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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 passion: educating 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 company often called Buenos Aires Yoga Faculty, or BAYS.

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

However now, Mr. Percowicz, 85, and greater than a dozen BAYS members are dealing with felony prices, accused of operating 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 shoppers in Argentina and america. BAYS additionally ran a bootleg clinic the place some members have been administered medicine to induce extended sleep, typically 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 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. Through the investigation, some former members talked of being pressured to work as “slaves” and mentioned 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, 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 during which tens of 1000’s 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 youngsters had been “disappeared” by the authoritarian regime. They accused the Argentine judiciary of corruption and human rights violations related to the case.

Ultimately, the case in opposition to 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 selections are the identical, the actions are comparable, however there are two essential legal guidelines now with large penalties that prohibit the core actions these individuals have been doing,” mentioned Ariel Lijo, a choose 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 mother and father 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 legal professionals for Mr. Percowicz and present members of BAYS have denied all prices, 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.

“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 shouldn’t be 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 each 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 Occasions. The message mentioned that BAYS members have 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 buddy 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 individuals with guarantees of solutions within the subsequent session. Ms. Sanfelice mentioned she began going to the talks at the least as soon as per 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 social gathering, 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 college 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 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 felony 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 buddy supplied 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 following few years, the yoga faculty consumed her life, her household mentioned. Ms. Llamas broke up along with her boyfriend and misplaced contact with associates. 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 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 cops, in accordance with the household and courtroom information from the case. They mentioned they have been suing the mother and father for “illegal deprivation of liberty.” The police moved Ms. Llamas’s belongings into an condominium 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 have been ever filed in opposition to the relations. Ms. Llamas didn’t reply to requests for remark.

The household filed a felony 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 choose beginning his profession. Beneath Argentina’s judiciary system on the time, judges may each examine instances 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 bins 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 high deputies, which Mr. Bergés mentioned indicated a scheme to steal the property of a deceased BAYS member.

In depositions reviewed by The Occasions, 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 home tasks 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 called “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.

Exterior his home, he mentioned, “The partitions have 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 repute 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 felony case in opposition to the group continued to pull by means 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 is no such thing as 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 high 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 frequent. “No one actually places lots of thought into it since you are signing letters on a regular basis,” he mentioned.

Mr. Clinton, in his closing 12 months in workplace, responded to members of Congress in September 1999 and mentioned that U.S. Embassy officers in Buenos Aires had “just lately reiterated to senior Argentine officers the significance of resolving this case as shortly as potential,” in accordance with a letter offered to The Occasions 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 felony case in opposition to 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 earning money.

“If what we needed to do right here was write a guide concerning the lifetime of Jesus, we wouldn’t be interested by something aside from the lifetime of Jesus,” Mr. Percowicz informed 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 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 resort room with out being seen.

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

A spokesperson for Mr. Domingo mentioned in a press release that the opera singer had not been charged “and he’s fully 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 complete 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 convey Mr. Percowicz and different defendants to justice. The case is at present working its manner by means 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 develop 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 taking place 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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