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Who were these guys, and what was the purpose of the nearby complex? These were questions no one, even the locals, could seem to answer adequately — then or now. Today there stands against the brown and barren littoral landscape of San Juan de las Pulgas a huge, mystic compound of brightly hued buildings, cavernous halls, cathedral-styled structures, colonnades, a towering pointed monolith, and a strange-looking sphere, inhabited, it appears, by a small group of mostly middle-aged Danish men and women.

The Danish man expressed doubt that we could safely cross the stream at the bottom of the arroyo and urged us to drive to a camping area miles to the north at Punta San José, a noted surfing destination. After his repeated insistence that we do this, he escorted us in his large pickup back out the way we had come and locked the gate behind us. Following an hour-long ride up the coast, past deep and perilous ruts caused by the heavy rains, we pulled off the road and set up camp in darkness above high cliffs near the lighthouse and primitive fishing camp at Punta San José. Over the next couple of days that we spent in the area, I asked several local residents what was going on down at San Juan de las Pulgas, but no one knew. Some speculated that a fancy hotel or resort was being built or perhaps an institute.

On two subsequent forays to the area in the next couple of years, fellow campers and I were able to reach the old Pulgas campsite using a different route, though on the first expedition I got stuck in a ravine and on the second I experienced simultaneous flat tires on the passenger side of my truck on the dirt road behind Santo Tomás. On each trip we watched from high bluffs the progress of the mysterious edifices rising to the north.

On the second journey, one friend said he might be getting a late start and if necessary would find our campsite on his own. He prepared by buying a detailed satellite map, packing his GPS, and looking up “San Juan de las Pulgas” online. Fortunately, we met up with him after all in Santo Tomás; he acknowledged later he would never have found us otherwise. While his online search hadn’t helped with directions, he had come across something intriguing: a website detailing a controversial construction project at San Juan de las Pulgas undertaken by a strange organization.

What he had seen was Tvind Alert, a journalistic watchdog website, which I reviewed on my return. The site described a Danish group called Tvind, “small stream” in Danish and the name of a farm in western Denmark where the group originated.

The website displayed photos of the top figures in Tvind, and I recognized one of them: the curious man we had encountered at the site of Señor Morales’s old home. He was identified as Poul Jørgensen and described as “the lawyer.”

Tvind is well known in Denmark, and numerous English-language newspaper articles, TV interviews, and watchdog websites have covered the organization.

It was founded by a charismatic Dane, Mogens Amdi Petersen (sometimes spelled Pedersen), and some fellow radical teachers in 1970, about the time of my original visit to Pulgas.

In the first several years, the group organized “traveling folk high schools,” in which students and teachers journeyed together to third world countries to attempt to improve living standards of the poor. Petersen’s views at that time have been characterized as Maoist.

“Amdi Petersen was for most of us a revolutionary hero on the level with Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara, and others,” wrote an early member, Steen Thomsen, the Miami New Times reported in 2002.

As the years went on, the group established schools for troubled youth in Denmark, funded with government money. In 1977, members founded the Humana People to People Movement to run a variety of humanitarian aid projects in third world nations.

Suspicions of fraud by Tvind had begun to surface in the Danish press in the late 1970s, and in 1979 Petersen disappeared and wasn’t seen for over two decades, though he is believed to have continued as the organization’s mastermind.

In subsequent years, Tvind grew into a global conglomerate with numerous profit-motivated enterprises reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Its interests range from farms, plantations, timber, forestry, and real estate to retail clothing, with businesses in Europe, the United States, Brazil, Ecuador, Malaysia, and Belize. A major means of making money appears to be collecting and selling used clothing donated for humanitarian purposes at bins placed around western Europe and the U.S. — here by allegedly affiliated organizations such as Planet Aid and Gaia. Planet Aid has a big presence on the East Coast; Gaia is active in Chicago, the Bay Area, and Sacramento. Fox 5 News in Washington, D.C., broadcast an investigative report last year on the controversy surrounding Planet Aid and Humana entitled “Rags to Riches.” A number of countries in Europe, including France and Britain, have withdrawn the charitable status of several Tvind “charities.”

Another source of money is government aid. At the end of 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that Planet Aid in Malawi and Mozambique had been granted commodity donations of wheat worth a total of $33.8 million. According to the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten, the USDA recently announced that it will be investigating grants valued at more than $96 million it has made over the past five years to Planet Aid to determine whether the aid has been properly administered.

Numerous people involved with Tvind have quit the group, accusing Tvind of mental coercion and intimidation, and there have been allegations of restrictions on members’ access to outside information, such as newspapers. “Tvind is a cult or cult-like organization that takes away the individual will of those who join,” according to Zahara Heckscher, who was quoted in a 2005 LiP Magazine article, contributed by Washington Post staff writer Kari Lydersen. Heckscher, an American, attended a Tvind-run school in 1987–1988 and briefly volunteered in a Tvind program in Zambia.

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Comments

David Dodd Feb. 3, 2010 @ 3:24 p.m.

Mexico's lack of interest in or suspicion of the compound should not surprise anyone familiar with Mexican government. Are the people running the compound, "bad guys"? No, not in the classic sense, they don't seem to be interested in killing people or running drugs. Are they a threat to the National security of Mexico? Not likely. Do they contribute anything? Certainly. People are being paid, from the land owners to the security guards to the local stores.

No one in Mexico is going to care much about getting to the bottom of the activities there.

The best part of this story is the interaction with the locals. Mexico is a rumor mill. It thrives on rumor. All of these locals with their various ideas of what goes on in that compound! And none of them care a hoot about finding out the truth about it. Speculation is more fun.

I will speculate that Tvind has no influence in Mexico. The reason that the guard didn't take you up on your offer for a cold beer was the cameras. If you want to find out what the guard knows about the complex, go drinking with him after work. But he probably won't know much. He probably doesn't care, he would rather speculate.

But that, in a nutshell, is the real beauty of Mexico.

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Tighelander Feb. 3, 2010 @ 3:51 p.m.

One point this story misses is that San Diego also has these "Donation Boxes". They are red and go by the name of "USAgain". I checked these out a few years ago when they spouted around town, and even got a small community paper to run a story.

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SanDiegoParrothead Feb. 3, 2010 @ 3:56 p.m.

Cool article.

Looked for it on Google maps but couldn't find it (I did find Santo Tomas and Punta San Jose)

Is it down by Rancho Boca de San Jose?

Can you provide a google map link?

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michaelo May 18, 2012 @ 11:57 a.m.

Here's a short link to a google satellite map view http://bit.ly/L5hyR9

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mariannamaver Feb. 3, 2010 @ 8:59 p.m.

Thank you for writing this article! It's a rare account of firsthand experience with the Teacher's Group in Mexico -- and gives us further insight into the Puglas compound!

In 1984, I was hired as on as a staff teacher at a school for wards of the State of Virginia operated by the Teacher's Group (they mostly recruited and "indoctrinated" volunteers, but two of us were hired because the State required teachers to have degrees from American colleges -- we had no idea...in fact were mislead, about what the group was "all about." )-- One of the "perks" promised us as employees was the promise of travel to Mexico in the winter and Denmark in the summer... by the time myself and the other teacher showed up to work, there'd been trouble at the school-- a young student had been raped by a group of older students while the TG staff was distracted with TG work -- the State pulled their travel priviledges ... however, when the TG traveled to Mexico, they had gone to Baja, so their roots there go back at least to 1983.

You certainly described the "attitude" of TG members to a "t!" Cold, perfunctory, emotionless, pragmatic, and probably exhausted -- this is one of the cult-like aspects of the group... fun and enjoyment are not values in TG philosophy... hard, driven, serious work, 24/7, devotion and commitment to the (nebulous) cause of the group is the value...

Thanks, also for mentioning Tvind Alert, owned and operated by British Journalist Michael Durham and Danish journalist Frede Jakobsen. The two, with backing from a group of other volunteers, have been very determined in keeping the story of Tvind in the publc eye, internationally, for at least 10 years, now, via their website, www.tvindalert.com .

And I agree with Tighelander -- don't put your clothes in those USAgain clothing collection boxes... you're just feeding the wealth of this strange cult...they don't need any more money... give your used clothing to a legitimate non-profit that will put the proceeds to some good.

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redundant Feb. 4, 2010 @ 4:49 p.m.

Mike: sorry about your lost campsite. I have friends living in the area who have met Pedersen there, he gave them left over building material. They say to know someone, look at their enemies. because his charities help people by starting business, hiring people, and training them to run them, he has stepped on the toes of many powerful 3rd world exploiters ,They tied him up in court for three years on false charges, then as he is leaving they have "new evidence"??? Be serious! as to the demeanor of the members; If you were being hounded by paid shills everywhere you went , cool and watchful is not unreasonable. I would probably be paranoid. Keep searching, the facts of this mans life are amazing.

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JulioS Feb. 8, 2010 @ 12:06 p.m.

Well, over here in Sweden they are certainly not well thought of, in fact, they are considered to be a sect and have received a whole lot of crap over the years. But they are still very active and they purportedly seem to target youths who want to do good. The weekly newspaper Zeta did a story on them highlighting the legal status of Mogens Amdi Petersen which is accused of tax evasion. The story does a neat historical background on just the legal status of Pedersen.

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JulioS Feb. 8, 2010 @ 12:09 p.m.

Those interested in the Zeta article can turn to the following link.

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John_Walsh Jan. 2, 2011 @ 5:05 p.m.

Sounds to me as if Tvind ala Pederson figured out to,/ how to, erect a funnel and a bucket under the $billions of foreign aid that most U.S. taxpayers think only far enough about to complain.

Good for him for thinking past the problem into a resolution and taking action on it.

As to why, how and what the Tvind's do and why they would be stand-off-ish, one has only to try to get something going these days to see that unless you are protective of your organization, others will pick it to pieces.

Not to defend what they do (because I have no idea what it is)but to possibly shine a little light on the reasoning.

P.S. How do you like my photo and the great job I am doing as Secretary of Labor?

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boxcarro Jan. 7, 2011 @ 6:18 a.m.

I lived in Mexico. & in San Diego, In Mexico I lived in a CASA, for $100.00US Dlls, in San Diego I slept under bridges, in alleys, and was often JAILED for being Homeless.

I see from the Comments, only 2 People really "SEE" the light. But I looked at the Fancy Buildings in Baja, A Shameful Exebition of Worldly Evil.

The help any one gives to the POOR is a Blessed Thing.

America is a Filthy Whited Secpular. The HOMELESS are treated WORSE in USA than ANY OTHER DEVELOUPED NATION in the WORLD.

Very SOON America will find out, what it is, to have NO RIGHTS, ANYMORE, AT ALL.

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