Latino immigrants fall prey to promises and potions of “television healers” who are using local Spanish-language television to take advantage of a vulnerable population (1993).

By Gabriel Escobar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 1993

To these believers, every curse has a cure, and Mauricio Zelaya was a believer. Each visit to the little office in Adams-Morgan, each test performed by the white-haired spiritualist, had convinced him that the stiffness in his back was the work of algo malo — “something evil.”

He had plenty of proof. His own $20 bill, folded into a triangle, wrapped in aluminum foil and licked with his own saliva, had burned a blister in the palm of his hand. The cotton swab he rubbed across his chest and his “noble parts” had made water froth and turn blood red. Seltzer, bought around the corner at a market, had turned to a coffee color after he gargled with it.

“You know what?” the healer told Zelaya after the seltzer test, which like the others cost the 33-year-old Salvadoran immigrant $350. “What your wife has in her womb is in great danger.”

Admittedly superstitious and now driven by fear for his unborn child, Zelaya was vulnerable to the self-styled spiritualist and healer.

For $1,000 more, the desperate Zelaya, who said he was a recovering alcoholic who had not had a drink in almost a year, bought into a cure that amounted to five eggs mixed in a $7 bottle of red wine.

Zelaya said the wine cure last April led to a nine-day drinking binge that cost him his job as a building superintendent and landed him in a detox center. After his release, he said, he spent a day bent on revenge, stalking the streets of Queens in New York, where he believed the healer had gone. “My mind,” he now says, “was disturbed.”

The case is unusual only because it produced such extreme results. Although D.C. police are investigating only two cases involving possible fraud by such healers — Zelaya’s among them — investigators caution that crimes of confidence are greatly underreported because many of the victims are non-English-speaking immigrants who are reluctant to go to the authorities.

There is anecdotal evidence — based on the accounts of a doctor, a priest, healers’ clients and healers themselves — that the number of victims in the Washington area is at least in the hundreds.

Believers in folklore and a tradition of herbal medicines, these people make easy prey for fast-talking healers who tell them they are suffering from spiritual or physical illnesses — including cancer and other potentially fatal diseases — and then charge hundreds of dollars for bogus cures.

The presence of spiritualists and healers in the Latino community is neither new nor unique to this area. Based in homes, the underground businesses are traditionally run by women who counsel the lovelorn and occasionally prescribe herbs, charging $25 to $70 for consultations. Community leaders say most are benign, although some have been known to charge hundreds of dollars.

But experiences such as Zelaya’s became widespread only last year, when several organized groups opened storefront offices in Latino neighborhoods and began buying blocks of air time on Spanish-language media, a main source of information for the estimated 400,000 Latinos in the area.

A Church Besieged

There is no way to know how many people have sought out such healers, but their impact has been acutely felt at an unlikely place, the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington. The Rev. Jose Eugenio Hoyos said that in the last year about 200 people have approached him, some telling him they have been cured of various maladies, but most tearfully recounting how they spent a great deal of money for nothing.

“This is a huge business,” said Hoyos, who first was exposed to such healers in his native Colombia. “It is a phenomenon that must be controlled now. It is destroying our Latino community.”

Especially disturbing for the church is the healers’ practice of using Catholic icons, traditions and teachings. The Friday practice of blessing small bottles of water was suspended in November because too many people were bringing gallon containers, leading priests to believe that the holy water was being used for unholy purposes.

Hoyos said Communion wafers have been spirited out of the cathedral — a sacrilegious act — by parishioners who are told by healers that they are needed to concoct cures. At the Spanish-language Mass on Sundays, which regularly draws more than 1,600 worshipers, priests have stopped putting the Hosts into their hands and instead place a wafer on the tongue of each parishioner, a forced return to an old tradition.

Recently, an usher had to chase a woman who had removed the Host from her mouth and was walking away with it in her hand, Hoyos said.

One parishioner recently called Hoyos and asked him to give her a wafer that had been blessed. She said a spiritualist had told her to sprinkle pieces of the wafer outside her door to drive off evil spirits. The charge for that advice was $500, but the spiritualist assured the woman that the money would go to the poor.

From the pulpit, Hoyos has warned that such practices are sinful. But he recognizes that fraudulent healers promise desperate people something he cannot.

“I am not a soothsayer,” Hoyos said. “To them I am a spiritual leader, not a person who will solve their problems and predict their future.”

The healing business began to escalate last year when four principal operations — Bryan International, Grupo Kendur, Maestros Lamas and Centro Naturista la Buena Esperanza (Good Hope Naturist Center) — set up shop in the area and began to advertise, in some cases reading letters from local people and delivering diagnoses on the air.

They first drew public scrutiny in December, when Laura Martinez, a lawyer at the legal aid clinic Ayuda Inc., handled the case of a Salvadoran woman whose complaint against a Bryan International counselor is still under investigation by police. Martinez alerted the D.C. Office of Latino Affairs, which asked the Spanish-language broadcast media to stop airing the ads. At the same time, the office’s “Linea Directa” public service show aired a program in which three victims, Zelaya among them, were interviewed.

According to Zelaya, the healer who promised to cure his backache, Alejandro Ajedrez, also worked for Bryan International. Bryan officials in New York disavowed responsibility for the Washington operation and said they have since sold it. Zelaya said the new owner, Jose Zuluaga, gave him a partial refund in July and told him that other clients had complained about Ajedrez, who was described as “resting” at a monastery. Ajedrez could not be located for an interview.

City officials said none of the four groups had registered with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs or had permits, including the required medium license. Only one, Grupo Kendur, had the most basic permit needed by a city business, a certificate of occupancy. Managers of the other businesses said they did not know permits were required. Zuluaga said he is seeking permits for his business, which retains the Bryan name.

The consumer department generally investigates businesses only after an individual or another city agency files a complaint, and no complaints have been filed. Operators of the four businesses, all of them Colombians, said in interviews in December that they were not deceiving the public or prescribing cures. They did not respond to requests to talk to their attorneys, and by the end of the year Maestros Lamas, Grupo Kendur and the Good Faith Naturist Center (renamed by a new owner) had closed.

In its wake, the Naturist Center left debts and an unknown number of clients still seeking what they had paid for. The lights inside the 14th Street NW office were left on, three months back rent is due, and a $1,700 telephone bill, almost all in long-distance calls to Colombia, is unpaid, according to the building’s owner.

The cleanup is now left to Angel Lemos, the property manager, who breaks the news to those seeking the healer. Last month, Lemos said, a man who said he had made a $300 down payment for a treatment came to complain because he had never received the herbal medicines he was promised by mail.

A Long Tradition

A large percentage of Latinos in the Washington area emigrated from Central America in the last five years, in particular from the rural eastern provinces of El Salvador, where herbal medicine is a centuries-old tradition. Their views of medicine and doctors have been molded by that experience and their relative lack of exposure to modern medicine.

Juan Romagoza, who received a medical degree in El Salvador, said this cultural background has made many Salvadorans here susceptible to healers who exploit their tradition.

“I am not against natural medicine. I am against charlatans,” said Romagoza, now director of the Clinica del Pueblo in Columbia Heights and one of the first to spot the problem locally. People from rural areas still retain “an almost magical view of life and death,” Romagoza said, and often seek mystical explanations for physical ailments.

U.S. medicine also has confounded many Salvadorans who were accustomed to buying medicines over the counter and going to one doctor for everything — including psychological counseling, Romagoza said. A lack of medical insurance frightens others who have learned that a visit to a doctor can result in expensive tests.

Free clinics, such as the Clinica del Pueblo and another run by the Catholic Center, are in such demand that someone seeking an appointment today will not see a doctor until April. All these obstacles, Romagoza and others said, have led people to seek alternatives — from using medicines prescribed for friends to ordering medical supplies from home to patronizing healers.

The demand for Valium and tetracycline — two medicines sold over the counter in El Salvador — is such that Romagoza said some Latino supermarkets sell it clandestinely. Zelaya said he eventually cured his backache not by going to a doctor, but by buying a wintergreen ointment made in Hong Kong at a Mount Pleasant supermarket.

“What is common in all these cases,” Romagoza said of those who have sought out healers, “is that all these people are desperate.”

The use of water, candles, smoke and prayer is no coincidence, according to Hoyos and others. Before Grupo Kendur closed in December, a counselor at the operation — which also has offices in New York and Houston — said his clients are generally people who have not been treated by doctors and appeal to him because they believe “someone has done something evil” to them.

“Faith is very important,” Victor Galvis said. “It influences things.” On his desk were some of the tools of his trade: a foot-long wooden crucifix, dried flowers, a deck of Spanish tarot cards and a black-bound set of “Los Magos del Siglo XX” and “Ritos y Secretos del Vudu” (“Magicians of the 20th Century” and “Voodoo’s Rites and Secrets”).

Each consultation is $40, and some treatments cost $330, Galvis said. He said he offered full refunds to dissatisfied customers, but cautioned that cures can work only if people believe in them. “People have to come here confident,” he said.

The irony is that many alternative cures are often much more expensive than a visit to the doctor. In December, for example, Milton Del Cid said he drove from Fairfax to the District in search of a quick cure for stomach cramps.

“It is much cheaper if you go to a parchero,” Del Cid, using the Salvadoran term for a country healer, said as he stood outside Jose Ortiz’s Good Faith Naturist Center about a week before it closed. He was carrying a bag containing his prescription: four small bottles of herbs and vitamin supplements for which he had paid $110. A week later, Del Cid said the herbs had produced a bitter tea and did not work. He called his mother in El Salvador and asked her to send medicine by mail.

Ortiz, interviewed after he treated Del Cid, said his price included the consultation. The medicines themselves, he said, were a minimal part of the cost. One of the products he sold was a skin lotion, and Ortiz cited that as an example.

“If you want it for an allergy, I have to give you a treatment,” he said. “It could cost you $50. It could cost you $60.” Asked about a bottle labeled “laxative,” Ortiz first said it helped cure infections.

“It’s a laxative if that’s what you need,” he said when the inconsistency was pointed out. “It depends on your problem.”

On the Air

The diagnosis was quick.

“Your papacito is suffering a chronic illness . . . bronchitis,” Jose Zuluaga said on Radio Borinquen (AM-900), where his paid program on Dec. 11 included the reading of an imploring letter from two sisters who had described their father’s declining health. “Come and I will give you medications.”

The broadcast sales pitch was not unusual. Buying air time on Spanish-language radio was apparently first used by healers in New York about three years ago, according to a radio executive at WADO (1280-AM), one of the country’s best-established Latino stations. Programs by Grupo Kendur and Bryan International have aired in Boston; Paterson, N.J.; and Houston, radio executives in those cities said.

Such ads were made possible by deregulation in the 1980s, which in the mainstream media allowed phone-sex commercials and 900 numbers for psychics. The result, according to federal officials, is a mostly self-regulated industry in which media executives decide whether to run the ads.

Federal law prohibits fraud by wire, radio or television, but regulators only recently have begun paying attention to Spanish-language ads. In the only action of its kind so far, three Los Angeles-based Latino telemarketing firms were charged in 1991 with making false claims about a “Fantastic Girdle” that supposedly reduced weight. The Federal Trade Commission, which filed the charges, now has regional offices in Texas and California monitoring Spanish-language ads. The agency also publishes consumer protection material in Spanish, said Barry Cutler, director of the FTC’s consumer bureau.

Formal complaints against healers are unusual; ads usually are pulled off the air by station managers when people in the community point to a problem. But their claims have drawn some adverse attention.

In Boston, for example, the host of one program said this year that he had cured a case of cervical cancer by prescribing herbs and rubbing a special mud on the woman’s stomach. That claim so alarmed Marcos Ramos, a physician and professor at Boston University’s School of Medicine, that he alerted the Federal Communications Commission and the FTC. Ramos withdrew the complaint after the station stopped airing the program.

But in an interview, he said he and other Latino doctors in Boston recently notified the Massachusetts attorney general about the case, and Carol Dietz, an assistant attorney general, said an investigation is underway. The healer in the case could not be reached.

Doctors in Boston were especially concerned because the ad appeals to a misconception about cancer among Latinos. A study published in December in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Latinos often interpret cancer as a punishment from God, a perception that affects how and when they seek treatment.

Ramos said some seriously ill patients opt for healers “because this appeals to the mysterious, the magical.”

That was the approach Jose Zuluaga — using the name Jose Bryan — used on his Dec. 11 radio program. Without saying it was directly to blame for their father’s ill health, he told the two sisters that a curse had been put on them when they left El Salvador. “Bring me an egg,” he said, “and I will show you the face of the person who cursed you.”

Asked by a reporter how he could have diagnosed bronchitis, as opposed to pneumonia or another respiratory ailment, when the father was 3,500 miles away, Zuluaga replied: “Well, those things are related.” Asked how he knew that someone in San Miguel — a rural region of El Salvador that has sent thousands of people to the Washington area — had cursed the two sisters, he paused.

“I am speechless,” he finally said. “Certainly, I made a mistake there.”