In 2022, a second raid hit the BAYS, and the case is still pending. The main accusation is human trafficking through the operation of a prostitution ring.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 5 of 5. Read article 1, article 2, article 3, and article 4.
When the second raid hit the Buenos Aires Yoga School on August 12, 2022, lawyers were immediately contacted. Susana Barneix, a student holding a level 7 formal, was herself a lawyer, but she was also among those arrested. The attorneys immediately advised their BAYS clients that their best defense was double jeopardy. They were being accused of crimes for which they had been already investigated and acquitted in 2000. Pablo Salum himself implied in some of his public statements that what had changed since 2000 was not the facts, but the laws. However, criminal laws cannot be retroactive.
What are the “new laws”? What the prosecutor tried to apply against the BAYS was the Argentinian law 26.842 of 2012 against human trafficking. Why and how this law was passed has been reconstructed in a critical book by the academic and prosecutor Marisa S. Tarantino, published in 2021. Tarantino describes both the international and domestic pressures on Argentina for a tougher law on human trafficking. Law 26.842 went beyond the international conventions that regard as victims of human trafficking, even if they deny their condition of victims, those who are exploited for prostitution or forced labor through violence, threats, or deception. In the Argentinian law of 2012 these are not features of the crime, although if present they are considered as aggravating circumstances. This means that there may be human trafficking even in absence of violence, threats, or deception.
Tarantino explains that there were two reasons for introducing this Argentinian peculiarity. The first was the influence of the movement for the abolition of prostitution. Although prostitution per se, if freely exercised by the prostitute, is not illegal in Argentina, the 2012 law implies that there is no such a person as a free prostitute, and all are at least suspect of being trafficked. The second reason is the lobbying activity of a 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), whose powers and resources were greatly expanded.
What did all this have to do with “cults” and the BAYS? According to Tarantino, the tool used to criminalize prostitution in general (without explicitly saying it) is “vulnerability as a tool of control.” This creates a “paradigm of victimization” that denies to certain subjects their “political agency.” In other words, a prostitute is by definition “vulnerable” and “a victim.” If she says that she has freely decided to be a prostitute, this only proves that the “victimization” has been especially effective, and what remains to be done is for the PROTEX to ascertain who the victimizer is.
I am not a specialist on the issue of prostitution, but what interests me in Tarantino’s analysis is the similarity between the abuse of vulnerability that supposedly occurs by definition in the case of prostitutes and the “abus de faiblesse” (which translates precisely as “abuse of vulnerability”) that is the typical crime of which “cults” are accused of in France. It looks like just another incarnation of brainwashing.
I recognized the names of PROTEX luminaries quoted by Tarantino in her book as defending a wider-ranging paradigm of vulnerability. They were the same persons who organized the raid against the BAYS. The PROTEX has a vested interest in expanding even further its field of operation. It seems it is trying to do so by claiming that, just as those who work as prostitutes, those who join “cults” are all “victimized” by “abusing their vulnerability,” even when they deny it—just another attempt to resuscitate the dead horse of brainwashing theories.
There is evidence of a cooperation between Pablo Salum and PROTEX going beyond the BAYS case, but the latter should have looked to the anti-trafficking agency as their opportunity for creating a perfect storm. Not only are the “victims” of BAYS described as “brainwashed” by a “cult,” which for PROTEX is a situation of “abuse of vulnerability” similar to trafficking prostitutes. In the case of BAYS, it is alleged that the brainwashed victims actually became prostitutes, i.e., they were at the same time “brainwashed,” prostitutes, and “cultists.”
The indictment by judge Ariel Oscar Lijo of September 8, 2022, is a document of 572 pages. I read it several times, and in a nutshell it tells this story. The BAYS is a “cult” according to the definition of Spanish anti-cultists, which attracts its members and keeps them in the school through the use of brainwashing. While ostensibly its aim is to teach philosophy, its real purpose is to enrich Percowicz and other leaders through the practice of prostitution. Female members are submitted to a continuous brainwashing, some of them almost since birth because their parents were already members of the school, through a climate where sex and pornography are continuously celebrated. They are deprived of their free will and personality through sophisticated techniques of mind control. They are then trafficked and sent to meet male clients. Most of the money of their prostitution business goes to BAYS. The different companies operated by BAYS members such as the coaching company and the real estate agencies are fronts whose aim is to fraudulently justify the presence of profits that come in fact from prostitution, so that the businesses are in fact money-laundering organizations. The so-called clinic is also used for money-laundering, but the “dream cures” there are also used to further brainwash the women who work as prostitutes and punish those who try to rebel or escape (why Juan Percowicz and other leaders also went through these cures is not explained). BAYS has also a secondary criminal activity of smuggling medicines to the United States, as proved by the fact that the three students arrested at Buenos Aires airport had a significant quantity of prescription medicines in their luggage. Except a comparatively small number of student-prostitutes, who are victims, all members of the school are perpetrators and part of a criminal conspiracy, which justifies their arrest.
Obviously, this vast conspiracy needs to be proved. The indictment mentions one complainant, who is not named but is obviously Pablo Salum, and four witnesses, who seem to be persons who cleaned the apartments in State of Israel Avenue, and others where students lived, and the so-called “clinic.” One was identified by students as a cleaning lady who had been caught stealing and fired, and had vowed to “go to Pablo Salum” as vengeance. The witnesses do not say much, except that they heard rumors and saw women “dressed like prostitutes.” One witness said she saw students dressed in “red and blue,” which would be the colors typical of ‘old prostitutes.”
Based on Salum’s claims, the PROTEX believed that sexual encounters were videotaped and the tapes kept in the house of the stage magician Barragán for possible future uses as blackmail material. However, thousands of videos seized in Barragán’s apartment were patiently viewed and indexed by the agents. They only included BAYS courses. As I mentioned, guided by Pablo Salum’s demonstrably false statement that teachings about sexuality were the center of BAYS courses, the agents went into a fishing party examining all the lectures, and found very little in terms of discussions about sex. They only relied on the old and ruined commercial pornographic VHS they found and on photographs with sexual encounters and nudity (including the one I have discussed above) to claim that the rituals of the “Ghostbusters” were sexual in nature, something all students deny.
What the judge was left with was the interpretation of tapped telephone conversations and the journals of some female members. The expectation that wild sexual references would be found led the detectives to several mistakes (some were later corrected). The last name of Carnegie, who was at any rate denounced as an author teaching techniques of brainwashing, was sometimes mistakenly transcribed as “carne,” “flesh,” and references to books were misinterpreted as indicating “carnal” encounters. In a conversation about Placido Domingo, the suggestion that he should be invited to “coaching” was transcribed as “colchón,” “mattress,” again indicating a sexual proposal. Other conversations are admittedly ambiguous. Percowicz calls a student (and a friend of many years) a “great bitch” (gran puta), to which she answers, “Thanks to you I am a great bitch” (Gracias a vos soy gran puta). “Puta” is often used in Spanish-speaking feminism to mean bold and independent woman (an ironic allusion to the nickname that has been used to disqualify notable women such as Joan of Arc and Elizabeth I). And the use of words such as “clients,” “services,” and even “fiancés” do not indicate that the relationships referred to were forms of prostitution.
People who write a diary often dump there not only their daydreams but what their wildest fantasies and darkest thoughts tell them, as a way of getting to know them. Some of these entries are absurd even to the naked eye, and the judge has found no way to explain them. I cite as an example this transcript: “Fatigued, I will reach U$ 350,000 and achieve the goal. Then they … and they stopped billing. Now they are invoicing more and they got their act together because they were rushed from Buenos Aires. The hand is very hard and this month we have to reach $410,000.”
Note that the person does not say what she is talking about, nor does she ever mention the BAYS. But what is most striking is that, if this statement were true, the author would be earning an income comparable to that of the best paid jobs in the world.
Sometimes, buried somewhere among the 572 pages, there are arguments that deny the very claims of the judge. A spectacular case concerns a prominent Argentinian businessman, who is not named but is clearly Carlos Pedro Blaquier, who died in 2023. The industrialist regularly visited a student of the school called J, whom he had already met before she joined the BAYS. The judge indicates J. among the victims of trafficking and believes that her relationship with Blaquier was one of a prostitute with a rich client. However, among the documents seized about Blaquier the judge mentions one where the industrialist asks that he and J. should be “buried together.” What man would ask to be buried with a prostitute? The burial request alone confirms what J. told me: that she had for ten years a loving relationship with Blaquier, who was factually although not legally separated from his wife, and that they considered themselves a couple—one united by such a romantic love that they even planned to share one day the same grave.
After the indictment, in October 2022, nine women indicated as victims or “possible victims” were called to testify through a “Cámara Gesell,” where they answered questions prepared by the prosecutor but asked to them by psychologists. They all stated that they were not prostitutes, had never traded sex for money, had not been trafficked, and were normal, professional women, with a life, work, and friends outside of BAYS, so that the accusations that they were brainwashed were ridiculous. I interviewed seven of them, who told me as much. They certainly did not look like prostitutes, moved freely around Buenos Aires, and if they had lost their jobs it was because of the raid and the investigation. As I mentioned earlier, the youngest of them was 35.
The judge had anticipated that the victims would deny that they were victims, and here is where the brainwashing issue and how law 26.842 is interpreted by PROTEX emerge as the keys of the matter. If a trafficked prostitute denies that she is a prostitute, the PROTEX argues, this is further evidence she is trafficked and somebody is abusing her vulnerability (abus de faiblesse, again). In many cases of trafficking, it is in fact true that trafficked prostitutes refuse to testify because they are terrorized by organized crime. The BAYS case, however, seems to be totally different. These are not terrorized migrants or marginalized women but cultivated professionals who have (or had before the raid) regular jobs and a very normal social life. Only a true believer in the ideology of “brainwashing” and “cults” would assume that as “cultists” they had been brainwashed and might even have become prostitutes without knowing it.
Note that, if there are no prostitutes, there is no case. Money laundering supposedly was aimed at hiding prostitution money, and the criminal conspiracy’s rationale was to organize and manage the prostitution ring. On the other hand, in the hypothesis that the PROTEX could prove that one or more BAYS students traded sex for money, it should still demonstrate that they did it based on a coercion by BAYS leaders (although in this case they would say that coercion was psychological, through brainwashing).
The alleged “victims” or “possible victims” I met or interviewed show no signs of having been exploited. They are, in descending order of age:
-a 66-year-old social psychologist and professional singer;
-a 62-year-old visual arts teacher and painter;
-a 57-year-old actress, member of the 1997 world champion stage magic team;
-a 57-year-old elementary school teacher and philosophical business coach;
-a 50-year-old woman who was already considered a “victim” and was subjected to an expert opinion in the previous case, which proved that she was neither a victim nor exploited;
-a 45-year-old management graduate;
-a 43-year-old real estate agent;
-a 41-year-old digital marketing professional;
-a 36-year-old real estate agent, macromedia designer, and web designer.
There are three other “victims” who have been living abroad for about a decade: a 52-year-old registered nurse; a 46-year-old woman who has had the same partner for more than 20 years; and a 44-year-old lawyer. To consider this group of women as a gang of prostitutes exploited by the BAYS would be laughable if it were not painful and insulting to them.
The BAYS prisoners were submitted to a very harsh jail regime. Ten shared the same cell. Those of them who were homosexuals reported to me that they were insulted and intimidated by dangerous gang men who occupied a nearby cell. They survived thanks to their artists and musicians, who started working at an opera, “The Power of God.”
Because of the power of God, or of human justice, on November 4, 2022, the Court of Appeal freed all defendants from jail. They went home, although they suffer from post-traumatic stress and can hardly sleep at night. Even students who were not arrested are still traumatized by the terror of the raid. Their businesses have either been closed by the authorities or cannot function because of the negative media publicity. They are almost all jobless.
Two of the three judges of the Appeal Court still believed there was evidence justifying going on with the case against 17 defendants (four testified later, and their cases should still be examined), although they chastised Judge Lijo for not having allowed the defense to present its evidence. They dismissed one of the accusations, smuggling medicines to the United States, since claims of personal use were reasonable and they had been normally dispatched with the baggage in sight of any control. The third judge, Eduardo Guillermo Farah, wrote in partial dissent that it was a very good idea to send the prisoners home but the court should also have considered whether the case should not have been simply dismissed.
I am aware that scholars of religion are not equipped, nor requested, to decide criminal cases. In this case, as in others, there are issues of fact only courts can resolve. On the other hand, this case is different from several others I studied, where some ex-members claimed to have been sexually abused while the great majority of members and ex-members insisted there had been no abuses. Here, not even one of the alleged victims claims she had been abused, a fact Judge Farah invites us not to ignore. He also mentioned the technical argument that most of the facts had already been judged in the first BAYS case more than twenty years ago.
Judge Farah agrees with most scholars in my field when he suggests that courts stop using “cult” (secta) and replace the term with “new religious movements,” and when he expresses the fear, quoting approvingly a Spanish criminologist, that “some may use a crusade against the cults as a path towards the criminalization of minorities.”
In general, Judge Farah (although I do not necessarily agree with all of his comments) expresses what is also my conclusion, after having interviewed several BAYS leaders and students and having read thousands of pages of both accusations and defenses. It is not impossible, said Farah, that in the future evidence of some illegal activity committed by the BAYS leaders and students will emerge. So far, he wrote, this evidence simply does not exist.