Tragedy in Indigenous Panama sparks potentially dangerous anti-cult legislation

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Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of ritualistic violence and abuse.

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA – In response to deaths linked to a cult called “the New Light of God,” the Panamanian government has proposed new legislation aimed at criminalizing cult activity. The broad scope of the legislation may have consequences for minority faiths and new religious movements within the Central American nation, as similar legislation has done in other countries.

Last year, Dina Blanco survived the horrific extermination of seven individuals in the remote town of Alto Terrón, which is within the Indigenous region of Ngäbe-Buglé, by the New Light of God cult. Among the cult’s victims was her nine-year-old daughter.

In January 2020, Blanco recounted her experiences from her hospital bed. She described how she was ordered by religious leaders to keep her eyes closed. She and 13 other survivors were beaten, blindfolded, and, at times, left naked in rooms.

The New Light of God had come into Alto Terrón three months earlier, and Blanco had been going to their prayer meetings since their arrival. When she attempted to stop going to the meetings, her neighbor confronted her and said she would go “whether she liked it or not.”

Blanco and her family, including her daughter Ins, her 15-year-old son, and her father, went to a prayer meeting and were forced to pray with their eyes shut. Ins was, in addition to her youth, epileptic. Some people in attendance were forced to strip and walk over coals; Blanco herself reports that she was hit in the forehead with a heavy object and knocked unconscious. “I felt something hit my head,” she said, “and then I don’t know what happened to me. I dropped to my knees.”

When she woke up, still unable to see, she heard a voice saying that her daughter had died during the ritual. “The birds of the fields shall dispose of her body,” said the voice, with no further explanation.

Panamanian Police arrested ten cult members suspected of being responsible for murders. [via Ministerio Publico Panama]

The rituals appear to have been exorcisms, according to police that arrived in the remote village days later. Alto Terrón has no police presence, electricity, or healthcare facility.

The police were able to rescue 15 people still held by the cult. Mr. Rafael Baloyes, the senior prosecutor of the Bocas del Toro province of western Panama said that the bodies of seven individuals were recovered from a mass grave. Among the murdered were Blanco’s daughter Ins, as well as Bellin Flores, 33, who was pregnant, and her five children. All had been beaten, burned, and dismembered.

Flores’s six year old son managed to escape and inform his father. He then contacted the district’s cacique, or leader, Evangelisto Santo, who alerted the authorities after waiting for the following sunrise to embark on a one-hour hike and two-hour canoe trip to get help.

Baloyes said that when police arrived, “there was a naked person, a woman,” inside the building, where investigators found machetes, knives and a ritually sacrificed goat. Another 14 were tied and beaten in a stable that was used as a church.

Baloyes said that the multi-day ritual, apparently meant to purify sin from the community, likely resulted in other murders. “All of these rites,” he said, “were aimed at killing [members of the village] if they did not repent their sins,”

Ten cult members were arrested, including Mario “Plátano” González, an Evangelical preacher and the leader of the New Light of God.

Panama City [Photo Credit: Arnaud DG via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0]

The government of Panama has said it will prioritize access to services for Indigenous communities. The Guardian reports that “five soldiers are billeted in one of the village’s basic wooden houses, and a gleaming new satellite dish, providing free wifi, stands next to the overcrowded school house, which caters to 80 pupils between the ages of four and 13.”

This week, Mayín Correa, MP and deputy of the Cambio Democrático party, has introduced legislation to the Government and Constitutional Affairs Commission of the National Assembly that will include those “acting on behalf of or as part of an allegedly religious cult” as an aggravating circumstance to certain criminal activity.

Correa has explained that the rule is intended to prevent false leaders of religious sects from abusing their congregations. The legislation has not been opposed by the Panamanian Supreme Court nor by independent counsel Juan Diego Vásquez, a member of the commission overseeing the legislation.

The legislation, however, contains uncertain language that introduces a distinction between a “genuine” religious order and a group that is “pretending to be religious.”

The legislation is consistent with a broad and growing anti-cult movement worldwide. Last year the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, “an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyze, and report on threats to religious freedom abroad,” released its annual report, expanding the list of countries designated as being of “Particular Concern” and those to be added to the “Special Watch” list.

Panama was not among them. However, in an addendum, the USCIR described how anti-cult movements and legislation can potentially be used to suppress religious liberties. The USCIR noted the Russian government’s ban on Jehovah’s Witness in April 2017.  But the report also noted how powerful established religions and denominations can use anti-cult movements to suppress new religious movements.

While not explicitly stated in the report, the term “new religious movements” includes practically all branches of Paganism, including Wicca.

This pattern has been seen before. The Order of the Solar Temple is a cult that combines evangelical Christianity with occult freemasonry. After a number of murder-suicides by Order members during the mid-1990s in Quebec, France, and Switzerland, several European nations passed anti-cult legislation. The Order has made a comeback since then, but scholars continue to warn that the laws protecting against mental manipulation by cults can easily turn against legitimate minority faiths.

As noted Tina Rodia noted in Penn Today:

The word ‘cult’ originally designates a practice of religious veneration and the religious system based around such veneration—for example, the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” says Robin Clark, a linguistics professor in the School of Arts and Sciences. “However, the word was co-opted in the first half of the 20th century by sociology, and has come to denote a social group with ‘socially deviant’ beliefs and practices, like a UFO cult.”

Cults versus new religions is a matter of perspective, says Ori Tavor, a senior lecturer in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, who teaches a class on new religious movements. “New religious movement” is a new term from academic discourse, and is applied to religious movements from the 19th century onwards. “Remember,” says Tavor, “that the religious landscape of the U.S. was about freedom of religion. Anyone can create a new religion, and can appeal to the government for new religion status and get protections and recognition from the government.

Correa, the sponsor of the legislation in Panama, insists that the new legislation does not degrade protections against religious liberty, but given that similar legislation has been used to oppress minority religions elsewhere, this law bears continuing scrutiny.

The new legislation will be voted on at the end of February.