Cults in Latin America

Cultic Studies Journal, 1994, Volume 11, Number 1, pages 66-76

Cults in Latin America

Alfredo Silletta

Argentinean Foundation for the Study of Cults

Buenos Aires, Argentina


The author estimates that more than 5,000 religious groups operate in Argentina, with as many as 50,000 sects and cults throughout Latin America. First are the "destructive cults," which demand total submission from their followers and utilize thought-reform techniques. Second are "controversial groups," which take advantage of the misery and marginality in the Latin American continent by playing to the population's alienation from the mainstream culture and need for simple, authoritative answers. Third are "risk groups," or the New Age movement. These groups, which promise personal peace and oneness with the cosmos, are most commonly found among the middle class, which often feels alienated from the Catholic Church and the evangelical-pentecostal pastors who cater to the lower class. The Argentinian Foundation for the Study of Cults (FAPES) was founded to help combat this problem. Between March and November of 1993, FAPES received more than 1,000 telephone calls and gave lectures attended by more than 15,000 people.

Cults and related groups are invading Latin America. They pass through plazas, parks, streets, and especially humble neighborhoods. Extremely limited in the 1960s, their presence began to be noticed in the 1970s. Today, more than 40 million Latin Americans have fallen under their mystical influence. As Latin America grows more impoverished each day, more millions of dollars circulate in the name of God. If we take Argentina as an example, there are more than 5,000 groups operating. This does not even take into account the 50,000 sects across the continent, from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, some small, others massive.

Are all the cults churches? Are some better than others? Until a few years ago the majority of studies classified cults according to their origin and dogmatism: Christian, para-Christian, spiritual, Afro-Brazilian, Eastern, charismatic, and so forth. This method has not fully equipped us to understand the cult phenomenon and its danger. For example, many people of Catholic origin could believe that an

Eastern group is more dangerous than one of Christian origin. From our point of view at the Argentinean Foundation for the Study of Cults (FAPES), it is not dogma that is important but rather the recruitment and control methods that the cults use. Given this premise, we divide the world of cults, sects, and related groups into destructive cults, controversial groups, and risk groups.

Destructive Cults

Destructive cults are groups totally structured and tightly organized to support a new way of life and to demand total submission from their followers. Usually members of these groups live in communities, and the leader possesses all the power. They are groups that utilize thought-reform techniques, known popularly as brainwashing. Within their principle characteristics we note the cult's demand for total adherence to the cult and a person's break with all social ties-parents, partners, friends, work, school, and so on. The suppression of individual freedom and right to privacy and the control of all incoming information is also common.

These groups arrived in Latin America in the 1970s and established themselves in the big cities, especially trying to capture adolescents from the middle and upper-middle classes. Among the main cults we can name the Unification Church (the Rev. Moon), Scientology (Dianetics), Children of God or Family of Love, Transcendental Meditation, Hare Krishna, Ananda Marga, Divine Light Mission, and the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh group.

Controversial Groups

In this category of controversial groups are those that do not utilize thought-reform techniques. They take advantage of the misery and marginality in the Latin American continent. They work in the humble neighborhoods and are primarily aided by what is called the Electronic Church, originating in the United States. These groups have grown the most throughout the continent. In 1970 their numbers did not exceed 4 million in Latin America, and today they reach a total of 50 million.

One way to quickly recognize these groups is to analyze their attitudes: rigid in belief, no cooperation with other churches, convinced there is no possibility of salvation in them, and a marked emphasis on insignificant details (second baptism, and prohibition of smoking, alcohol, and dancing). Other distinctive characteristics, primarily in some evangelical groups, are the following:

  • They form a simple interpretation of God and a literal interpretation of the Bible.

  • They are apocalyptic and await the end of the world.

  • They consider themselves elected by God, which leads them to isolate themselves from society.

  • They use simple, emotional, and sentimental language.

  • The majority of these groups base their sermons on curing and healing.

  • They believe this world is essentially evil and perverse, yet they do not try to change it.

In these groups we can find the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, Afro-Brazilian groups (Umbanda), spiritualists, Gnostics, and an important sector known as the evangelical-pentecostal churches, with its tie to the Electronic Church.

The Electronic Church

The veteran evangelist Billy Graham says that he can preach to as many in one night as the apostle Paul did in all his life. While the historical calculations place the number of Jesus' followers within his life at no more than 30,000 people, the Electronic Church, with the assistance of satellites, allows one billion people to be reached simultaneously by the evangelical message.

In the 1960s the theologians asked themselves without hope if God had died. In the 1970s and 1980s a multitude of people believe that they have been reborn. And those directly responsible for this change are the televangelists, that is, those who preach over the radio or television. According to the Gallup organization, more than 60 million North Americans have received at least minimal exposure to some form of religious programming.

In the 1970s the televangelists allied themselves with the New Right and the neoconservative sectors, and they actively worked for Ronald Reagan's presidential election in 1980. During those years they decided to send a great crusade of preachers to Latin America with the ostensible aim of trying to halt the hypothetical advance of Communism, as well as to place a wedge in the Catholic Church, the largest church on the continent. Beginning with the Episcopalian conferences of Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979), the Electronic Churches targeted the poor. In the early 1980s a great number of televangelists passed through the cities and filled the stadiums. They assimilated many popular evangelical-pentecostal churches whose reactionary ideology in turn drove them to isolate themselves from society.

It deserves to be pointed out that not all the local preachers played up to the religious corporations, and many of them have accommodated to the more modest parts of society.


The Umbanda is a sincretista (syncretic) cult that is founded on African religions, mixed with Catholicism, indigenous cults, spiritualism, and occultism. It originated in Brazil at the beginning of the century and today is practiced by millions of people. In the last two decades it has spread to the majority of Latin American countries.

The Pae and the Mae are in charge of the practices of this cult. At the religious assemblies or sessions, they aid the follower with a pain or bad spirit that needs the gods to expel it. In full session "the spirits" embody the faithful and "cure" their pains. In some cases, to confront the bad, they must resort to Exu and sacrifice edible animals: goats, chickens, doves.

Unfortunately the majority of the Pae are people with few scruples who take advantage of the more humble sectors of the population, taking large amounts of money and endangering their well-being. The majority of the faithful leave their traditional medicines in hope that the Pae or the Mae will cure their illnesses.

Risk Groups (New Age)

In the last few years there has been a phenomenon that borders on the cultic and that has penetrated primarily into what is referred to as the middle class. These groups are based upon a particular theme (bioenergy, yoga, biodance, cosmobiology, harmonization of the centers, therapies to liberate anguish and fear, mental control, neurolinguistics, occultism, etc.). These groups, weakly structured and poorly organized, are first focused on a method or theory that presumably produces a personal benefit, from smoking cessation to eternal salvation.

Throughout the last two decades, the Latin American middle class, the members of which reside in the large cities, has suffered a series of great blows, which led many to undergo moments of uncertainty and anxiety. Politically and economically they are beaten; they feel this time will be a period of adjustment. While the lower class takes sanctuary with the Catholic Church or the evangelical-pentecostal pastors, the middle class does not believe in or feel represented by the Church. Nor can the middle class undergo the traditional therapies such as psychoanalysis because it does not have enough money for the sessions, nor does it have four to six years to wait. "So then what?" asks the middle class, alone, distressed, losing faith in politicians and the traditional religions. Suddenly there appears information in newspapers, magazines, television programs, pamphlets, that say things such as these:

  • Come, you too are invited, yours is the moment and the occasion to transfigure the bar of gold...

  • We invite you to get to know us and walk together toward the New Age...

  • We search for something big, we search for something universal, outside the boundaries of the old dogmas, we attain a system of positive thought so you can discover for yourself new opportunities, and not dwell on old eras...

  • If you suffer many frustrations ... if you are searching for something else ... if you go to see movies like Ghost, if you prefer alternative medicine, if you eat vegetarian or macrobiotic foods ... if you have read any esoteric books, if you cast the I Ching ... if you are interested in the strange, the mysterious, science fiction, if you question the fundamental themes, and you receive no response, not in the classic religions, in the sciences, or in technology ... THEN YOUR PLACE IS IN THE NEW AGE.

According to the Belgian cardinal Godfried Danneels, the New Age or New Era is very difficult to define: "It is not a religion, but it is at least religious; it is not a philosophy, but it is at least a vision of man and the world, like a code of interpretation; it is not a science, but it leans against ‘scientific’ laws even though you must search for it in the stars. The New Age is an enigma that possesses esoterica and occultism, mystic and magical thoughts, respect for the secrets of life, with a dash of Christianity, all mixed with ideas that originate from astrology."

In Latin America these groups have proliferated with unheard-of success in the last five years. For example, editors in Argentina point out that 30% of the publishing market is comprised of so-called self-help books, with an average of 500 different titles on the shelves.

One of the characteristics of the New Age is that it pretends to relive the events of birth and also have close encounters with death. New Age thinking systematically proposes rebirth or new births to escape traumas and contact with things or beings beyond the known. Some New Agers believe that mystical experiences are small openings pointing to a personal belief, to be one with God. This can be dangerous because if a person does not fear death and believes that he or she is part of the Cosmos, that person might risk life freely.

Sadly, in many cases these groups are founded by doctors or psychologists who have discovered that all they need is to impose some type of organization to convert their patients into their true slaves. Many of these groups that begin with a totally commercial purpose evolve into new destructive cults.

What do we foresee related to all this on the Latin American continent? We can expect that the destructive cults, which appeared in the early 1970s and worked exclusively with adolescents, will maintain their historical level. The controversial groups, which had a dizzying growth in the last two decades thanks to the Electronic Church, have been slowing down and have tended to decline, in part because the North American religious corporations are no longer interested in Latin America since the disappearance of Communism. Finally, the risk groups (New Age) that have appeared on the scene in the last five years tend to multiply, and we believe they will be the next great challenge.

What to Do?

Nine years ago, when no one else in Argentina was concerned, I alone began to research the cult phenomenon. Today it is a theme of debate in the Catholic Church, in the Protestant churches, and in some universities where they study the complex factors that revolve around the cult world. In 1991 a group of parents, relatives, and professionals (psychologists, lawyers, sociologists, and linguists) met in order to form the Argentinean Foundation for the Study of Cults (FAPES), which offers legal, psychological, and social counseling to those people who suffer from this scourge. One of the principle characteristics of the Foundation is its independence from the central government, the Catholic Church, or any of the cults.

To give a sense of our activities during 1992, we will review the figures; however, they do not genuinely represent the feelings of each dramatic testimony from the families destroyed by the practices of these groups.

  • Between the months of March and November, FAPES received more than 1,000 telephone calls, 300 being personal interviews. Of these, 10% of those consulted contacted our Department of Psychology and another 10% contacted the Judicial Department.

  • Throughout the year, the members of the Foundation gave lectures and held conferences in almost all the provinces of the country. More than 15,000 people attended these sessions.

After battling for more than two years, FAPES managed to have the leader of the Eight Queens, Juan Alfredo Unger, who had been accused of the corruption of minors and sexual abuse, detained. At the end of Unger's detention, the judges decided to seize and impound the property of various cultic groups (Children of God, Gnostics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Superior Universal Lineage).

Those of us who began FAPES are not totally satisfied with what has occurred in 1992. We believe that we could be helping much more and a greater number of people. We intend to do this during 1993. I would not want to finish this speech without thanking the Pro Juventud Association for their invitation to participate and to speak at this important congress, and especially Maria Rosa Boladeras and Michael Langone, who for many years have been concerned and have been good enough to encourage me so that even from a country so far away as Argentina we could accomplish our tasks and do our work.



Argentinean Foundation for the Study of Cults (FAPES)

The efficiency of political and religious propaganda essentially depends upon those methods employed and not the doctrine of such. The doctrines can be true or false, they can be sane or pernicious, this is not important. If the indoctrination is well conducted at the time of a mental weakness, it will be successful. Given favorable conditions, practically everyone could be converted. -Aldous Huxley

Parents, relatives, psychologists, sociologists, journalists, and all concerned citizens have decided to meet to study and bring light to the phenomenon of the pseudoreligious cults and to offer legal, psychological, and social counseling to all those people who have suffered because of the new phenomenon that endangers the freedom of the individual and of society as a whole.

Many believe that the birth of the Argentinean Foundation for the Study of Cults (FAPES) owes its existence to the needs of parents and relatives who have suffered the pain of having a family member in a cult. This is only partially true, because FAPES is also made up of professionals and citizens who believe that this is a problem that affects our whole society because humankind's freedom is affected when thought reform is utilized.

One of the basic rules of FAPES will be not to discuss the dogma on which these groups are based, but to denounce the methods they employ to reduce their members to servitude through lies and the depersonalization of the individual. By conducting research without prejudging the final conclusion, researchers can announce that a specific group looks clear and safe, could even be constructive and beneficial, or can show that it could be a danger and could attack individual, familial, or social values.

Pseudoreligious cults, psychotherapeutic groups, meditation techniques, relaxation, corporal liberation, expansion of the conscience, therapies to liberate fears and anguishes, Eastern techniques, ufology groups, bioenergy, and so forth-all a spiritual supermarket that by use of unfair techniques offers everything from smoking cessation to eternal salvation.

In conclusion, the goal of FAPES is to help families and all people affected by destructive cults, to do preventive education, to denounce abuses, and to inform the public.

FAPES consists of three departments:

Department of Archives, Press, and Research

Archives: This area is in charge of a vast archive on the subject of cults and "personal rehabilitative" groups in Argentina. It is at the disposal of families and institutions (schools, universities) that wish to research the cult problem.

Press: Without a doubt the media (newspapers, radios, televisions) are competent enough to provide information and preventive education about the cult phenomenon. This department will publish many pamphlets and videos that will clarify this topic. Lastly, this area will be responsible for the organization of lectures, conferences, and seminars that will serve to warn society.

Research: This area will be in charge of studying many groups, either on FAPES's own initiative or by request of a family. Also with the support of sociologists, this department will create "work camps" that will help to provide a genuine understanding of the growth of cults in the country.

Department of Psychology

Therapeutic Services: This area will give psychological support to all families, followers, and former followers who request it, and will be in charge of studying the techniques of thought reform, known popularly as brainwashing.

Parent Groups: With the support and guidance of FAPES members, the relatives who have experienced the trauma of having a child in a cult will meet to discuss common issues, exchange information, and collaborate with those who are in the same situation.

Legal Department

A group of lawyers will be in charge of offering legal counseling to families that need it. Also, they will study the modifications or creations of law that can greatly help control the sectarian phenomenon.


This paper was originally presented at the International Congress, "Totalitarian Groups and Sectarianism," held in Barcelona, Spain, April 22-25, 1993. It also is published in Spanish under the title, "Las ‘Sectas’ en América Latina," in the book Grupos Totalitarios y Sectarismo, Ponencia del II Congreso Internacional, Asociacion A.I.S., c./Aribau, 226 int. Bjos., 08006 Barcelona, Spain.

The editor wishes to thank the members of Assessorament y Informació sobre Sectas (AIS) for organizing the International Congress in Barcelona and for their help in preparing this article, and the translators, Lia Marise Drechsel and Vicki Suarez.


Alfredo Silletta is a journalist and writer. Since 1984 he has dedicated himself to the study and research of the cult phenomenon in Argentina and Latin America. He is president of the Argentinean Foundation for the Study of Cults (Fundacion Argentina para el Estudio de las Sectas, FAPES). He has published the following books: The Moon Sect: How to Destroy Democracy (1985); The Cults Invade Argentina (1986); Many Nations of the Faith: Religion, Cults, and the Electronic Church (1988); You Are the Love of God (1990); Cults: When Paradise Is Hell (1992).