From the scholars’ interviews, the BAYS case appears as a fabrication by a single vicious anti-cultist and by prosecutors who unwisely believed him.
by Susan J. Palmer
What do the interviews presented in the previous articles of this series tell us?
First, it is highly unlikely these women are moonlighting (functioning in a “brainwashed zombie state”) as prostitutes. They didn’t strike us researchers as promising prostitute material. While neither my colleague Holly Folk nor myself, as middle-aged North American women academics, are in a position to predict what “rich and powerful men” in Argentina might consider as “sexy,” it appears unlikely that pimps would bother to groom women in their late 50s and 60s as prostitutes.
Moreover, the fact that these women are independent, high-performing professionals; and that the majority are in long term, stable relationships with men, makes it difficult to imagine them dabbling in the world’s oldest profession.
Massimo Introvigne lists the profiles of the nine women “victims”: “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 55-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 [that BAYS won in 2000], 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 35-year-old real estate agent, macromedia designer, and web designer.”
Introvigne comments: “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.”
Table of Contents
Were the BAYS Women “Brainwashed”?
The 9 “victims” were all sent to the Cámara Gesell, a room equipped for interviews of victims and criminals, conducted by a psychologist.
All nine women were interviewed individually while the judge, lawyers, and prosecutors watched via a zoom link. They insisted vehemently that they were not prostitutes, nor brainwashed; that they were fully in charge of their own lives, and not forced to do anything by anyone.
But Judge Martín Irurzun and Judge Roberto José Boico both stated in the Chambers of Appeals decision of November 4, 2022 that, since the female victims had been involved in BAYS for so long, they had internalized the manipulation and were unaware they had been manipulated.
After their initial interview at the Cámara Gesell, and following interviews conducted by Dr. Folk and myself, the nine women underwent second forensic psychological and psychiatric examinations.
In the psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ reports they all passed with flying colors, as “normal.”
It is well-known in academic and legal circles that the theory of brainwashing has been consigned to the realm of “pseudoscience.”
The arrested persons were accused of criminal association, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and money laundering on the basis of the already mentioned Law No 26.842 on Prevention and Punishment of Human Trafficking and Assistance to Victims, passed on 19 December 2012 (an amendment to the previous law, Law No 26.364). As Introvigne notes, Argentina does not criminalize prostitution but it criminalizes the behavior of those who economically benefit from the sexual activity of another person.
Law 26.842 categorizes prostitutes as “victims” even when they deny their “victimhood.” But if PROTEX identifies them and chooses to “protect” them, they are trapped in this category.
Introvigne explores the feminist critique of this law by Tarantino, who scrutinizes Argentina’s tool used to criminalize prostitution, which is “vulnerability as a tool of control.” Tarantino argues this tool creates a “paradigm of victimization” that denies to certain subjects their “political agency.” Introvigne concludes: “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.”
Strange Parallels: Brainwashing and Vulnerability Concepts in Argentinian and French Law
Introvigne also points out that Argentina’s concept of “vulnerability as a tool of control” exhibits a striking “similarity … [with] 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.”
In both countries, this concept was the underpinning in new laws created to fight human trafficking and “cults”— by categorizing new religious movements members as “victims” of brainwashing (“manipulation mentale” in France and “coercive persuasion” in Argentina), thereby depriving them of their political agency.
It is interesting to recall that, in the very first application of France’s 2001 anti-cult About-Picard law, when Arnaud Mussy, a young prophet of a small new religious movement called Néo-Phare, was accused of causing the suicide of a fellow member, Mussy’s defense lawyer, Fabrice Petit, objected to his client being used as a “cobaye” (guinea pig) for this new law that had not yet been tested. He cautioned the court: “One is asking you to be psychiatric magistrates. Neither you nor I have the competence to judge ‘manipulation mentale.’”
When Mussy spoke in court, denying that he was a “gourou” or “manipulateur,” he reports the reaction he received: “When I speak and tell them my side of the story, even the prosecutor says, ‘He seems to be very straightforward.’ ‘Aha!’ says the directrice from ADFI [a French anti-cult movement]. ‘That proves he is a ‘manipulateur.’ All ‘gourous’ have this ability to seem sincere. That is how they manipulate!’”
The same “Catch-22” tactic became part of the “strange spectacle” in court where an anticult lawyer represented the “complaints” of the Peraltas (two Néo-Phare members) without their consent. In the case of the Peralta couple, they had written a deposition for the court insisting they had no complaints about Arnaud Mussy. But, just like the BAYS “victims,” their deposition was rejected on the grounds that “victims of brainwashing do not realize they are brainwashed”; that their denials actually are “proof” they are brainwashed.
Is the Buenos Aires Yoga School a “Cult”?
Sociologists in the field of new religious studies would classify BAYS as an “NRM” (new religious movement). But BAYS does not conform to the type of NRM that tends to generate controversy—what sociologist Roy Wallis (1945–1990) in his tripartite typology called the “world-rejecting” NRM—the type whose founder is a messianic prophet who makes extravagant, charismatic “god-in-flesh” claims, and requires that his/her devotees surrender their time and assets to the movement and live communally, spending their days evangelizing and/or fundraising door to door and preparing for paradise on earth or imminent catastrophe.
Dr. Juan Percowicz does not fit the profile of a messianic god-in-flesh prophet. He was described by his students whom we interviewed as their respected master teacher, a wise philosopher, a kind counsellor, a friend. In this way, Dr. Percowicz corresponds to the type of leader who founds what Wallis called “world-affirming” NRMs. This type is a wise teacher of techniques who does not tell his disciples how to apply the sacred knowledge he/she imparts. In other words, the focus in BAYS was on applying esoteric philosophy to the individual’s daily life. Everyone made their own choices, but they found emotional, intellectual, and artistic support in BAYS.
The BAYS Raid as “Crime Control Theater”
I would argue that the BAYS members who were targeted in the raid were indeed “victims”—but not of human trafficking. Rather, they were victims of “crime control theatre” (CCT).
De Vault, Miller, and Griffin define CCT as follows: “Crime control theater describes legal actions (e.g., policies) that appear to address crime but are sometimes ineffective and can potentially have unintended negative consequences. Four key criteria of CCT include reactionary response to moral panic, unquestioned acceptance and promotion, appeal to mythic narratives, and empirical failure.”
Scholarly studies of the CCT phenomenon point to lack of evidence as a frequent feature of this kind of “theater.” De Vault, Miller, and Griffin note: “Crime control theater refers to intuitively appealing laws that appear to address crimes while lacking any evidence that they actually exist.”
CCT is theatrical; its purpose is to create the illusion of controlling crime in order to reassure the public. However, Logan A. Yelderman and his colleagues have pointed out CCT’s ineffectual nature and poor results: “Policies such as America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response Alerts, safe-haven laws, Megan’s law, and three-strikes laws have provided the public with a feeling of safety and security. However, research has provided evidence that… these types of laws and policies… appear to be effective, serve the public’s best interests, and provide a crime control purpose, but [that they] are largely ineffective and have unintended negative consequences.”
The term “crime control theatre” was first applied to government raids on religious communities by contributing authors in the volume on the 2008 FBI raid against a polygamous commune in Eldorado, Texas.
The flamboyant raid on BAYS fits the description of a CCT. It was clearly planned as a photo opportunity, with television camera crews trailing the SWAT teams as they moved up the ten floors of the building battering doors after refusing the keys. This dramatic footage was shown on television during the ensuing weeks in news reports of the “horror cult” that trafficked its women. The fact that no members or former members (aside from Pablo Salum) had filed complaints, or that no useful evidence was produced did not matter. Examples of what Yelderman and his colleagues called “unintended negative consequences” in this particular CCT were the harm to the “victims” in terms of door repair/replacement expenses, stolen cash and jewelry, and assaults on the targeted individuals’ privacy and reputations in defamatory media reports.
One of the nine women “victims” (45) gave an insightful interpretation of the raid and its fallout: “It takes just one toxic person who comes into a small religious community and brings the whole group down. We have Pablo Salum. No one in our group has ever complained or said they were a ‘victim.’ There is just one person who tells lies. And PROTEX needs those lies. We are just a number for their annual report. PROTEX claims, ‘There are 200 victims in BAYS,’ so that they can receive money from the government. If they were really concerned about us ‘victims’—then why treat us like animals? Why cancel our visas to the USA? Why destroy our livelihoods? They have zero proof of any crime, it is all speculation—and yet they have succeeded in ruining our lives.”