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.