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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

It Referred to as Itself a Yoga College. Prosecutors Say It Was a Intercourse Cult.


Juan Percowicz was an accountant with an uncommon aspect interest: instructing self-help lessons round Buenos Aires with a heavy dose of historic philosophy and New Age spiritualism. He was a success and, with donations from his followers, he constructed a company often known as Buenos Aires Yoga College, or BAYS.

For greater than 30 years, he ran the varsity, which promised religious salvation by way of lectures and self-help lessons.

However now, Mr. Percowicz, 85, and greater than a dozen BAYS members are going through prison prices, accused of operating a “intercourse cult,” not a yoga college, that coerced a few of its feminine members into prostitution and laundered the earnings in actual property.

Prosecutors say the group exploited and drugged a few of its feminine members, forcing them to promote their our bodies and producing a whole bunch of hundreds of {dollars} month-to-month from purchasers in Argentina and america. BAYS additionally ran a bootleg clinic the place some members have been administered medication to induce extended sleep, generally as a type of punishment, in accordance with prosecutors.

“Cults exist right here, however we’ve by no means seen one which operated at this stage,” mentioned Ricardo Juri, the investigator who oversaw police raids on BAYS properties in August 2022.

The accusations towards BAYS shocked Argentina, but for many individuals, additionally they felt eerily acquainted.

Within the Nineteen Nineties, Mr. Percowicz and his college first gained notoriety after an Argentine household accused the group of brainwashing their daughter. In the course of the investigation, some former members talked of being pressured to work as “slaves” and mentioned the varsity promoted prostitution.

However that authentic case stalled within the courts. Argentina didn’t but have legal guidelines on human trafficking or cash laundering, in accordance with investigators. The nation’s justice system was nonetheless being overhauled after the top of the navy dictatorship greater than a decade earlier through which tens of hundreds of individuals have been killed.

A 1999 State Division report mentioned Argentina’s judiciary was “hampered by inordinate delays, procedural logjams, modifications of judges, insufficient administrative help and incompetence.”

There additionally remained a lingering mistrust of presidency and the judicial system — and defenders of BAYS tapped into that, together with Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, an Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the Moms of the Plaza de Mayo, whose kids had been “disappeared” by the authoritarian regime. They accused the Argentine judiciary of corruption and human rights violations linked to the case.

Ultimately, the case towards BAYS was dropped.

Now, with up to date legal guidelines, prosecutors are once more concentrating on Mr. Percowicz and his followers in a brand new investigation inspecting BAYS operations relationship again to 2004.

“The persons are the identical, the selections are the identical, the actions are related, however there are two essential legal guidelines now with massive penalties that prohibit the core actions these folks have been doing,” mentioned Ariel Lijo, a decide who oversaw the preliminary phases of the case. Mr. Lijo was nominated for Argentina’s Supreme Court docket in March by President Javier Milei.

Within the 2022 raids on BAYS, investigators mentioned they discovered greater than $1 million in money, 5 bars of gold, stashes of pornographic movies, checkbooks from American banks and dossiers on rich people, together with some who stay in america. American authorities have cooperated within the investigation, in accordance with Argentine investigators.

The U.S. Justice Division declined to remark.

Prosecutors say that the seven girls named as victims have been dropped at BAYS by their dad and mom once they have been minors, or that they joined as younger girls and have been ultimately pressured into prostitution. However the girls within the case have denied ever having intercourse in alternate for cash, or being victims of any crime.

Protection attorneys for Mr. Percowicz and present members of BAYS have denied all prices, arguing that nobody within the group was exploited. As a substitute, they are saying that the accusers — whose identities are protected within the case — need revenge on the group for private causes.

“It is a case of human trafficking with out victims of trafficking,” mentioned Jorge Daniel Pirozzo, a lawyer who represents Mr. Percowicz and 5 different BAYS members. “It hasn’t been confirmed that anyone has been sexually exploited.”

Mr. Percowicz and BAYS members declined interview requests.

Whereas prostitution in Argentina isn’t unlawful, selling or economically exploiting the apply of prostitution utilizing deception, abuse or intimidation is. The prosecutors say they intend to point out that the victims don’t acknowledge themselves as such as a result of Mr. Percowicz and his allies psychologically manipulated the ladies over years.

As either side put together their arguments, the group continues to have outstanding allies, together with in america.

In October 2022, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. despatched an e mail to Mr. Lijo, the decide, which was reviewed by The New York Instances. The message mentioned that BAYS members have been “victims of brutal and egregious human rights violations by components of the Argentine authorized system.” It was unclear why Mr. Jackson, 82, despatched the e-mail.

He didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark.

Caterina Sanfelice was a hairstylist in her forties when a good friend first invited her to a BAYS lecture round 1993. “It was like going to a flowery café with an orator,” she mentioned.

Mr. Percowicz spoke of discovering interior power, she recollects, hooking folks with guarantees of solutions within the subsequent session. Ms. Sanfelice mentioned she began going to the talks at the least as soon as every week along with her household.

Ultimately, she mentioned, it grew to become clear one thing was off. Ms. Sanfelice mentioned Mr. Percowicz informed her that “he felt like God.” His closest followers began calling him “angel” or “grasp.” Then, at a BAYS celebration, Ms. Sanfelice mentioned two girls propositioned her husband whereas different members undressed to arrange for an orgy. She ran out of the constructing.

When Ms. Sanfelice informed her husband she didn’t need to return, she mentioned, he replied that the varsity noticed in him what she didn’t see: an amazing architect.

“They raised his shallowness,” she mentioned. “That’s when he began to really feel necessary. And I grew to become the witch.”

Ms. Sanfelice mentioned her husband, who couldn’t be reached for remark, left her in 1993 and stayed concerned with BAYS. She mentioned she was exasperated and felt like nobody believed her.

Then got here some validation: the primary prison case towards BAYS, which captured worldwide consideration.

On the heart of it was Maria Valeria Llamas, who was 20 and jobless when a household good friend provided to take her to a BAYS lecture in 1990.

“At first we noticed it as one thing optimistic,” mentioned Martín Sommariva, Ms. Llamas’s half brother. “We went from a Valeria who didn’t exit, who was caught in her room the entire time, to this Valeria who acquired on the bus and had an curiosity in one thing.”

However over the subsequent few years, the yoga college consumed her life, her household mentioned. Ms. Llamas broke up along with her boyfriend and misplaced contact with pals. She stopped going to household outings. She started working at a pharmacy run by BAYS members.

Quickly after, her mom mentioned, she came upon Ms. Llamas had been pressured by the varsity to have an unlawful abortion. When her household questioned her, Ms. Llamas replied that Mr. Percowicz was “an immortal angel.”

The following day, two BAYS members confirmed up on the home, escorted by cops, in accordance with the household and court docket information from the case. They mentioned they have been suing the dad and mom for “illegal deprivation of liberty.” The police moved Ms. Llamas’s belongings into an condo owned by BAYS, her household mentioned. Ms. Llamas later accused her stepfather of sexually assaulting her, court docket information present.

“All of the sudden the world got here crashing down on us,” recalled her mom, Elena. “We thought: What are we going to do now?”

No rape prices have been ever filed towards the relations. Ms. Llamas didn’t reply to requests for remark.

The household filed a prison grievance in 1993, accusing the varsity of being a cult that had brainwashed their daughter.

The accusation ended up within the docket of Mariano Bergés, a younger decide beginning his profession. Underneath Argentina’s judiciary system on the time, judges may each examine circumstances and oversee the court docket proceedings. As a part of the investigation, Mr. Bergés mentioned in an interview, he approved a raid of the headquarters and a few of BAYS’s different properties.

He mentioned the raids discovered containers of letters that confirmed members paying Mr. Percowicz for a better religious rating within the group. This was not unlawful, however, mixed with the testimony of former members, it led investigators to consider there was criminality underway. Mr. Bergés then ordered wiretaps on Mr. Percowicz and his prime deputies, which Mr. Bergés mentioned indicated a scheme to steal the property of a deceased BAYS member.

In depositions reviewed by The Instances, a number of former BAYS members later mentioned that Mr. Percowicz and his interior circle pressured youthful followers to be “slaves” to larger rating members, making them perform duties like housekeeping with out pay. Former members additionally mentioned that the group promoted prostitution, the depositions present, although none mentioned they’d been prostituted themselves.

However with out human trafficking or cash laundering legal guidelines in Argentina, Mr. Bergés mentioned, he needed to construct a case round fraud, promotion of prostitution and a flimsy cost often known as “corruption of adults.”

In late 1995, Mr. Bergés withdrew from the case after being threatened with impeachment by Argentina’s Congress. In an interview, he mentioned the Congress and Supreme Court docket, in addition to human-rights teams, pressured him to step down, saying that his investigation ways, just like the wiretapping and raids, violated the suspects’ civil rights. He denies the accusations.

Outdoors his home, he mentioned, “The partitions have been plastered with posters and issues towards me.”

By the mid-Nineteen Nineties, BAYS had opened wellness firms and a basis in Chicago, Las Vegas and New York. It had gained a status as an training heart for philosophy and wellness whose members included students, professionals and musicians.

BAYS had additionally cultivated supporters within the U.S. Congress, although it’s unclear how the lawmakers first grew to become conscious of the group or whether or not any of them had any actual information or connections to the group.

In Argentina, the prison case towards the group continued to pull by way of the courts. Greater than 50 congressional members despatched letters to the nation’s authorities demanding the investigation be closed, in accordance with the Home file. (There isn’t a proof that any U.S. politicians have been members of BAYS or investigated by Argentine officers.)

Edolphus Cities, a congressman representing a part of Brooklyn, mentioned in Home testimony that BAYS members have been being harassed by Argentine judicial officers, had been unlawfully imprisoned and topic to antisemitism. Mr. Percowicz and a few of his prime deputies are Jewish.

Mr. Cities, 89, retired in 2013 and didn’t reply to requests for remark.

Robert A. Underwood, a former congressman from Guam who signed a letter despatched to President Invoice Clinton calling for him to intervene, mentioned in an interview that such missives have been widespread. “No person actually places loads of thought into it since you are signing letters on a regular basis,” he mentioned.

Mr. Clinton, in his ultimate yr in workplace, responded to members of Congress in September 1999 and mentioned that U.S. Embassy officers in Buenos Aires had “not too long ago reiterated to senior Argentine officers the significance of resolving this case as rapidly as potential,” in accordance with a letter offered to The Instances by the Clinton Presidential Library.

The White Home’s written response to Congress “displays the extent of President Clinton’s involvement on this,” mentioned Angel Ureña, a spokesman for Mr. Clinton.

In Argentina, the prison case towards BAYS was ultimately closed within the early 2000s with no convictions.

Over the subsequent 20 years, BAYS flourished, with little consideration from Argentine authorities. Throughout this era, Mr. Percowicz made clear he was within the enterprise of earning profits.

“If what we wished to do right here was write a ebook in regards to the lifetime of Jesus, we wouldn’t be eager about something aside from the lifetime of Jesus,” Mr. Percowicz informed his followers in 2006 in a video obtained by investigators. “However what we are attempting to do right here is make a billion {dollars}, one billion {dollars}, goddamn it!”

Then, in 2021, BAYS bumped into new hassle.

Argentina’s federal public prosecutor’s workplace for trafficking and the exploitation of individuals opened an investigation into the group.

Investigators tapped the telephones of Mr. Percowicz and a few of his allies, capturing conversations that, in accordance with prosecutors, present the work of managing a prostitution operation.

Transcripts filed in court docket present that in a single name, Mr. Percowicz goes over the logistics of arranging what investigators say was a sexual encounter. In a separate recording, a BAYS supervisor tells Mr. Percowicz {that a} girl is bringing in solely $6,000 a month, which isn’t sufficient cash, suggesting she wants to herald extra for the group.

The wiretaps additionally recorded conversations with a person whom prosecutors say is Plácido Domingo, one of many world’s most well-known opera singers, who has confronted quite a few accusations of sexual harassment in recent times. In a single name, he speaks to a lady who prosecutors say was a senior member of BAYS to debate how she may get to his Buenos Aires resort room with out being observed.

Argentine prosecutors haven’t introduced prices towards Mr. Domingo in connection to the BAYS case.

A spokesperson for Mr. Domingo mentioned in an announcement that the opera singer had not been charged “and he’s utterly unrelated to the investigation.”

Prosecutors mentioned that almost all of BAYS’s earnings got here from sex-trafficking actions, and was then laundered into actual property in Argentina and america, they usually estimated BAYS’s whole property at almost $50 million as of December 2020.

Prosecutors say they’re assured that the proof and new legal guidelines will allow them to deliver Mr. Percowicz and different defendants to justice. The case is at present working its means by way of the courts. No trial date has been set but.

For Pablo Salum, whose mom first introduced him to BAYS when he was solely 8, justice is already too late. He left the group when he was 12 and has change into estranged from his mom and sister, who stay BAYS members.

“This might have ended 20 years in the past,” he mentioned. “Every thing that’s taking place now wouldn’t have needed to occur. And I’ll even have recovered my household.”

Glenn Thrush contributed reporting from Washington.

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