A yoga cult allegedly exploited women to attract men like Domingo

BUENOS AIRES — An Argentina-based yoga group sexually exploited vulnerable women it called “geishas” to gain money and influence from rich and powerful men around the world, including the star of Placido Domingo, who had known the leaders of the organization for more than two decades, according to interviews with former members and local authorities.

A sprawling investigation into the cult-like Buenos Aires yoga school that operated for more than 30 years in the Argentine capital has uncovered what authorities call a criminal organization involved in sex trafficking, money laundering money, involuntary servitude, the illegal practice of medicine and other crimes. . Nineteen members have been arrested in connection with the investigation which extends to the United States, where six other suspects are wanted.

Despite its name, the school did not offer yoga classes. The leaders are accused of preying on people to join its ranks with promises of eternal happiness and then sexually and financially exploiting them, according to charging documents.

Former members of the school and officials investigating the case told The Associated Press that the group forced female members to work as “geishas” responsible for making guests feel welcome at school, with sex being part of the expectation. Influential or wealthy men were matched with members of the “Geishado VIP”, one of many groups of women who were forced to have sex in exchange for money and influence that benefited heads of sect, according to the indictment documents. Some of the women were sent to the United States and Uruguay to have sex with men, a practice that amounts to slavery, authorities said.

Former member Pablo Salum said his mother and sister were among the women exploited in Argentina and described orgies and child sexual abuse.

“When you were 11 or 12, the chief told you who you had to have sex with,” he said, adding that younger children were forced to watch the sexual activity. Salum says he was brought into the organization by his mother when he was eight and left when he was 14. His accusations helped spark the ongoing investigation.

Some members of the group were reduced to “a situation of slavery”, forced to have sex and put in charge of domestic tasks at school such as cleaning and cooking, according to the investigation documents and a police official. police. Both male and female “slaves” were expected to follow instructions without question, said a former member named Carlos, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he left the group many years ago and n could not confirm the details of the current. investigation.

Domingo became embroiled in the scandal after law enforcement officers carried out dozens of raids in Buenos Aires in August targeting the school. The famous tenor was “a consumer of prostitution” but is not charged with a crime because prostitution is legal in Argentina, said an Argentinian police source who, like other police and judicial sources in Buenos Aires, spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity as the investigation is ongoing.

Authorities released recorded phone conversations earlier this year in which a man they identified as Domingo appeared to arrange a sexual encounter at his hotel in April in Buenos Aires with Susana Mendelievich, a concert pianist who prosecutors say , was a cult leader in charge of the “VIP Geishado.”

In one of the wiretaps, Mendelievich speaks with another cult leader about how the band had tried unsuccessfully for years to use their musical connections to recruit Domingo into the band, but it was worth the try. again while in Buenos Aires in April for a series of concerts. In another wiretap, Mendelievich asks cult leader Juan Percowicz if she can take Domingo to the “museum”, the moniker used to refer to the top floor of their 10-story building where influential men have had sex with women. group members. Mendelievich, 75, and Percowicz, 84, were arrested during the raids in August; both were released this week under house arrest.

Domingo publicly tried to distance himself from the group, which reportedly had several offices in the United States.

“Of course I had nothing to do with it,” Domingo, 81, said last week in reference to the organization’s allegedly illegal activities. In comments to a television station in Mexico, where he was performing, Domingo did not deny being the man in the tapped recordings, but said he felt betrayed by musicians he saw as friends. “It makes me sad when you’ve had friends for many years and you realize you’ve been used.”

Domingo did not respond to numerous requests from his reps for an interview or comment from the AP.

In 2019, many women told the AP that they had been sexually harassed by Domingo, considered one of the greatest opera singers of all time. More than 20 women have come forward to accuse Domingo of inappropriate and sexually charged conduct, including fondling and other unwanted touching, persistent phone calls late at night, stalking them in the locker room and urging them to have sex in their offering promotion in the world of opera. Several of the women said he professionally punished them when they refused his advances.

The Spanish opera singer denied wrongdoing at the time and said it pained him to think he made women feel uncomfortable. Investigations by the American Guild of Musical Artists and the Los Angeles Opera, where Domingo had served as general manager, found the sexual harassment allegations against him to be credible. The subsequent allegations and findings interrupted Domingo’s career in the United States, although he still performs in other parts of the world.

The Argentina revelations have once again drawn attention to the opera star.

The promoter of a concert in neighboring Chile announced last week that a Domingo concert scheduled for October 16 at a bullring in the capital, Santiago, had been canceled, although the band said it was due to reasons logistics.

Authorities have not released the names of other powerful men they believe were targeted by the group. But investigators say they are looking into hard drives and “boxes and boxes” of erotic photographs and videotapes seized during the raids. Legal authorities claim that many of the sexual encounters arranged by the group took place at his school in Buenos Aires and were videotaped.

Carlos told the AP he saw Domingo visit the school several times in the 1990s, including once as a guest of honor at a dinner party inside the school. Carlos said he was a server at the party, thrown in honor of Domingo, where the singer made a generous offer at the end of the evening to fly several of the band’s executives with him to Europe on an upcoming travel.

“At dinner, Placido Domingo said ‘let’s all go to Europe,'” said Carlos, who left the band after 10 years in 1999. “He was inviting them all, the whole table, to Europe.”

At Domingo’s table were classical musicians who police say were part of the band’s leadership: Rubén D’Artagnan González, Verónica Iacono and Mendelievich among others, according to Carlos who said he was public knowledge at school that the three accompanied Domingo on his trip.

González, who died in 2018, was concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1986 to 1996 and is accused of playing a key role in the band’s US operations. Iacono was a New York-based soprano, who used the stage name “Loiacono”, and is the subject of an international arrest warrant. Another alleged leader named Mariano Krawczyk, was an oboist who goes by the artistic name of Mariano Krauz.

The extent of Domingo’s professional or personal ties to the band’s musicians is not known, and he declined to comment on it. But Domingo performed with many of those arrested, including a 1996 concert featuring the three he allegedly invited to Europe and Krawczyk.

During this concert in Buenos Aires, Domingo and Iacono sang part of “Marked Cards”, an opera that Iacono, Mendelievich, González and Krawczyk wrote together based on a book by Percowicz, the founder and leader of the yoga school of Buenos Aires.

The sexual encounters were presented to members as a form of “healing” and offered a pathway to climb the seven levels of the school’s strict hierarchy that had Percowicz at the top, according to charging documents.

Former members interviewed by AP say Percowicz was known as “El Maestro”. Others ranked seventh were Iacono, Krawczyk and Mendelievich, according to prosecutors’ documents. A judicial source says he saw documents that show González was at the top of the organization before his death. Krawczyk was among those arrested.

To progress quickly, members could also donate money and transfer assets. The group had revenues of around half a million dollars a month, according to a legal official.

Members of the cult included lawyers and accountants who advised executives on a complex money laundering network that included setting up businesses and buying real estate in Argentina and the United States, according to the documents. investigation.

The members also allegedly sold medical treatments for several illnesses, including AIDS and drug addiction, which involved “sleep cures”, which essentially meant giving people drugs to help them sleep for days at a time. Authorities claim that the pseudo-medical treatments were also carried out in the United States, where the CMI Abasto group clinic had subsidiaries.

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Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez contributed from San Francisco.

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