AYAHUASCA, THE NEW DRUG TREND
It is the Amazonian plant that celebrities talk about. Alberto José Varela has the largest company dedicated to its commercialisation and invoices millions of euros in more than 20 countries
05.03.2018 – 16:41 H.
El CONFIDENCIAL (Digital newspaper)
Ayahuasca, an ancestral brew for “finding oneself”, is fashionable: it has become a phenomenon that brings together thousands of Spaniards every weekend to “initiate an experience of personal growth”. Alberto José Varela (Buenos Aires, 1961) dominates the largest world empire of this Amazonian plant from Madrid. In his own words, he is “the leader”.
Varela, who tried Ayahuasca himself after an initiation trip to the jungle in 2000, is a pragmatic man who believes in “the economic system” and in incorporating into the value chain, this, and other rather hallucinogenic substances with which he works (Yopo, Iboga, Kambó, Chichaja, and Bufo Alvarius which is extracted from a Sonoran desert toad). However, he affirms with the precise words of the Argentines that he is not a guru “nor a shaman”. He is not a psychologist or a therapist, nor does he intend to be. Neither a charlatan, “nor a criminal,” he emphasizes, although he spent 14 months in jail (from December 2008 to March 2010). A place he does not want to “return to again”. He was acquitted later, in April 2011 and since then acts with extreme precautions because “one wrong word of mine will make the public prosecutors go for us.” Every time proceedings are started against his company, he clarifies, they end up being dismissed, because “we do not work with banned substances.”
Ayahuasca is not illegal, although, according to Varela, it is sometimes persecuted “because some people perceive it as a new way of getting high and believe that it is against the moral order.” In France and Germany*, their centres and ‘retreats’ do not include substances because they are “not allowed”. The organisation has had encounters with with justice system in Switzerland, Belgium, India, Spain and Argentina; but, in all cases, litigation ended up in nothing “because what we do is legal”. In spite of this, it has “lawyers around the world who advise us about it” on its payroll.
They are not the only employees on the payroll: Varela controls a complex business structure that employs 150 people in 12 different countries, ranging from experts in ‘marketing’ and advertising to gardeners, chefs, psychologists and ‘facilitators’. In theory, the company is called Inner Mastery, but it is more of a commercial name that encompasses its “multinational” nature than a registered company. In the case of Spain, the company is Gracias Ayahuasca SL. It includes Laura Torrebadella, at the time one of the partners of the well-known Ekotrade organic products firm, among the most advanced of its sector. Torrebadella, convinced of the benefits of Ayahuasca and who shares her experiences on Facebook, is Varela’s partner in many of its activities, including a travel agency specialising in bringing people to the Amazon in search of “shamanic experiences.” Facebook is precisely the social network from which it operates and through which the Varela company is fundamentally advertised.
Shamans of the Amazon
The company was set up with 20,000 euros from the sale of a house inherited by Varela in Argentina. Before that, he had started in business when, at the age of 16, he forced his father to recognise his signature before a notary and set up a chain of clothing stores. Then came a radio station, and later he joined one of the most recognised men in Argentina, psychologist Osvaldo Gordín, in the field of marketing and advertising. It is from that experience where Varela’s conviction that social networks are the best place to do business comes from. After running three restaurants (nowadays he also owns one in Madrid) and a construction company, at the age of 28, and after the death of his father, he recalls that he decided to “change his direction in life”. A change of direction that led him to “investigate self-knowledge and spirituality and read books on Eastern philosophy.” After a divorce, in 1996, he arrived in Spain: his ex-wife had moved to Madrid with their three children, and Varela also decided to change country in order to be with them. In 1999 he set up a therapy centre in the Salamanca neighbourhood involving “meditation, personal development, etc.” Until in 2001, when “the transformation” happened and he tried Ayahuasca during the aforementioned trip to the Amazon jungle in the company of his eldest son .
It was given to him by a Colombian “Taita” (or shaman) “deceased a few years ago”, who taught him the mysteries of the plant that in Colombia they call ‘Yagé’. Ayahuasca and the other substances with which they work are brought directly by the shamans of the Amazon, and “they give talks when they are passing through”. Also, says Varela, they buy it from Ecuadorian farmers, former cocaine producers who have converted their plantations “in order to avoid problems”. In all cases, the Argentine company pays “20% above” the market price to make improvements in indigenous communities. Its suppliers’ company, says Varela, is legally incorporated in Ecuador and the Netherlands, and is where he buys the “medicines” with “invoices and VAT”.
“I have become the world leader of many people”, Varela concedes with simplicity, and provides figures: more than 1,000 retreats carried out per year, more than 150 people trained in the European School of Ayahuasca, operational in 20 countries, more than a million followers on social networks. And more than two million euros billed, according to Varela. The ‘retreats’ can cost up to 800 euros, although in theory the taking of Ayahuasca or other substances that are offered is not charged, what is charged is “therapeutic advice and accommodation.”
Money, says Varela, has been a serious problem for some. “They accuse me of wanting to do business, of not respecting the essence, and the Cofán people, one of the communities who use Ayahuasca, have denounced me in a manifesto,” he explains. They say that he does not have permission to appropriate the ceremonies in which this substance is used. To which Varela responds, that these platforms that are in defence of the ‘essence’, have interests and they are after his business. But he also qualifies that “money is also a healing energy” and the entrepreneur ensures that “we do not leave anyone out because of an economic limitation, paying is not an indispensable condition to participate in our events.” But he also adds: “We are the most expensive in the market and the only ones that have a business network with employees registered with Social Security, paying VAT, corporate tax and others”. All this, continues Varela, “because we want to be in harmony with the system, we accept the system as part of the game”.
The king of Ayahuasca’s problems have not been limited to criticism, he has even been subject to attempted murders. “Twice, armed men have come with the intention of killing me in my hostel [Casa del Río Mocoa] in the Colombian jungle,” he says. “The reasons are very complex, but in summary it is because I am white and Argentine, meddling in an inaccessible spiritual shamanic world to which I dared to enter, de-contextualizing the medicines of the rites, traditions and culture, in order to expand it around the world with the purity that jungle medicine has in its integration with the psycho-therapeutic “. In Varela’s opinion, Ayahuasca is a substance that brings “great benefits for mental health” and its “boom” is being accompanied by a “great disinformation and confusion”. The businessman, who lives with his partner and a daughter in common for 10 years, has nothing in his name. “I lost the house for not paying the mortgage when I was in prison in 2008,” he recalls. Since then he has no property, although he is the king of the Ayahuasca empire and everything is “expanding”.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE FROM ‘LA CONFIDENCIAL’: https://www.elconfidencial.com/alma-corazon-vida/2018-03-05/drogas-ayahuasca-negocios-espiritualidad-medicina_1527382/