Spanish police arrested a group of 18 people last July who worked for a controversial psychedelic retreat provider that has franchises across Europe. The bust was as part of a coordinated set of raids following an investigation, police announced.
The crackdown marks the latest in a series of arrests targeting entheogenic facilitators in the country, but the organization Inner Mastery International, formerly known as Ayahuasca International, faces serious questions beyond simply administering psychedelic substances.
The organization’s founder Alverto Varela, an Argentinian in his early 50s who died of brain cancer in October following his arrest, according to an anonymous source, was one of several individuals in the group charged with unspecified sex crimes. A well-placed source to the situation said Varela had been taken into custody and that two police officers guarded his hospital room before his death.
“Although no one should go to jail for working with plants, you’d have a hard time finding people with worse practices, at a scale, than these people,” the source said. They asked to remain anonymous as they hadn’t received permission from their organization to speak to the media. “They’ve been the stone in the foot of the ayahuasca scene for more than a decade. This guy did not want to be a shaman, he was very open about just wanting to be rich.”
Former participants within Varela’s “European Ayahuasca School” have denounced how they were treated in written online testimonies citing abuse of power and coercive practices. Varela allegedly told one former student, “It was normal to undress during the sessions and that many women had found sexual liberation by masturbating in front of him … while taking ayahuasca.”
The source claimed that Inner Mastery effectively operated as a pyramid scheme, with franchises run by graduates of the school across Europe. “He would train people very fast,” the source alleged. “Then they would get an exclusive territory, he would sell them the ayahuasca and the commissions would be kicked up the pyramid.”
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The organization has a significant online presence, actively promoting its retreats in multiple European cities on Retreat Guru. Some of the retreats remain scheduled for as soon as February and March of 2024. Varela’s associates continue to upload content to his YouTube channel, which has amassed more than 1.5 million views.
Inner Mastery also uses several Instagram accounts that employ emotive advertising methods such as in one video where viewers are encouraged to leave their families if they are unhappy over Christmas and join their “authentic celebration” retreat instead. Clips and photos of Varela continue to be used in promotional content, which falsely suggest he is still alive. Aside from ayahuasca, the organization offers other psychedelics including bufo (also known as 5-MeO-DMT from the Bufo alvarius toad), San Pedro, and yopo (which is a hallucinogenic snuff) at the retreats, despite safety concerns over “mix-and-match” usage.
“They just kept expanding and expanding and expanding,” the source told DoubleBlind. “They were very aggressive, and had a big budget for advertising, through [advertising on] Google and social media.”
Psychedelic novices who want to drink ayahuasca, but do not know where to go are those who Inner Mastery retreats markets to. “Varela was very efficient at exploiting naive people,” the source said. “If you did some online research about psychedelic ceremonies in Europe, you’d find this guy. He made sure that you found him. And first-timers would not know if it was a good or a bad ceremony.”
In 2015, more than 100 academics condemned Varela as a charlatan who fraudulently claimed to be serving ayahuasca with the permission of the Cofán Indigenous group, from southern Colombia. They described his facilitation style as “irresponsible” and his marketing practices as “reprehensible.”
The source said they had been told by multiple people that Varela had stopped drinking ayahuasca in recent years because it made him visibly suffer so much during ceremonies. “He would be miserable. Ayahuasca would punish the hell out of him.”
It has been reported that Varela previously spent more than a year inside a Spanish prison awaiting a trial in relation to serving ayahuasca. The case collapsed after DMT could not be located in the seized plants. Ayahuasca is not illegal in Spain, and the right to import the two ingredients for the Amazonian brew was confirmed in court in 2020. However, that does not stop police from certain enforcement actions, even if most cases are dropped.
Some of Varela’s former associates were also charged with human trafficking and violations of workers’ rights. 15 of the arrests took place in Madrid, and included some of his family members. Police said that it raided a ceremony just prior to the facilitation of plant medicine. “The group was surprised as they were beginning the celebratory ritual, moments before providing the psychoactives,” according to a press release.
The police force also published a video in which officers are seen demanding entry to a property with stun guns drawn. As part of an operation in coordination with customs officers at the airport who monitor incoming packages, the equivalent of $26,000 was seized along with 60 kilograms of ayahuasca and 1 kilogram of mescaline.
Inner Mastery declined to comment in an email to DoubleBlind. On its website, it claims to have served more than 100,000 people in ceremonies. Prices per three-day retreat can be in excess of $700 per person. “Our inner evolution retreats are spiritual retreats in the sense that they facilitate the connection with each person’s divinity to access the true treasure within each person, where the answers, solutions, and ways out live,” it says. At the time of this writing, it is unclear when the trial will take place.
The Spanish national police operation has taken down several entheogenic facilitators in the country over the past year. In January 2023, following “Operation Kambo” in Murcia, a British couple was arrested, and had 14 liters of ayahuasca, 200 grams of mushrooms, and 3 kilograms (or roughly 6 pounds) of cannabis seized. However, according to a local news report, they may only have been charged over the possession of the dissected wings of goldfinches, which is a protected species.
Then, in February last year, a woman from Gran Canaria was arrested on the island for holding ayahuasca and San Pedro ceremonies. A couple in Alicante was also arrested back in August 2021 for holding bufo and ayahuasca ceremonies. Police even appeared to have shot undercover footage of one of their ceremonies.
In April last year, four academics condemned the police for demonization of ayahuasca practices in Spain and called for public support against the authorities’ actions. They cited how a YouTuber in Spain “infiltrated” a Santo Daime group for months and filmed ceremonies without permission. He was then invited onto TV shows where he accused the religious group, which uses ayahuasca as a sacrament, of brainwashing people.