Monday, June 17

It Called Itself a Yoga School. Prosecutors Say It Was a Sex Cult.

Juan Percowicz was an accountant with an unusual side hobby: teaching self-help classes around Buenos Aires with a heavy dose of ancient philosophy and New Age spiritualism. He was a hit and, with donations from his followers, he built an organization known as Buenos Aires Yoga School, or BAYS.

For more than 30 years, he ran the school, which promised spiritual salvation through lectures and self-help classes.

But now, Mr. Percowicz, 85, and more than a dozen BAYS members are facing criminal charges, accused of running a “sex cult,” not a yoga school, that coerced some of its female members into prostitution and laundered the profits in real estate.

Prosecutors say the organization exploited and drugged some of its female members, forcing them to sell their bodies and generating hundreds of thousands of dollars monthly from clients in Argentina and the United States. BAYS also ran an illicit clinic where some members were administered drugs to induce prolonged sleep, sometimes as a form of punishment, according to prosecutors.

“Cults exist here, but we’ve never seen one that operated at this level,” said Ricardo Juri, the investigator who oversaw police raids on BAYS properties in August 2022.

The accusations against BAYS shocked Argentina, yet for many people, they also felt eerily familiar.

In the 1990s, Mr. Percowicz and his school first gained notoriety after an Argentine family accused the organization of brainwashing their daughter. During the investigation, some former members talked of being forced to work as “slaves” and said the school promoted prostitution.

But that original case stalled in the courts. Argentina did not yet have laws on human trafficking or money laundering, according to investigators. The country’s justice system was still being overhauled after the end of the military dictatorship more than a decade earlier in which tens of thousands of people were killed.

A 1999 State Department report said Argentina’s judiciary was “hampered by inordinate delays, procedural logjams, changes of judges, inadequate administrative support and incompetence.”

There also remained a lingering distrust of government and the judicial system — and defenders of BAYS tapped into that, including Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, an Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children had been “disappeared” by the authoritarian regime. They accused the Argentine judiciary of corruption and human rights violations connected to the case.

Eventually, the case against BAYS was dropped.

Now, with updated laws, prosecutors are again targeting Mr. Percowicz and his followers in a new investigation examining BAYS operations dating back to 2004.

“The people are the same, the decisions are the same, the activities are similar, but there are two very important laws now with big penalties that prohibit the core activities these people were doing,” said Ariel Lijo, a judge who oversaw the initial stages of the case. Mr. Lijo was nominated for Argentina’s Supreme Court in March by President Javier Milei.

In the 2022 raids on BAYS, investigators said they found more than $1 million in cash, five bars of gold, stashes of pornographic films, checkbooks from American banks and dossiers on wealthy individuals, including some who live in the United States. American authorities have cooperated in the investigation, according to Argentine investigators.

The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment.

Prosecutors say that the seven women named as victims were brought to BAYS by their parents when they were minors, or that they joined as young women and were eventually forced into prostitution. But the women in the case have denied ever having sex in exchange for money, or being victims of any crime.

Defense lawyers for Mr. Percowicz and current members of BAYS have denied all charges, arguing that no one in the organization was exploited. Instead, they say that the accusers — whose identities are protected in the case — want revenge on the organization for personal reasons.

“This is a case of human trafficking without victims of trafficking,” said Jorge Daniel Pirozzo, a lawyer who represents Mr. Percowicz and five other BAYS members. “It hasn’t been proven that anybody has been sexually exploited.”

Mr. Percowicz and BAYS members declined interview requests.

While prostitution in Argentina is not illegal, promoting or economically exploiting the practice of prostitution using deception, abuse or intimidation is. The prosecutors say they intend to show that the victims do not recognize themselves as such because Mr. Percowicz and his allies psychologically manipulated the women over years.

As both sides prepare their arguments, the organization continues to have prominent allies, including in the United States.

In October 2022, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. sent an email to Mr. Lijo, the judge, which was reviewed by The New York Times. The message said that BAYS members were “victims of brutal and egregious human rights violations by elements of the Argentine legal system.” It was unclear why Mr. Jackson, 82, sent the email.

He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Caterina Sanfelice was a hairstylist in her forties when a friend first invited her to a BAYS lecture around 1993. “It was like going to a fancy café with an orator,” she said.

Mr. Percowicz spoke of finding inner strength, she recalls, hooking people with promises of answers in the next session. Ms. Sanfelice said she started going to the talks at least once a week with her family.

Eventually, she said, it became clear something was off. Ms. Sanfelice said Mr. Percowicz told her that “he felt like God.” His closest followers started calling him “angel” or “master.” Then, at a BAYS party, Ms. Sanfelice said two women propositioned her husband while other members undressed to prepare for an orgy. She ran out of the building.

When Ms. Sanfelice told her husband she did not want to go back, she said, he replied that the school saw in him what she did not see: a great architect.

“They raised his self-esteem,” she said. “That’s when he started to feel important. And I became the witch.”

Ms. Sanfelice said her husband, who could not be reached for comment, left her in 1993 and stayed involved with BAYS. She said she was exasperated and felt like no one believed her.

Then came some validation: the first criminal case against BAYS, which captured international attention.

At the center of it was Maria Valeria Llamas, who was 20 and jobless when a family friend offered to take her to a BAYS lecture in 1990.

“At first we saw it as something positive,” said Martín Sommariva, Ms. Llamas’s half brother. “We went from a Valeria who didn’t go out, who was stuck in her room the whole time, to this Valeria who got on the bus and had an interest in something.”

But over the next few years, the yoga school consumed her life, her family said. Ms. Llamas broke up with her boyfriend and lost touch with friends. She stopped going to family outings. She began working at a pharmacy run by BAYS members.

Soon after, her mother said, she found out Ms. Llamas had been pressured by the school to have an illegal abortion. When her family questioned her, Ms. Llamas replied that Mr. Percowicz was “an immortal angel.”

The next day, two BAYS members showed up at the house, escorted by police officers, according to the family and court records from the case. They said they were suing the parents for “unlawful deprivation of liberty.” The police moved Ms. Llamas’s belongings into an apartment owned by BAYS, her family said. Ms. Llamas later accused her stepfather of sexually assaulting her, court records show.

“Suddenly the world came crashing down on us,” recalled her mother, Elena. “We thought: What are we going to do now?”

No rape charges were ever filed against the family members. Ms. Llamas did not respond to requests for comment.

The family filed a criminal complaint in 1993, accusing the school of being a cult that had brainwashed their daughter.

The accusation ended up in the docket of Mariano Bergés, a young judge starting his career. Under Argentina’s judiciary system at the time, judges could both investigate cases and oversee the court proceedings. As part of the investigation, Mr. Bergés said in an interview, he authorized a raid of the headquarters and some of BAYS’s other properties.

He said the raids found boxes of letters that showed members paying Mr. Percowicz for a higher spiritual ranking in the organization. This was not illegal, but, combined with the testimony of former members, it led investigators to believe there was illegal activity underway. Mr. Bergés then ordered wiretaps on Mr. Percowicz and his top deputies, which Mr. Bergés said indicated a scheme to steal the assets of a deceased BAYS member.

In depositions reviewed by The Times, several former BAYS members later said that Mr. Percowicz and his inner circle forced younger followers to be “slaves” to higher ranking members, making them carry out tasks like housework without pay. Former members also said that the organization promoted prostitution, the depositions show, though none said they had been prostituted themselves.

But without human trafficking or money laundering laws in Argentina, Mr. Bergés said, he had to build a case around fraud, promotion of prostitution and a flimsy charge 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 said the Congress and Supreme Court, as well as human-rights groups, pressured him to step down, saying that his investigation tactics, like the wiretapping and raids, violated the suspects’ civil rights. He denies the accusations.

Outside his house, he said, “The walls were plastered with posters and things against me.”

By the mid-1990s, BAYS had opened wellness companies and a foundation in Chicago, Las Vegas and New York. It had gained a reputation as an education center for philosophy and wellness whose members included scholars, professionals and musicians.

BAYS had also cultivated supporters in the U.S. Congress, though it is unclear how the lawmakers first became aware of the organization or whether any of them had any real knowledge or connections to the group.

In Argentina, the criminal case against the organization continued to drag through the courts. More than 50 congressional members sent letters to the country’s government demanding the investigation be closed, according to the House record. (There is no evidence that any U.S. politicians were members of BAYS or investigated by Argentine officials.)

Edolphus Towns, a congressman representing part of Brooklyn, said in House testimony that BAYS members were being harassed by Argentine judicial officials, had been unlawfully imprisoned and subject to antisemitism. Mr. Percowicz and some of his top deputies are Jewish.

Mr. Towns, 89, retired in 2013 and did not respond to requests for comment.

Robert A. Underwood, a former congressman from Guam who signed a letter sent to President Bill Clinton calling for him to intervene, said in an interview that such missives were common. “Nobody really puts a lot of thought into it because you are signing letters all the time,” he said.

Mr. Clinton, in his final year in office, responded to members of Congress in September 1999 and said that U.S. Embassy officials in Buenos Aires had “recently reiterated to senior Argentine officials the importance of resolving this case as quickly as possible,” according to a letter provided to The Times by the Clinton Presidential Library.

The White House’s written response to Congress “reflects the extent of President Clinton’s involvement in this,” said Angel Ureña, a spokesman for Mr. Clinton.

In Argentina, the criminal case against BAYS was eventually closed in the early 2000s with no convictions.

Over the next 20 years, BAYS flourished, with little attention from Argentine authorities. During this period, Mr. Percowicz made clear he was in the business of making money.

“If what we wanted to do here was write a book about the life of Jesus, we wouldn’t be thinking about anything other than the life of Jesus,” Mr. Percowicz told his followers in 2006 in a video obtained by investigators. “But what we are trying to do here is make a billion dollars, one billion dollars, goddamn it!”

Then, in 2021, BAYS ran into new trouble.

Argentina’s federal public prosecutor’s office for trafficking and the exploitation of people opened an investigation into the organization.

Investigators tapped the phones of Mr. Percowicz and some of his allies, capturing conversations that, according to prosecutors, show the work of managing a prostitution operation.

Transcripts filed in court show that in one call, Mr. Percowicz goes over the logistics of arranging what investigators say was a sexual encounter. In a separate recording, a BAYS manager tells Mr. Percowicz that a woman is bringing in only $6,000 a month, which is not enough money, suggesting she needs to bring in more for the organization.

The wiretaps also recorded conversations with a man whom prosecutors say is Plácido Domingo, one of the world’s most famous opera singers, who has faced numerous accusations of sexual harassment in recent years. In one call, he speaks to a woman who prosecutors say was a senior member of BAYS to discuss how she could get to his Buenos Aires hotel room without being noticed.

Argentine prosecutors have not brought charges against Mr. Domingo in connection to the BAYS case.

A spokesperson for Mr. Domingo said in a statement that the opera singer had not been charged “and he is completely unrelated to the investigation.”

Prosecutors said that the majority of BAYS’s income came from sex-trafficking activities, and was then laundered into real estate in Argentina and the United States, and they estimated BAYS’s total assets at nearly $50 million as of December 2020.

Prosecutors say they are confident that the evidence and new laws will enable them to bring Mr. Percowicz and other defendants to justice. The case is currently working its way through the courts. No trial date has been set yet.

For Pablo Salum, whose mother first brought him to BAYS when he was only 8, justice is already too late. He left the organization when he was 12 and has become estranged from his mother and sister, who remain BAYS members.

“This could have ended 20 years ago,” he said. “Everything that is happening now would not have had to happen. And I may even have recovered my family.”

Glenn Thrush contributed reporting from Washington.