In the early 1970s, my late grandfather, an artist and retired San Diego State art professor, took me camping to a beautiful and remote setting along Baja’s northwest coast. While exploring the peninsula’s back roads, he and a colleague had discovered a hundred-yard-long sandy cove at San Juan de las Pulgas, with glowing sunsets, a rocky point for fishing, and solitude that stretched for 15 miles, from a promontory to the south all the way up to the lonely lighthouse at Punta San José. It became known to us and our camping companions as simply Pulgas, “fleas” in Spanish.
Over the next 20 years, occasionally seeking refuge from urban San Diego, I introduced various friends to this peaceful, desolate place. Though it is only some 50 miles south of Ensenada, first-time visitors would have a hard time finding it unguided, and parts of the dirt road leading in from the highway could present challenges even to vehicles with four-wheel drive.
In the early ’90s I married and started a family, and though I did not return for over a decade, there was always a comforting feeling that Pulgas remained, untouched and unknown, apart from the few ranchers, farmers, and fishermen who made their living in the area.
In the spring of 2005, I persuaded my family to join me in journeying to this destination once again, setting out in a small pickup with our Chesapeake Bay retriever riding in the truck’s bed. Although the cove is only 150 miles south of San Diego, the trip can easily end up taking six or seven hours, slowed particularly once you turn off Mexico’s Transpeninsular Highway, 30 miles south of Ensenada, onto an inconspicuous dirt road behind the pueblo of Santo Tomás.
The rains that winter five years ago had been heavy — about 15 inches — and the hills along the 20-mile pastoral route from Santo Tomás to the coast were rich with wildflowers. While enjoying that scenery, I soon learned to watch the road because, unlike what I’d encountered in the past, enormous trucks would appear from either direction at high speed, kicking up great clouds of choking dust. By the time we passed under the portal of a wooden sign reading “Rancho San Juan de las Pulgas” and looked out upon the Pacific, dusk was approaching and several miles of the most difficult terrain remained.
Before we had gone much farther, however, we faced something new: the road down the coast to Pulgas was completely fenced off. A guard was posted at a gate as trucks came and went to a giant construction project that had now come into view to the south (this explained the big rigs). We were told that no one was allowed to enter this area, but with the late hour and an anxious family looking on, I somehow persuaded someone to let us proceed — a cold cerveza might have been offered — assuring him we were merely passing through to reach our old campsite a few miles beyond.
We were instructed to follow a large truck and did so. As we passed the site, we could see that something extraordinary was being undertaken here. There in this pristine, obscure location we could see the foundations and walls of massive buildings that were going up. While disheartening to my sense of isolation of Pulgas, I thought that as large as it was, this development might not be visible from our cove a few kilometers to the south, due to the contour of the coast and the project’s location slightly inland from, though overlooking, the sea.
It was now dark, and with headlights on we crept toward the next landmark in my recollection, the simple, rustic ranch house of Señor Morales, a friend of my grandfather’s. His home was situated a few hundred yards back from the ocean, just before the road wound sharply down around the side of a steep arroyo and crossed a creek before climbing up again. With relief I spotted a lighted house where I remembered Señor Morales’s abode to be. As we came closer, however, I was startled to see an immaculate, modern-looking home, something one might find in a suburban American neighborhood.
I got out of our truck and approached the house to greet its occupants and to get advice on the condition of the road before descending into the arroyo. Looking through the windows of the brightly lit home, once again I saw something strange. Several stations of what appeared to be sophisticated computer drafting equipment filled the front rooms. With stars shimmering overhead and waves crashing nearby, I called out into the darkness, “Buenas noches.”
I had surprised the occupants, and one of several inside came outside wanting to know what we were doing there. He spoke in English but had an accent that sounded German. He appeared middle-aged, with brownish hair, and he obviously was very disturbed by our presence. We were on private property, he said, and would have to leave at once. I explained that we were trying to reach our longtime campsite a short distance ahead. Hoping to put him at ease, I called to my wife, who speaks German, to converse with him. Although he spoke with her, he did not seem at all interested in doing so. Another accented Northern European man appeared from the house for a moment but then went back inside. The first fellow’s German sounded a bit strange to my wife, and from his vague responses during our conversation I understood his nationality to be successively German, Swedish, and finally Danish.
The encounter had now reached a level of bizarreness unrivaled in my decades of Baja camping. One of the beauties of travel in remote lower California had always been the humanity and warmth one finds among the Mexicans in rural areas. We were encountering a coldness, detachment, and almost hostility at the site of the former home of my grandfather’s friend, the amiable Señor Morales. Further, they weren’t Mexicans but Scandinavians — evidently doing high-tech engineering work in a modern-looking home in Baja’s coastal wilderness.
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.
Tvind founder, Mogens Amdi Petersen
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.
Former members have described Petersen as a mesmerizing figure who possessed extraordinary ability to influence and control others. “It was the eyes,” said former Teachers Group member Britta Rasmussen in a 2002 BBC News broadcast. “He would fix you with his stare. He was a very brilliant speaker. He was like a god to us.”
The Teachers Group, often abbreviated TG, is Tvind’s inner circle and consists of several hundred persons, according to a case summary of a Danish public prosecutor. They adhere to a communal lifestyle in which earnings are turned over to the organization. Steen Thomsen, a disaffected former member who was in Tvind for 26 years, claimed in a 1998 report to the Danish Ministry of Education that TG members are encouraged to sever contacts with family and friends. He has also stated members are discouraged from marrying or raising children. Relates Thomsen in a document posted at Tvind Alert: “Once Amdi Peterson asked, in front of [a large group of followers], ‘Well, Steen Thomsen, are you really working for the Teachers’ Group? What is going on in your mind since you have not done this or that? Are you thinking of love life, having children, your own little f—ing house? Tell us what is going on!’ ”
In 1999, after a Danish news show interviewed former teachers who alleged that Tvind was committing tax fraud, the Danish government began a criminal investigation into Tvind’s financial practices. In 2001, several of its alleged leaders, including Petersen and Jørgensen, were charged with embezzlement and tax fraud. Prosecutors contended that Tvind had diverted charity money to private enterprises and investments, such as a plantation in Brazil and condos in Miami.
A British journalist created Tvind Alert about the same time. He, along with a Danish journalist who joined the effort in 2002, have monitored the organization ever since, reporting on accusations of abuses of volunteers and members and alleged financial improprieties.
On February 17, 2002, FBI agents arrested Amdi Petersen on an Interpol warrant at Los Angeles International Airport, while he was traveling between Mexico (San Juan de las Pulgas?) and London, shortly after tighter 9/11 airline screening went into effect. According to Jyllands-Posten, he had been living in a multimillion-dollar condo on Fisher Island, a wealthy community south of Miami Beach, and had the use of a $5 million Tvind-owned yacht named Butterfly McQueen.
Petersen initially asked for a public defender to fight extradition, explaining that as a member of a communal group he owned virtually nothing. Eventually, however, he was represented by high-profile defense attorney Robert Shapiro, one of O.J. Simpson’s lawyers in his murder case. Danish journalists flocked to Los Angeles to cover the story. After being held for seven months, Petersen was extradited in September.
The trial took place in Denmark between 2003 and 2006, with long intervals during which Petersen and the other defendants were allowed to leave the country. We encountered Jørgensen at San Juan de las Pulgas in late March 2005.
According to court records, Petersen spent at least part of his time in Zimbabwe. Tvind has an international headquarters in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe is said to be a strong supporter. The watchdog website speculates that the San Juan de las Pulgas complex may have been built to serve as the group’s future worldwide headquarters after Mugabe dies. Tvind Alert also notes that the organization has been expanding its Latin American operations.
In August 2006, Petersen and six other defendants, including Jørgensen, were acquitted. Tvind’s financial director was found guilty of lesser charges and was given a suspended sentence. The next month prosecutors appealed six of the acquittals, including Petersen’s and Jørgensen’s and the financial director’s partial acquittal, on the basis of new evidence. This required Danish authorities to serve those six defendants personally with legal papers, but before that could happen, all but Jørgensen vanished.
Danish authorities made efforts to find them, supposedly including, reports Tvind Alert, a visit to San Juan de las Pulgas. The whereabouts of four of them remain unknown. The fifth, Marlene Gunst, was recently identified by authorities while changing planes in London and served by British police on behalf of the Danish government.
Poul Jørgensen’s second trial began in November 2007, and in January 2009 he was convicted of tax fraud and embezzlement for his part in establishing a humanitarian foundation through which money went to for-profit businesses. He was given a two-and-one-half-year sentence.
Tvind Alert suggests those who disappeared may have gone into hiding at San Juan de las Pulgas or in Zimbabwe. Mexico does not have an extradition treaty with Denmark, nor does Zimbabwe — though the missing Danes are not fugitives because they could legally leave Denmark following their acquittals. A photo of Petersen on Tvind Alert was purportedly taken at San Juan de las Pulgas in November 2007.
Tvind Alert’s suspicions seemed validated when Mexican authorities reportedly tipped off Danish police as to the whereabouts of Gunst. According to a December 26, 2009 story in Jyllands-Posten, U.K. police detained Gunst at Heathrow Airport in order to deliver the Danish summons and then allowed her to continue her journey. If she does not appear at her retrial, prosecutors will now be able to issue an international warrant for her arrest.
Tvind recruits young, idealistic people to attend Tvind schools in Europe and the United States where, according to its various websites, students are trained in third world humanitarian work before volunteering in missions in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. Projects have included AIDS education, cholera prevention, and farming improvements. Two schools, both named the Institute for International Cooperation and Development, are located near the rural towns of Dowagiac, Michigan, and Williamstown, Massachusetts. A third U.S. school, Campus California Teachers Group, or Campus California TG, is located in Etna, California, a logging town in Siskiyou County, near the Oregon border. The school’s website says that students are trained to work at “the humanitarian projects run by Humana People to People” and that in 2010 its teams will work in Belize and Africa.
As part of the training to work overseas, “You will be responsible for raising $6000 per person,” says Campus California TG’s website. “You will fundraise through outreach — by meeting people on the street and inviting them to support you, or by talking to businesses in the San Francisco area, inviting them to host clothes collection boxes for CCTG’s collection.”
As donation boxes became more common in U.S. communities, newspapers around the country began looking into Planet Aid’s and Gaia’s financial records and questioning their claims to be a charity. In April 2002, the Boston Globe reported that Planet Aid had made $3.6 million in 2000, only 6 percent of which was spent on charity. In February 2004, the Chicago Tribune reported that Gaia had brought in $2 million between 1999 and 2002, and only 4 percent had been donated to charity — a Swiss charity called Gaia Movement.
The complex at San Juan de las Pulgas is known as TG Pacifico, the name of the company that developed the property. TG Pacifico is represented by the Ensenada law firm of Morachis and Associates, whose principal, Javier Morachis, is a former director of the PRI political party in Ensenada.
The Tijuana weekly Zeta published a story in 2008 about the San Juan de las Pulgas development. Zeta quoted a November 2006 article in Jyllands-Posten in which Morachis said that he was not aware that Petersen or other heads of Tvind were guests at the compound. “I don’t know him,” Morachis told the Danish paper. “I haven’t spoken with the head of the organization. I talk to Brigitte [Krohn].” Krohn is a senior member of Tvind’s financial directorate and was involved in the development of the property at San Juan de las Pulgas, according to Tvind Alert.
Krohn denied to Zeta that Petersen and his principal collaborators, which include several of the figures sought by Danish authorities, were living in the complex. That leaves open the question whether they might be residing down the road, at the site of Señor Morales’s old home. Krohn also denied that TG Pacifico has any relationship with Tvind and Amdi Petersen.
Nevertheless, according to Zeta, workers on ranches near San Juan de las Pulgas are sure they’ve seen Petersen driving a pickup on the road to Santo Tomás.
Last September, I visited the Pulgas area again with two others, a camping friend and a translator. From my prior contact with Jørgensen and what I’d since read about Tvind, I did not expect to gain access to the compound or to interview any of its members. I did hope to learn more about what goes on there from local residents and inhabitants of the nearby community of Santo Tomás.
Our first stop was a llantera, or tire-repair shop, not much more than a lean-to in the Santo Tomás Valley a few miles north of town, at the Highway 1 turnoff to Puerto Santo Tomás, a fishing village to the west. There I found Francisco and José, the men who had salvaged my two flat tires on my last trip. They remembered the incident when I mentioned the explanation one of them had given for the mishap at the time: “la misma piedra,” the same rock. The two said they had heard the complex was a conference center for executives of big companies such as Coca-Cola.
The pair helped me find an acquaintance of many years before, Juan Margerum, at a nearby agricultural storage facility. The wind was blowing furiously that afternoon as one of us found Juan taking a siesta inside. An older man who has lived in the valley much of his life, Juan knew of the development and believed it was for “international conferences with heads of state.”
We continued down the road, and after rounding a big curve at the south end of the Santo Tomás Valley, we entered Santo Tomás and stopped at its most prominent establishment, the El Palomar restaurant, hotel, and general store. I approached the clerk behind the counter, who, auspiciously, was wearing a T-shirt with a pair of eyes on it. He introduced himself as Daniel. “Everything is like a secret,” he said when asked about the center. “Nobody knows what happens. What we know is that it’s a convention center for big companies, international, like Coca-Cola.” He added, “Nobody can go in unless they’re going specifically for something.”
I asked Daniel if he recognized Amdi Petersen from his photo. Daniel said he did not, but he did recognize one of the other supposed top lieutenants, a blond-haired woman in Tvind Alert’s gallery of persons sought by Danish prosecutors. He seemed to identify — I didn’t see exactly where he pointed — either Marlene Gunst, “the accountant” (the Tvind member recently detained in London), remarking that her hair was shorter, or Kirsten Fuglsbjerg, alias Christie Pipps, “the financial wizard.”
A worker from Pemex, the Mexican oil company, overheard our conversation. He said that he was working in Santo Tomás temporarily and had seen the Danes coming and going. A few minutes later, he approached me discreetly and told me that one of them had just driven up in a black Jeep.
The driver of the Commander was a short, smallish, older middle-aged man with dark hair and a receding hairline. I later recognized his photo on another website critical of Tvind, Humanatvind Blog, though he was not identified there by name. After talking on a cell phone outside El Palomar, he entered and browsed around the goods in the store, as we did the same. I approached him and asked if he lived out at the coastal development run by the Humana organization. He appeared quite startled and replied, with an accent, “I live at San Juan de las Pulgas.” I asked if he were Danish and he said yes. I indicated I was interested in writing a story about the development. He smiled meekly but didn’t respond. I asked him why they had chosen that remote location, and as he started to move away from me, he said he didn’t know. I asked his name and he said “Nelsen” or “Nielsen.” Then he was gone.
We drove on out to the coast after that and stopped at TG Pacifico’s new, elaborate entry gate. Security cameras watched us from overhead, and a sign on the gate read cryptically in English and Spanish: “You have arrived without an appointment. We welcome you anyway. Security cameras are installed for safety reasons. In your case management will open the gate. The guard cannot open the gate.” (We were not allowed in, and a later formal request through the Morachis law firm for a tour and interview with a representative of the facility went unanswered.)
A heavyset Mexican guard approached us at once from a building a short distance away. I noticed an oversized pair of binoculars hanging from an outside doorknob. He cheerfully introduced himself as Salvador. He was a talkative man. When asked about the purpose of the complex, Salvador gave the by-now-familiar answer that it was a “conference center.” When pressed for specifics, he said that courses were given there for the Humana organization and that a group of about 60 had been there not long before. He mentioned the Danish Teachers Group and TG Pacifico and even referred me to a website, jovially saying, “We have nothing to hide.” Without my asking, he volunteered the name of lawyer Morachis and his law office address in Ensenada.
As we talked, Nielsen drove up on his way back from town. I looked toward him, and he gave me a brusque wave of the hand and then, as the gate automatically opened, sped inside without stopping. I asked Salvador whether he had ever seen a man of about 70 (Petersen’s age) there. His answer was equivocal, that those staying at the complex were mostly younger.
While we spoke, Salvador’s cell phone rang, or more correctly, jingled a classic Mexican ranchero song. My translator later told me he suspected from the ensuing vague dialogue that the guard was being instructed to get rid of us. After our conversation with Salvador ended, I offered him a beer, but he declined — one of the few times, if ever, that has happened in my encounters with rural Mexicans. That in itself seemed very suspicious to me.
A little later, something happened that made me even more suspicious. We stopped alongside the road a couple of miles north of the compound after trying to locate and speak with a few more locals. As we did, an SUV with a Baja license plate approached. When passing other drivers — Mexican or American — on these roads, it is my experience that it is customary to give a friendly look or nod to the person you are passing. This man, an Anglo wearing a cap and sunglasses, looked dead ahead, away from my glance, and he did the same when he returned 20 minutes or so later. That wasn’t enough time for him to have gone out to Punta San José, and there’s little to see or do elsewhere down that road. I suspect he had been sent out from the compound to keep a close eye on us.
The development is a remarkable sight and certainly invites curiosity and a desire to get a closer look and understand its mysteries. (See the slideshow at the Tvind Alert website: http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/mikefromlondon/LasPulgasSlideshow#.) The best view we could get was a mile or so away, just west of the gate. The buildings are reported to have been designed by Jan Utzon, a Danish architect who is the son of Jørn Utzon, the architect who designed Sydney’s famous opera house.
Tvind Alert says that the complex cost $10 million to build. The watchdog website says that a Mexican-Danish company bought the land from local landowners between 1999 and 2003. Attorney Morachis informed me that the landowner is a Mexican company. Allegations have been made that title to some of the property was improperly obtained and that ownership by the Teachers Group violates Mexican laws of foreign ownership of coastal land, but TG Pacifico’s lawyers say that the title and ownership are sound.
The property is said to encompass 740 hectares (1828 acres). Morachis remarked in an interview appearing in 2005 in Skyscrapercity.com, a building and architecture website, that “the developers chose this site for its tranquility.” Tvind Alert says the development includes housing for 300 staff, “complete with boardroom, exhibition space, gymnasium, squash courts, Olympic-sized swimming pool and helipad.” Several local people spoke of the luxuriousness of the compound. The Zeta article refers to “tile from Puebla, pottery from Tlaxcala and marble from Durango.”
The French government has officially designated Humana as a cult, while some of Tvind’s critics, as well as Danish prosecutors, have called Tvind a secular religion. Several buildings have a modern ecclesiastical look: identical-looking ones at the northern and southern ends of the compound resemble cathedrals, with nave and narthex. One space has the appearance of a sanctuary. An obelisk-like monument is portentous and enigmatic. “From what we can see in the photos, the building complex near Pulgas deserves to be applauded for its design, if not for its function,” comments Thomas Williamson, a retired San Diego architect and former assistant professor of architecture at Stanford University, whom I asked for a review of Utzon’s creation.
To the east of the complex on a nearby ridge is a strange-looking sphere, which Salvador told us is an observatory. My friend was convinced it enclosed some sort of laser weapon; I thought it looked like a gigantic golf ball on a golden tee waiting to be driven into the Pacific. The stars can certainly shine clearly in the skies above Pulgas. Danish author Jes Møller, who wrote a book about Tvind in Danish published in 1999, has a “frequently asked questions” website about the organization that says that in Ulfborg, Denmark, Tvind has a “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” observatory. Møller adds, however, in commenting about the group’s ideology that “[this search] doesn’t seem to play any significant role.” It nevertheless does bring to mind a cult in Rancho Santa Fe from the late 1990s: Heaven’s Gate.
Because of sizable excavations at the site during construction, Tvind Alert speculated that huge underground cellars were being built and reported that locals said they’d seen “men with arms” guarding the compound, conjuring up images of David Koresh and Waco. When I talked with Salvador, I asked him if the guards had guns, and he laughed and said no. He also said there were no bunkers, nor was there a helipad. I later asked Mr. Morachis’s son, Gustavo Morachis, an attorney with his father’s firm, about the gun allegations. He did not believe them and remarked that gun possession is illegal in Mexico.
The second day of our trip in September I ran into a Mexican at Punta San José, a marine biologist who runs a sportfishing business that flies anglers to Cedros Island, several hundred miles to the south of Ensenada. He said he had flown over the compound and been fascinated by the strange new buildings. He later informed me he had not noticed a helipad from the air. Given the curious nature of the development, he wanted to know if the story I intended to write would be science fiction.
What is Tvind? California Campus TG’s website says, “The Teachers Group is the group of people…who have decided to share life within the principles of joint economy, joint time and joint work.… Campus California TG is a network of entities, each acting in its own right. At the same time it is more than just a sum of all the parts. Our goals are the Humanization of Mankind and the Care of our Planet. The activities are connected to education, development, the environment, cooperation and a broad spectrum of initiatives generating values. Campus California TG is a movement of entities, organized as a Non-profit public benefit corporation, where the entities with their collective diversity can promote a dynamic growth of the whole.” Whatever that means.
Early on Tvind “set out to conquer the world,” said former member Hans la Cour, in a February 2004 Chicago Tribune story. “Their original ambition was world revolution.” Jes Møller notes in his FAQ site that years ago Tvind was suspected of having ties to the regimes of North Korea and Cuba and was under surveillance by the Danish Security and Intelligence Service.
“We don’t yet understand what the purpose of Tvind is,” offers Danish reporter Jakob Rubin, quoted in the Miami New Times story. “Yes, Mr. Petersen is trying to collect millions, but that [simple answer] is not satisfying. We believe they were trying to create an alternative economic world order.”
“They don’t have a religion,” comments former volunteer Heckscher in the same article, “but they do have an obscure political theory that no one can articulate.”
Jes Møller concurs that Tvind is not a religion, writing in his website: “It is an ideology with no hopes of an afterlife. It is very pragmatic and unromantic. Personal feelings as well as love for nature are considered disturbing elements in the correct perception of the world.”
This would not sit well with my late grandfather. Despite the names it is known by — People to People and Humana — in my encounters with Tvind members I was struck by their lack of humanity, in contrast to their rural Mexican neighbors. I can’t picture one of them sitting down to share a drink or friendly conversation or offering to help, or even slowing down if one’s vehicle were disabled in this still-remote area.
Perhaps that’s unfair. They could just be your stereotypical stolid Scandinavians. During the September visit, I spoke to a farmer named Tomás as he tended his zucchini fields near the compound. Tomás had actually been inside the TG Pacifico complex, which he thought was a hotel. “When they were building it,” he said, “we gave them water. They had a party and invited us. It’s very luxurious,” he added.
My last impression as we were leaving San Juan de las Pulgas this fall (my friend wanted to donate his old shirt as we drove by the compound) was not, however, favorable. Passing an SUV on the dirt road back to Santo Tomás, I made eye contact with the other driver — a middle-aged woman with very short blond hair and a weathered face — by my surmise a Tvind member. She gave me a wary look and a quick backhanded wave — perfunctory, emotionless.
Mexican authorities do not seem concerned with the presence of what may be a Tvind headquarters in their country. The Zeta story, written two years ago, seems to question the propriety and timing of governmental approval of aspects of the development. It presses a local delegate of the office of the state secretary for economic development as to whether there will be a review of TG Pacifico’s background and the source of its financial resources to verify that the company is “clean.” The article notes that in the photo purportedly showing Petersen at the compound, there also appears César Mancillas Amador, who was then the mayor of Ensenada and later the state’s secretary of fisheries. Supposedly, the paper says, Mancillas didn’t know who Petersen was. Zeta ends its piece with the comment, “Mexican authorities continue supporting the project of the Danes unconditionally.”
As we headed home to the United States, we came to a military checkpoint on the highway just north of the Santo Tomás Valley. A machine gunner watched from a hillside, and soldiers behind barricades of sandbags and used tires gripped automatic weapons — signs of Mexico’s drug-war violence. The vehicle in front of us was thoroughly searched after all of its riders were required to step out. We were asked by a solider where we had been, and I replied, “San Juan de las Pulgas.” He quickly waved us through. Though relieved, I momentarily wondered, as someone who might pass for a middle-aged Dane, about the extent of Tvind’s influence in Mexico.