7 Found Dead and 15 in Captivity at Religious Sect in Panama


MEXICO CITY — The bodies of six children and a pregnant woman were found in a freshly dug grave in a remote, predominantly indigenous community on the Caribbean coast of Panama, possibly the sacrificial victims of a ritual performed by a religious sect, the Panamanian authorities said Thursday.

The victims had been kidnapped from their homes by other members of the community, beaten and killed, said Rafael Baloyes, the chief prosecutor for the province of Bocas del Toro.

The woman was the mother of five of the children; the sixth child was a neighbor, Mr. Baloyes said. The children ranged in age from 1 to 17.

The authorities raided the community, Alto Terrón, on Wednesday after receiving a tip that people were being abused there, the prosecutor said, adding that officials saw a post on social media about someone being burned.

On their arrival, the police interrupted a haunting religious ritual unfolding inside a makeshift church.

“There were people held against their will, being mistreated,” Mr. Baloyes recalled. One of those detained was a nude woman.

The captives, who had been tied up and beaten, were going to be killed “if they did not repent their sins,” he said.

Fifteen people were rescued from captivity, officials said. Ten suspects — nine adults and one minor — were arrested and placed under investigation on charges of deprivation of liberty, homicide and sexual abuse, officials said.

One of the suspects was the grandfather of the children whose bodies were found in the grave.

The authorities also seized machetes “and other tools” that were presumably used against the victims, according to a statement from the Public Ministry of Panama.

The suspects are members of an evangelical church called the New Light of God, officials said.

Interviews with community members revealed that the sect began practicing rituals more than three months ago, Mr. Baloyes said, though the kidnapping and torture started only last Saturday, when a sect member claimed to have received a message from God.

Investigators have found no evidence of other victims or secret graves, the prosecutor added.

All the victims and suspects were residents of Alto Terrón, a community in Ngäbe Buglé, an indigenous administrative region with high rates of poverty. Officials said the community was located on a densely forested peninsula in western Panama, between the Caribbean Sea and the Chiriquí Lagoon.

Paulina Villegas contributed reporting


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