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It Referred to as Itself a Yoga Faculty. 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 historical philosophy and New Age spiritualism. He was successful and, with donations from his followers, he constructed a corporation often 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 prices, 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 a whole lot of 1000’s of {dollars} month-to-month from purchasers in Argentina and the US. BAYS additionally ran a bootleg clinic the place some members had 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 faculty first gained notoriety after an Argentine household accused the group of brainwashing their daughter. Through the investigation, some former members talked of being pressured to work as “slaves” and mentioned the college promoted prostitution.

However that unique 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 tip of the army dictatorship greater than a decade earlier through which tens of 1000’s of individuals had 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 youngsters 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 analyzing BAYS operations courting again to 2004.

“The individuals are the identical, the choices are the identical, the actions are comparable, however there are two crucial legal guidelines now with huge penalties that prohibit the core actions these individuals had been doing,” mentioned Ariel Lijo, a decide who oversaw the preliminary levels 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 the US. 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 ladies named as victims had been dropped at BAYS by their dad and mom after they had been minors, or that they joined as younger ladies and had been ultimately pressured into prostitution. However the ladies within the case have denied ever having intercourse in alternate for cash, or being victims of any crime.

Protection legal professionals 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 follow 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 each side put together their arguments, the group continues to have distinguished allies, together with in the US.

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 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 mentioned.

Mr. Percowicz spoke of discovering internal power, she remembers, hooking individuals with guarantees of solutions within the subsequent session. Ms. Sanfelice mentioned she began going to the talks no less than as soon as per week together with her household.

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

When Ms. Sanfelice instructed her husband she didn’t need to return, she mentioned, he replied that the college noticed in him what she didn’t see: a fantastic architect.

“They raised his vanity,” she mentioned. “That’s when he began to really feel essential. 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 middle of it was Maria Valeria Llamas, who was 20 and jobless when a household good friend supplied to take her to a BAYS lecture in 1990.

“At first we noticed it as one thing constructive,” 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 following few years, the yoga faculty consumed her life, her household mentioned. Ms. Llamas broke up together with her boyfriend and misplaced contact with mates. She stopped going to household outings. She started working at a pharmacy run by BAYS members.

Quickly after, her mom mentioned, 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 following day, two BAYS members confirmed up on the home, escorted by law enforcement officials, in accordance with the household and courtroom information from the case. They mentioned they had 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, courtroom information present.

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

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

The household filed a prison grievance 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 decide beginning his profession. Underneath Argentina’s judiciary system on the time, judges might each examine circumstances and oversee the courtroom 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 the next 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 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 internal circle pressured youthful followers to be “slaves” to larger rating members, making them perform duties like home tasks with out pay. Former members additionally mentioned that the group promoted prostitution, the depositions present, although none mentioned that they had 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 had been plastered with posters and issues towards me.”

By the mid-Nineteen Nineties, BAYS had opened wellness corporations and a basis in Chicago, Las Vegas and New York. It had gained a status as an training middle 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 data or connections to the group.

In Argentina, the prison case towards the group continued to tug via the courts. Greater than 50 congressional members despatched letters to the nation’s authorities demanding the investigation be closed, in accordance with the Home report. (There isn’t any 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, mentioned 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, mentioned in an interview that such missives had been widespread. “No one actually places a whole lot of thought into it since you are signing letters on a regular basis,” he mentioned.

Mr. Clinton, in his last yr in workplace, responded to members of Congress in September 1999 and mentioned that U.S. Embassy officers in Buenos Aires had “lately reiterated to senior Argentine officers the significance of resolving this case as shortly 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 following 20 years, BAYS flourished, with little consideration from Argentine authorities. Throughout this era, Mr. Percowicz made clear he was within the enterprise of making a living.

“If what we needed to do right here was write a e book concerning the lifetime of Jesus, we wouldn’t be desirous about something apart from the lifetime of Jesus,” Mr. Percowicz instructed his followers in 2006 in a video obtained by investigators. “However what we try 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 courtroom 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} lady 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 might get to his Buenos Aires resort room with out being seen.

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 the US, and so they 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 carry Mr. Percowicz and different defendants to justice. The case is at the moment working its method 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 change into estranged from his mom and sister, who stay BAYS members.

“This might have ended 20 years in the past,” he mentioned. “All the things that’s occurring 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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