In 2022, the leading Argentinian anti-cultist and the controversial anti-trafficking prosecutorial office were told by a federal judge that their accusations against a “cult” were false.
by Massimo Introvigne
Those who read Bitter Winter’s series about the Buenos Aires Yoga School (BAYS) are familiar with both Pablo Gastón Salum and an Argentinian special prosecutorial office called PROTEX (Procuraduría para el Combate de la Trata y Explotación de Personas, Office of the Procurator for Combating the Trafficking and Exploitation of Persons). Pablo Salum is an extreme and somewhat lunatic anti-cultist who regards as “cults’’ the Buddhists, the Freemasons, the Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventists, and even the Catholic Discalced Carmelite nuns. He reports that his campaigns were blessed in 2013 by the French Embassy in Buenos Aires.
PROTEX is an agency that has tried to expand its field of operations (hence, its importance and resources) from prostitution and labor trafficking to “cults,” claiming that “cultists,” just like those prostitutes who state that they have chosen to be sexual workers freely, have necessarily been “brainwashed.” The discredited theory of brainwashing, long since debunked by scholars of new religious movements, may thus come back through the window of anti-trafficking activities.
Salum is an ex-member, and a relative of current members, of BAYS, whose theories were defeated in 2000 when Argentinian judges declared the BAYS leaders and students innocent of all the charges for which they had been prosecuted. The case was not initiated by Salum but in the end he emerged as the most vocal opponent of the group. Although he never really overcame his anger for this defeat, Salum believed that the new approach by PROTEX might offer to him a second chance. In 2021, he denounced BAYS to PROTEX and instigated the 2022 spectacular raid whose story and aftermath have been told in Bitter Winter.
Less well-known is that the 2000 BAYS fiasco was not Salum’s only defeat. He also failed to persuade the Argentinian judiciary that the local affiliate of an Australian-based movement known as the Jesus Christians was a criminal “cult” brainwashing its followers. As usual, Salum has proved himself a sore loser, and has tried to persuade YouTube, with various pretexts, to censor videos by the movement reporting his defeat.
The Jesus Christians are a Christian group founded in the 1980s by American-born Dave McKay and currently headquartered in Australia. They are known for their radical approach to the Christian ideal of poverty and their denunciation of money as the source of most evils, and for their humanitarian campaigns, one of which led some of them to donate kidneys to non-relatives they had known for a comparatively short period of time. This exposed the Jesus Christians in the Australian state of New South Wales to some criticism, at a time when the law (later amended) allowed kidney donations only by relatives or longtime friends.
The Jesus Christians became a frequent target of the anti-cult movement and of deprogrammers. They tried to use against them the fact that McKay was for few months a member of the Children of God (later called The Family), a group often criticized for its unconventional sexual practices. Ironically, critics of the Jesus Christians quote on this point publications of my own research center CESNUR, although we clearly wrote that McKay’s Children of God experience was short, and he left specifically because he disagreed with their approach to sexuality.
The Jesus Christians are no longer a hierarchical organization, but independent local groups in various countries maintain a loose affiliation with the Australian center. This is the case of Cómo vivir por fe (How to Live by Faith), the Argentinian affiliate of the Jesus Christians.
As detailed in an order dated November 28, 2022, by the Federal Criminal and Correctional Court of Sáenz Peña, on March 16, 2021, the PROTEX moved against Cómo vivir por fe, claiming that a woman, G., had been “recruited” by a “cult.” According to the PROTEX, G. had “abandoned her work, residence and even her daughter, to adopt an austere life, detached from her possessions and her usual relationships. It was stated that she is not allowed to go out alone, that she eats out of the garbage, and that in the short term she would stop communicating with her relatives, as a proof of her affective detachment, since she would travel to go on mission in other parts of the world.” The court noted that another complaint concerned a woman and her two minor daughters also “recruited” by the “cult,” and her case was joined to the one of G.
The PROTEX told the court that it had been contacted by Pablo Salum, who had claimed that Cómo vivir por fe is a “cult” that “would attract followers through contacts made through social networks, using persuasion techniques to obtain the total control and domination of the victims.” Probably on the basis of allegations made by Salum, in turn based on his contacts with the international anti-cult network, and by G.’s relatives who disagreed with her decision to join the group, the PROTEX claimed that G. was about to go abroad where she will be compelled to donate her kidney and will become a victim of “organ trafficking.”
Because of the seriousness of the accusations, the court authorized a raid at the premises of Cómo vivir por fe on May 5, 2022, and an interrogation of the “victim,” G. In a scenario familiar to readers of Bitter Winter who have followed the BAYS case, G. denied being a victim and the PROTEX insisted that her denial proved that she was under the effects of brainwashing.
Nothing suggesting that Cómo vivir por fe had committed any crime was found, witnesses testified that rather than having been “brainwashed” they had freely embraced the radical Christian message of the group, and the court ascertained that G. and other members maintained normal relations with the outside world and their families. The Forensic Medical Corps was asked to carry out a psychological examination of G. and the other woman involved. The expert reported that the women were mentally competent and happy about their life in the community. The psychologist concluded that “no elements were identified that may suggest threats, victimization, vulnerability, subjugation, deception, emotional control, intimidation, pressure or violation of free will exercised by the accused towards the examinees, either before, during, or after the alleged facts described in the proceedings.” Their freedom, she said, “was not restricted,” and “there were no elements that could show that they were in a situation of human trafficking.” The examination of the cell phones of the two alleged “victims” confirmed that they kept regular and normal contacts with their families.
The court also heard the testimony of a young man who had visited Cómo vivir por fe for about one month, who claimed he had been manipulated and taught to “hate his family.” The court expressed the suspicion that the young man had indeed been manipulated—not by Cómo vivir por fe but by Pablo Salum. “The court cannot ignore,” the decision stated, “the proved interference of the aforementioned Pablo Salum in the testimony. This is because he interviewed the young man before he testified, and such interview evidences that Salum already had an established and negative opinion about the work of the religious community, and therefore undoubtedly influenced the analysis that the witness presented to the court. A clear evidence of this is that he [the young man] admits that the mention he introduced in his testimony related to the supposed coercive donation of organs was told to him by Salum, and that the matter was never discussed in the community.”
We have here an extraordinary reconstruction by a court of law of how Salum, and other anti-cultists, operate. They “implant” in the ex-members and others they manage to influence “false memories” about alleged wrongdoings of their former movements that in fact the former members or visitors of religious movements do not know through direct experience but only because the anti-cultists persuaded them that they really happened. I do not believe that brainwashing exists. Those who do may recognize here a textbook example of what they call brainwashing—by the anti-cultists, not by the “cults.”
The court concluded that “no elements have been gathered to determine that the persuasion that motivated the alleged victims to join the community was illegal. Furthermore, it has been verified that all persons who participate in the community Cómo vivir por fe maintain contacts with their families and environment and are free to abandon their religious option” if they wish to do so.
In dismissing the case against Cómo vivir por fe, the court quoted a 1993 Argentinian decision about the Children of God/The Family, which I commented at that time on CESNUR’s web site. “It has been argued in a similar case, the court wrote, that ‘To say that the criminal action lies in the initial deception through which a person could be persuaded to join a cult, and in the subsequent handling of the follower, i.e., in the gradual and progressive development of the alleged objectives of exploitation of the devotee in the service of the leaders, constitutes a serious legal mistake. Indeed, it is a serious legal error that could introduce a paternalistic concept, and one extremely risky for the survival of an open and democratic society.’” These are heavy words, and suggest that the anti-cult campaigns by Salum and the PROTEX may indeed put the Argentinian democracy at risk.