Brazilian police dismantled Monday a religious sect accused of subjecting its faithful to slavery-like conditions while accumulating a fortune of close to 100 million reais (some $28.6 million) in donations from its followers, officials said.
At least six people were arrested in an operation aimed at dismantling a criminal organization "that used a religious sect to appropriate the assets and income of its faithful, who were also subjected to forced labor in conditions similar to slavery," according to a Federal Police communique.
The criminals operated in three Brazilian states through a sect known as the Jesus Evangelical Community.
Besides arresting suspected leaders of the organization and transporting another 47 people to police stations for their depositions, the close to 190 Federal Police agents who took part in "Operation Back to Canaan" seized numerous properties and assets under orders of the justice system.
The judge who ordered the operation called for the seizure of at least 70 properties, vehicles and bank accounts supposedly acquired with money collected from the faithful, who were talked into donating everything they owned.
"Upon joining the sect, the faithful were convinced they should donate all their goods with the argument that they would live together in a community where everything would belong equally to everybody, but where they were obliged to work without receiving anything in exchange," the communique said.
According to those directing the investigation, the leaders of the sect forced the faithful to work in wretched conditions, without any remuneration, on the ranches where they lived and performed their religious rituals, while those running the racket enriched themselves with whatever those properties produced.
Members of the organization will be accused of the crimes of people trafficking, submitting individuals to a condition analogous to slavery, association to commit crime, fraud, forgery and money laundering.
The sect's activities were first investigated in 2011, and were targeted in 2013 by a Federal Police operation, both in response to reports of slavery.
At the time, two leaders of the sect were arrested for appropriating the pensions and the social subsidies paid monthly by the government to members of the religious sect.
However, in neither case was any proof of slave labor discovered.