Sex, drugs and promises of happiness: The Buenos Aires Yoga School’s money-making machine

The Argentine human trafficking network tried to enlist Plácido Domingo, set up recruiting centers in the United States and maintained close ties with powerful people

RR.SS.

The Buenos Aires Yoga School has been operating quietly for more than 30 years in a 10-story building in the heart of Argentina’s capital city. There were plenty of private parties there but never any yoga classes, and the so-called students often had group sex as their children watched. The leader, Juan Percowicz, also known as “The Angel,” and his followers were investigated for child abuse in the 1990s, but they all escaped justice because of the cult’s connections with powerful people and international human rights organizations.

A congressional delegation from the United States even traveled to Argentina to demand the release of Juan Percowicz and his underlings, saying they were victims of political persecution. Now, almost 30 years later, it’s time for the aging criminals to face justice again. Argentine officials have arrested Percowicz and 18 cult members, and have charged them with human trafficking, robbery, fraud, money laundering and illegally practicing medicine. The leaders who promised eternal happiness to their followers had become millionaires over the years, prompting the Argentine police to dub their investigation: “Cult, Inc.”

“The failure of our justice system in the 1990s led to a sense of impunity throughout the cult,” says Commissioner Ricardo Juri, who leads the Federal Police’s Department of Human Trafficking. “They would say in their recruiting pitches, ‘They tried and failed to destroy us – this is the right path.’ They used their hierarchical structure very effectively to expand and start new money-making ventures.”

Until they were arrested, the cult leaders lived in the 26 rooms of a headquarters building with a towering photo of their adored leader – 84-year-old Juan Percowicz – the heart and soul of the cult. They used hierarchical recruiting systems disguised as philosophy courses and a well-oiled operation to keep the money flowing into their coffers. At the top of the seven-level pyramid stood Percowicz, who called himself “The Angel” or “The Master.” Underneath him were “Apostles” (level six), “Geniuses” (level five), and “Pupils” (level four). Levels 1-3 were for ordinary humans. According to the indictment, the high-level members were in charge of the various activities that channeled people and resources to the organization.

Billing itself as an “ontological coaching” school for attaining personal happiness, the cult’s BA Group was in charge of recruitment and preyed on wealthy and vulnerable people. “You’re not going to find any poor people in this group – they all have money,” said Commissioner Juri. If any of the members rebelled, they were sent to a “clinic” where they were subjected to a lengthy “sleep treatment” that used psychotropic drugs. “Cult members ran real estate agencies and law firms, complete with accountants, lawyers and notaries throughout the cult hierarchy,” said Juri. This network of professionals enabled them to inherit the assets of deceased members and launder their illegal income, estimated at $500,000 a month. Police seized almost $1.5 million in cash and three kilos of gold during their raids.

The police followed the money trail all the way to the United States, thinking that the cult was based there. They later discovered that it was the other way around – Buenos Aires was the command center. “They sent members to live in the United States and replicate the formula. They started business, purchased real estate in Las Vegas and other cities, and established branches of the BA Group to promote the Buenos Aires clinic” [treatments for addiction and AIDS]. Cult members with green cards [US residency] would build their clientele by selling sex. “We learned that the girls wouldn’t travel to the United States until the clients bought apartments for them to live in. They also invited specific people to motivational talks as a way of gaining entry into powerful circles,” said Juri.

The leader and founder of the Buenos Aires Yoga School, Juan Percowicz, during his arrest by the Argentine Federal Police.
The leader and founder of the Buenos Aires Yoga School, Juan Percowicz, during his arrest by the Argentine Federal Police. PFA

The target – Plácido Domingo

Luring powerful people to the cult was the key to success. A recording from one of the wiretaps revealed how cult leaders tried to enlist renowned tenor, Plácido Domingo, an effort that ultimately failed. The campaign to recruit Domingo began in the 1990s, and tried to exploit his relationship with at least four members of the Buenos Aires Yoga School. Two were well-known concert pianists and composers that had performed in the United States. “We’ve been trying for 30 years using these music [connections] and we still haven’t succeeded [in recruiting Domingo],” said Susana “Mendy” Mendelievich, in a recorded conversation that EL PAÍS listened to.

In the recording, the 75-year-old woman tells a fellow cult member that she has an upcoming meeting with Plácido Domingo, who was in Buenos Aires for a performance at the Colón Theater in April 2022. In an earlier recording, a man who seems to be Plácido Domingo talks with Mendelievich about the best way to meet in his room at the Hotel Alvear without being discovered by the “agents.” According to Federal Police sources, there is no evidence that the meeting took place nor have any charges been filed against Domingo. The wiretaps of 35 cellphones belonging to cult members produced 176,000 hours of recordings, but there were no other references to Domingo or the planned meeting with Mendelievich.

The cult’s new strategy to recruit Domingo was revealed in one of the recordings.

Mendelievich: “We’re meeting in a little while. Luis is driving us...”

Unidentified woman: “Are you just going to discuss music, or about the motivational talks too?”

Mendelievich: “I don’t know… we didn’t talk about that with Mariano. But it’s a good idea, you know, because of all the problems he and his family are having…”

Unidentified woman: “Even if he didn’t have all this trouble… it’s another approach, so to speak…”

Mendelievich: “Yes, yes, because we’ve been trying and failing for 30 years with music. Maybe this time will be different.”

Unidentified woman: “It’s one more try… we have to keep at it… see if you can slip into the conversation that we are also doing these [talks]. Check with Mariano.”

Mendelievich: “I’m sure he’ll love it.”

Unidentified woman: “It would be like opening two fronts [of attack].”

The recorded conversation shows how the cult tries to exploit Plácido Domingo’s vulnerability after scores of women in the United States accused him of sexual harassment, resulting in the cancellation of many performances. Some of the names mentioned in the recordings reveal the history of the cult’s contacts with Domingo.

“Mariano” is Mariano Krawczyk or Kraus, as he prefers to call himself. He’s an Argentine musician who was one of the best oboe players in the world in the 1990s. Now under arrest, Kraus, was close to another Argentine musician, the deceased violinist, Rubén González. In 1986, González was the director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and is suspected of opening a branch of the Yoga School in that city. Domingo’s connection with these two musicians and former Yoga School luminaries was revealed by Pablo Salum, Kraus’ stepson. Salum has publicly denounced the cult, and accuses it of forcing him to watch its orgies when he was a child.

In February 1996, Domingo performed for 10,000 people at the Buenos Aires Polo Grounds (Campo Argentino de Polo). The program closed with songs from an opera composed by three members of the Yoga School – Mendielivich, Kraus and González. Domingo’s female accompanist that night was a novice soprano named Verónica Loiácono, who is now a fugitive from the police.

The La Nación newspaper published a review of the concert praising Plácido Domingo’s voice but criticizing the questionable quality of the final few songs. Two tangos, My Beloved Buenos Aires and The Day You Love Me were failed attempts at evoking Buenos Aires nostalgia, blemished by an orchestra that clashed with the voices, and circumstantial contributions by Rubén González (violinist) and Mariano Kraus (oboist, with his ineffable and showy red tuxedo)… It was an inferior composition by Kraus, Mendelievich and González, and a poorly performed soprano and tenor duet that Plácido Domingo magnanimously sang with beginner Verónica Loiácono,” said the review.

The Argentine investigators don’t know why Plácido Domingo agreed to include this composition as part of his 1996 performance at the Polo Grounds. Nor is it clear how the cult and Mendelievich maintained a relationship with Domingo for so many years. Just a few months ago, after a 20-year absence from Argentina, Domingo called Mendelievich when he arrived in Buenos Aires. “They knew Plácido Domingo was coming and they were preparing a renewed effort to make him take notice,” said Commissioner Ricardo Juri. “Having Plácido Domingo around was helpful – they used him to generate business.”

Percowicz and 18 other cult members are currently in jail, while four others are still at large. They no longer have the influence that freed them from jail in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the investigation has only just begun. The Department of Human Trafficking has a room full of boxes with documents and suitcases that are waiting to be inventoried and examined. Percowitz’s pristine Ford Bronco is sitting in their impound lot. When his car broke down recently, the cult quickly collected $50,000 and found a vehicle suitable for their leader, paying in cash without arousing a whisper of suspicion.

Electronic equipment seized from the Buenos Aires Yoga School.
Electronic equipment seized from the Buenos Aires Yoga School. PFA

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS