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Thursday, June 20, 2024

It Known as Itself a Yoga Faculty. Prosecutors Say It Was a Intercourse Cult.

Juan Percowicz was an accountant with an uncommon facet passion: 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 generally known as Buenos Aires Yoga Faculty, or BAYS.

For greater than 30 years, he ran the college, which promised religious salvation via lectures and self-help lessons.

However now, Mr. Percowicz, 85, and greater than a dozen BAYS members are dealing with prison costs, accused of working a “intercourse cult,” not a yoga faculty, 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 tons of of hundreds of {dollars} month-to-month from shoppers in Argentina and america. BAYS additionally ran a bootleg clinic the place some members had been administered medicine to induce extended sleep, typically as a type of punishment, based on prosecutors.

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

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

Within the Nineteen Nineties, Mr. Percowicz and his faculty 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 stated the college promoted prostitution.

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

A 1999 State Division report stated Argentina’s judiciary was “hampered by inordinate delays, procedural logjams, adjustments 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 related to the case.

Finally, the case in opposition to BAYS was dropped.

Now, with up to date legal guidelines, prosecutors are once more focusing 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 crucial legal guidelines now with massive penalties that prohibit the core actions these folks had been doing,” stated Ariel Lijo, a choose who oversaw the preliminary levels of the case. Mr. Lijo was nominated for Argentina’s Supreme Courtroom in March by President Javier Milei.

Within the 2022 raids on BAYS, investigators stated 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, based on Argentine investigators.

The U.S. Justice Division declined to remark.

Prosecutors say that the seven girls named as victims had been delivered to BAYS by their mother and father after they had been minors, or that they joined as younger girls and had been ultimately pressured into prostitution. However the girls within the case have denied ever having intercourse in trade for cash, or being victims of any crime.

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

“This can be a case of human trafficking with out victims of trafficking,” stated 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 is just not unlawful, selling or economically exploiting the observe 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 choose, which was reviewed by The New York Instances. The message stated that BAYS members had been “victims of brutal and egregious human rights violations by parts 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 stated.

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

Finally, she stated, it turned clear one thing was off. Ms. Sanfelice stated Mr. Percowicz informed her that “he felt like God.” His closest followers began calling him “angel” or “grasp.” Then, at a BAYS get together, Ms. Sanfelice stated 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 stated, he replied that the college noticed in him what she didn’t see: a terrific architect.

“They raised his vanity,” she stated. “That’s when he began to really feel necessary. And I turned the witch.”

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

Then got here some validation: the primary prison case in opposition to 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,” stated 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 obtained on the bus and had an curiosity in one thing.”

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

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

The subsequent day, two BAYS members confirmed up on the home, escorted by law enforcement officials, based on the household and court docket data from the case. They stated they had been suing the mother and father for “illegal deprivation of liberty.” The police moved Ms. Llamas’s belongings into an residence owned by BAYS, her household stated. Ms. Llamas later accused her stepfather of sexually assaulting her, court docket data present.

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

No rape costs had been ever filed in opposition to the members of the family. Ms. Llamas didn’t reply to requests for remark.

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

The accusation ended up within the docket of Mariano Bergés, a younger choose 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 stated in an interview, he approved a raid of the headquarters and a few of BAYS’s different properties.

He stated 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 criminal activity underway. Mr. Bergés then ordered wiretaps on Mr. Percowicz and his prime deputies, which Mr. Bergés stated indicated a scheme to steal the belongings of a deceased BAYS member.

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

However with out human trafficking or cash laundering legal guidelines in Argentina, Mr. Bergés stated, he needed to construct a case round fraud, promotion of prostitution and a flimsy cost generally 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 stated the Congress and Supreme Courtroom, 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.

Exterior his home, he stated, “The partitions had been plastered with posters and issues in opposition to 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 popularity as an schooling 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 turned 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 in opposition to the group continued to pull via the courts. Greater than 50 congressional members despatched letters to the nation’s authorities demanding the investigation be closed, based on the Home document. (There is no such thing as a proof that any U.S. politicians had been members of BAYS or investigated by Argentine officers.)

Edolphus Cities, a congressman representing a part of Brooklyn, stated in Home testimony that BAYS members had 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, stated in an interview that such missives had been frequent. “No person actually places a whole lot of thought into it since you are signing letters on a regular basis,” he stated.

Mr. Clinton, in his last yr in workplace, responded to members of Congress in September 1999 and stated that U.S. Embassy officers in Buenos Aires had “just lately reiterated to senior Argentine officers the significance of resolving this case as rapidly as potential,” based on a letter supplied 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,” stated Angel Ureña, a spokesman for Mr. Clinton.

In Argentina, the prison case in opposition to 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 getting cash.

“If what we needed to do right here was write a ebook in regards to the lifetime of Jesus, we wouldn’t be serious 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 bother.

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, based on 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 lately. 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 lodge room with out being seen.

Argentine prosecutors haven’t introduced costs in opposition to Mr. Domingo in connection to the BAYS case.

A spokesperson for Mr. Domingo stated in a press release that the opera singer had not been charged “and he’s utterly unrelated to the investigation.”

Prosecutors stated that almost all of BAYS’s revenue got here from sex-trafficking actions, and was then laundered into actual property in Argentina and america, and so they estimated BAYS’s complete belongings at practically $50 million as of December 2020.

Prosecutors say they’re assured that the proof and new legal guidelines will allow them to carry Mr. Percowicz and different defendants to justice. The case is at present working its approach via 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 turn into estranged from his mom and sister, who stay BAYS members.

“This might have ended 20 years in the past,” he stated. “Every part that’s occurring now wouldn’t have needed to occur. And I could even have recovered my household.”

Glenn Thrush contributed reporting from Washington.

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