Seven people killed in Panama religious ritual in which victims were tortured, burned and hacked to death

Our Foreign Staff
Jose Gonzalez, left, and his daughter, 5, carried by a police officer. Mr Gonzalez's wife and five of their children were killed - AP

Seven people were killed in a bizarre religious ritual in a jungle community in Panama, in which indigenous residents were rounded up by about 10 lay preachers and tortured, beaten, burned and hacked with machetes to make them "repent their sins".

Police freed 14 members of the Ngabe Bugle indigenous group who had been tied up and beaten with wooden cudgels and Bibles. The dead, found in a mass grave, include a pregnant woman and five of her children. Investigators found machetes, knives and a ritually sacrificed goat. Ten people, including a minor, have been arrested on suspicion of murder.

Rafael Baloyes, a local prosecutor, described a chilling scene found by investigators when they made their way through the jungle to the remote Ngabe Bugle indigenous community near the Caribbean coast and about 250km (155 miles) from Panama City.

Alerted by three villagers who escaped and made their way to a local hospital for treatment, police were prepared, Mr Baloyes said, but were still surprised by what they discovered at an improvised "church" at a ranch where a little-known religious sect known as 'The New Light of God' was operating.

"They were performing a ritual inside the structure," Mr Baloyes said. "In that ritual, there were people being held against their will, being mistreated.

Police officers are investigating who carried out the ritual Credit: REUTERS

"All of these rites were aimed at killing them if they did not repent their sins," he said. Authorities believe the rites had been going on since Saturday.

About a mile away from the church building, authorities found a freshly dug grave with the corpses of six children and one adult. The dead included five children as young as one, their pregnant mother and a 17-year-old female neighbour.

"They searched this family out to hold a ritual and they massacred them, mistreated them, killed practically the whole family," Mr Baloyes said, adding that one of the suspects in the killing is the grandfather of the children who were slain.

Fourteen people who were tortured were taken to hospital  Credit: GETTY IMAGES

All the victims, and apparently all the suspects, were members of the same indigenous community. 

The area is so remote that helicopters had to be used to take the injured out to hospitals for treatment. They included at least two pregnant women and some children.

Ricardo Miranda, leader of the Ngabe Bugle semi-autonomous zone known as a Comarca, called the sect "Satanic" and said it went against the region's Christian beliefs.

Police are investigating the beliefs and affiliations of the group Credit: GETTY IMAGES

"We demand the immediate eradication of this Satanic sect, which violates all the practices of spirituality and co-existence in the Holy Scriptures," Mr Miranda said.

The sect is believed to be relatively new to the area and had been operating locally only for about three months.

According to Mr Baloyes, the ritual started because one of the church members had a vision.

"One of them said God had given them a message," Mr Baloyes said. That message appeared to be forcing people to repent or die.

The Ngabe Bugle are Panama's largest indigenous group and suffer from high rates of poverty and illiteracy.

It was not clear what belief or affiliations 'The New Light of God' church has. A well-established evangelical church known as Luz del Mundo said in a press statement that it had no ties to the case.