SANTIAGO, Panama (AP) — Indigenous farmer Jose González recalled how his pregnant wife and five of his children were taken from their home by cult members in the remote hamlet of El Terrón in Panama.
González was out working his fields of taro and rice on Monday when the lay preachers of the “The New Light of God" came for the family and dragged them to an improvised church at a nearby ranch.
The family had been chosen by one of the lay preachers who earlier had a vision: everyone in the hamlet had to repent their sins, or die.
There, the woman, seven of her children and a female neighbor were beaten into repenting. If they didn't do so convincingly, lay preachers holding cudgels, machetes and Bibles would lay into them.
Gónzalez began a desperate campaign to save them. Outnumbered, he was able to retrieve two children — a girl of five and a boy of seven — from the church.
“I was able to snatch them from the fire they were in," said González, 39, on Thursday as he sat, exhausted, in shorts, with muddied feet and plastic sandals, outside a hospital in the neighboring province of Veraguas, waiting for another of his kids to be released.
The fire reference was metaphorical, but authorities reported some of the estimated 20 victims of the preachers were burned with embers during the rituals.
González then dashed to try to save the rest of his family. But the remote hamlet, nestled in the jungle of the indigenous Ngabé Buglé enclave of Panama's Caribbean coast, is hours from the nearest clinic, or police force.
“I looked for help from the authorities, but they didn't respond. When they didn't respond, I lost everything,” he said.
By the time authorities arrived by helicopter on Tuesday, it was too late for many. They found 14 bound, beaten townspeople in the church building, and a ritually sacrificed goat along with machetes and 10 lay preachers.
But a mile (2 kilometers) away, they found a freshly covered grave at a local cemetery, from which they extracted a total of seven bodies — the woman, her five children, and a teenage neighbor.
“They decapitated them,” González said. Only one other son, 15, managed to escape on his own, despite being beaten by the fanatics.
While fanaticism sparked the tragedy, the area's isolation — and the poverty and lack of services for the indigenous Ngabé and Buglé peoples — had a role.
“I need the government to help people in remote areas with little access, where you have to walk so far,” said González.
Apparently, the sect is relatively new to the area, and had been operating locally only for about three months and there were few warning signs.
The Assistant Director of the National Police, Alexis Muñoz, said the “New Light of God” believers had been “acting normally. It wasn't a group that was doing anything against the community.”
“Then one of the members traveled outside the community, and when he returned a couple of months later, he brought back this idea that anyone who disagreed with their beliefs was against them and action had to be taken.”
Things reportedly came to a head Saturday, when one of the church members had a vision.
“One of them said God had given them a message,” said local prosecutor Rafael Baloyes. That message apparently boiled down to making everyone confess their sins or die.
Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies specializing in Latin America at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the sect appears to be a “syncretic cult” espousing a “hodgepodge of beliefs stitched together” with Pentacostalism at its core but also elements of indigenous beliefs and even New Age philosophy — it reportedly talked about the importance of the “third eye” on a now-deleted Facebook page.
The ritually sacrificed goat found at the scene is “anathema to any Christian practice, seen as idolatry,” Chesnut added
Exorcisms leading to death are more common than most would think, he said, with over-exuberant pastors sometimes smothering people in choke-holds including in places like the United States — but it’s usually unintentional.
“This apparently was intentional,” Chesnut said. “They’re basically saying, ‘repent and vomit out your demons or die’ — which, of course, also is anathema to the Christian message.”
Ricardo Miranda, a leader of the Ngabé Buglé semi-autonomous zone, called the sect “satanic” and said it went against the region's Christian beliefs.
“We demand the immediate eradication of this satanic sect, which violates all the practices of spirituality and co-existence in the Holy Scriptures,” Miranda said.
AP Writer Peter Orsi contributed to this story from Mexico City