Think you wouldn’t be lured in by a cult? You may want to think again...

Sects in Spain, often disguised as meditation or yoga groups, prey on people from all backgrounds including lawyers, psychologists and scientists

Patricia Aguilar the day she was rescued from a sect leader in Peru.
Patricia Aguilar the day she was rescued from a sect leader in Peru.AP

She mixes her words as she talks about the cult that captured her. She starts and stops as if she can’t or doesn’t want to share her experience. “It’s a side effect,” she explains. “They indoctrinated me so that I would never speak about what happened inside.”

I did things that I would never have done

Sect victim Joan Pérez

Alicia Rodríguez (not her real name) says that it is easy to spend years in a cult without knowing it. “Sects don’t have a sign on the door,” she explains. “Entering is easy. Getting out is the hard part.” Experts agree that anyone can fall for a cult.

“The first person who says they will never fall is the first person who does,” says Rodríguez from a bar in Madrid. She spent five years in one of these groups without realizing it. “I thought I was helping myself and others, that I was going to help an NGO like Patricia [Aguilar],” says Rodríguez.

She’s referring to a Spanish woman who was rescued from a sect leader in Peru in July. Aguilar was lured to the South American country by Félix Steven Manrique, a Peruvian national who went by the name Prince Gurdjieff. When she was found a year-and-a-half after going missing, Aguilar had a one-month baby with the so-called Prince, who is now in pre-trial custody.

There was a highly charismatic leader who, little by little, convinced you to trust in him, like you trust your mother

Sect victim Alicia Rodríguez

In Spain, there are around 250 cults that present themselves as religious, esoteric, personal growth, philosophical and New Age groups. “They hide behind a socially accepted discourse,” explains Miguel Perlado, coordinator of the work group on sectarian aberrations at Catalonia’s Official Psychological College. The psychologist says that sects have successfully adapted to modern times. “They don’t talk about UFOs like they did in the 1980s, but can disguise themselves behind yoga and meditation groups,” he says. According to Perlado, based on various studies, the percentage of the Spanish population affected by cults is 0.9%, a percentage similar to other European countries.

The leaders and members of a sect target young people, idealists, rebels and university graduates, says Perlado. “They are not interested in psychopaths or weak or aggressive people,” he adds.

Myrna García, president of the Support Network for Sect Victims, agrees: “They are normal but easily influenced people.” Among the cult victims her organization has helped are lawyers, psychologists and scientists, she says.

Legal grey area

Psychological control is not a crime in Spain. Legal expert Carlos Bardavío says it is difficult for it to be charged under the current laws. "It is a special, different, subtle violence that isn't seen," he explains. Bardavío wants the criminal code to include the crime of coercive persuasion, where a person is manipulated to fulfill the wishes of a leader.

The lawyer says that various groups against sects and politicians will begin to meet from September onward to discuss the issue. With the exception of France and Belgium, the crime also remains unregulated across Europe. In France, there have been more than 40 sentences in the past two decades.

Psychologist Margarita Barranco, a specialist in psychological manipulation, says victims tend to be people going through a personal, family or work crisis and are therefore more vulnerable. “That’s when they close in. They make you feel protected and you let down your defenses,” says Barranco.

At the cult that captured Rodríguez, “there was a highly charismatic and supposedly amazing leader who, little by little, convinced you to trust in him, like you trust your mother. That’s when you’re a goner.”

Joan Pérez, who prefers not to use his real name, also fell victim to a sect. He says sect leaders use manipulation techniques to diminish your individual personality until it disappears completely. That’s how they get what they want: money, sex and power. “I did things that I would never have done,” he says. Pérez explains that he was once well off (he worked and owned a house and car) but is now unemployed and living off loans.

How sects target victims

According to Barranco, “the internet is one of the main recruitment points,” but there are a wide range of techniques. Some groups stop people on the street while others post signs and offer classes. In some cases, people are introduced by friends and colleagues to the sect. “There are moments when we need someone to help us and these groups offer magical solutions,” she explains.

I thought I was helping myself and others, that I was going to help an NGO Sect victim Alicia Rodríguez

Experts say that people who are recruited to a cult change how they speak and express themselves, they start to use set phrases, only talk about authors they had never read before; they change how they dress and distance themselves from their friends, becoming more cold and irritable.

Pérez looks at a photo on his cell phone from when he was part of the cult and points to his semi-closed eyes: “I was absent, I wasn’t there.”

“They destroy your life,” says Pérez. “[Victims] don’t want to report or talk about the issue because they are afraid of the leader and have suffered so much that they don’t want to know any more.”

But it is possible to leave, he adds, and victims should seek help from an expert psychologist.

Both Pérez and Rodríguez have worked hard to recover their lives. They have studied the behavior of cults and sect leaders to better identify them and are now sharing their experiences to help others avoid them. Rodríguez is committed to the cause: “At least the suffering is finally useful for something. That is what I wanted to do from the beginning: to help people.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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