well as child-welfare agencies in Ontario and Quebec have alleged Lev Tahor condones child marriage and maintains inadequate health, hygiene and education standards, accusations the group has vehemently denied.
In March of 2014, Chatham-Kent Children’s Services moved in to seize 14 children, but social workers found that the families had fled, violating a court order.
Chatham-Kent Children’s Services executive director Stephen Doig said the agency withdrew all court proceedings against Lev Tahor when the group abandoned its Southwestern Ontario enclave in the spring of 2014.
“I doubt very much that any of the families would end up back in Chatham-Kent,” said Mr. Doig. “We’re in a position where the story is basically dead for us.”
Global Affairs Canada spokesman Austin Jean said Canadian consular officials are providing assistance to authorities in Guatemala, but provided no further details.
Guatemala has proven to be no easy sanctuary for Lev Tahor. In 2014, local officials in the small town of San Juan La Laguna expelled roughly 230 Lev Tahor members, an action stemming from disagreements with local Roman Catholics.
The mayor of the town was later charged with abuse of authority and discrimination related to the expulsion.
Israeli authorities have kept a watchful eye on the group since its acolytes left the country.
In a statement, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was working closely with Guatemalan officials out of fears for the physical and mental safety of dozens of Israeli minors currently living in the compound.
“Guatemalan authorities recently decided to take action against members of the community due to suspicions of serious criminal offences, including against minors, [committed] in the compound in which they live,” the statement said, according to a Google translation.
The statement mentioned that legal proceedings are currently under way against some Lev Tahor members in Israel.
The Guatemalan Public Ministry, which investigates cases of child abuse, did not respond to media inquiries.