Cult leader or religious savior? This pro-drug exile is being called both.
Like so many other religious leaders who may end up accused of swindles, thefts and random unsavory blowjobs, Christopher de Guzman, now 27, started out just wanting to make a lot of money.
For a magnetic person like de Guzman, coming up on cash was always easy. As a teen, he went to work as a door-to-door salesman and claims he was quickly earning $1,000 a week in the process. "I unenrolled from high school and I went on this search, to look for ‘How can I make a lot of money?’ And, honestly, that's all I wanted."
He started clickbait websites that reek of get-rich-quick schemes — the Get Your Girlfriend Back Secret or Digital Nomads Academy. He made money outsourcing work. He traveled a lot. He shaved his head.
Then, about three years ago, de Guzman found a magical potion: a brew called ayahuasca. It's a mixture of two Amazonian plants. Like mushrooms and peyote, ayahuasca is an "entheogen" — a drug that makes you feel like you're in touch with the universe's highest powers while you trip balls at an unbelievable level. It isn't cocaine or any other historically lucrative drug, and doesn't give users euphoria or make anyone physically hooked. But people are dying to get their hands on it, with much of the increased demand because of its features in national news reports and television shows.
Yet, de Guzman is clever. He knows that you're only allowed to use select entheogens like ayahuasca if you're part of certain religions. And instead of joining, he started one. He called it Ayahuasca Healings, which previously offered retreats in Washington state, sometimes costing thousands of dollars. Ayahuasca was commonly served there.
He sold the new venture hard in online videos and mass emails, beaming and folding his hands at his heart while simultaneously offering enlightenment and free gifts. “If $1000 is a lot to you right now, then that discomfort of making that donation is already the start of your healing,” he wrote on the site. It was Sales 101.
And it worked. Attention poured in along with money and volunteers. Before long, he was setting out to create one of America's fastest growing religions. He stopped calling himself Christopher and adopted the name "Trinity" — a word that means God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit all wrapped into one. And why the fuck shouldn't he dream big? He was quite possibly another Muhammad armed with Wifi, a Joseph Smith with drugs.
What he had on his side was the ultimate failure of American drug laws. Prohibitions bred gangsters, shysters and criminals where none would otherwise exist. Illegal alcohol created Al Capone. The War on Drugs is to blame for Pablo Escobar and El Chapo — and a million other street corner pushers just trying to make a quick buck.
Trinity was just another hustler with a quality product looking for a clever way around the law.
But it hasn't gone well.
Like so many millennials, Adam Chehade, 29, has bad depression. He says it feels like it's raining every single day, like a lead blanket is thrown over his entire limbic system. One day a few years back, life became unbearable, morphing into a bad blues song — he lost his job, lost his house. Then his girlfriend cheated, right in front of him. This lead to him getting arrested. When he finally got out of jail, he felt he needed a cure.
Naturally, he Googled it. And there was Trinity.
Others have called Trinity "creepy," "messianic," a "cult leader" and a "charlatan." But in the videos Adam saw, Trinity is the picture of happiness. Adam says he fell for it, hard.
"I wanted that face that Trinity had," Adam says.
Adam already had piles of debt from court fees and lawyers. But he was desperate. So he signed up for a credit card — his first. Adam paid $1,000 for the retreat, and $400 for the plane flight from his home in Chicago to Washington State. Other seekers, he says, paid nearly two grand.
All the while, the two plants used to make ayahuasca can be bought off eBay for less than $10 a dose, a markup margin Martin Shkreli can admire.
"I was really looking forward to just walking out of my depression," Adam said. He never got that opportunity.
Last winter, as it started offering retreats, Ayahuasca Healings found fame. Media organizations like The Daily Beast and Vice bit on the story Trinity was selling and wrote about his new religion like fanboys. Soon, Ayahuasca Healings was receiving 100 applications a day. Trinity staged six or eight retreats, he claims, over a period of two months for about 100 people. Money was good.
Many seekers did have good experiences, though. A guy named Tim Fenton, who went on a retreat, says Ayahuasca Healings was like summer camp for millennials, everyone pulling together to build tipis and drink the magic potion. Fenton said it helped his depression.
Trinity's confidence in this had always been huge. He once bragged that he has “Mastered the Art of Manifestation, and can now, literally, turn any thought [he] wants into a physical reality.” He also claims he "became fluent in Spanish in two weeks."
When Ayahuasca Healings started to find success, it appeared to some that his powers of manifestations were real. So Trinity's plans became bigger: build 30 retreat centers in the U.S. at the rate of two per year until 2032, “the start of our New Golden Age.” Trinity planned to get each center running, and then go off and do other things — mostly travel — while income poured in.
Claiming to be a church was merely a tactic to keep the DEA away, allegedly. It's a loophole that has worked before.
"He's a businessman who thinks he's found his niche," one retreat participant, Clifton Thomas, says. "I heard straight from his mouth that he thinks religions are bullshit. That was a direct quote. 'Religions are bullshit.' That whole church thing was so that he can bring ayahuasca into the United States. He doesn't believe in the church."
Still, the organization flourished. And if Trinity and his church had been quiet and modest, they probably could have flown along under the radar, bringing in thousands of dollars every weekend without stirring the pot.
But the small subculture of entheogenic drug users in America is vigilant and self-policing; they call out bullshit artists pretty quick.
Ayahuasca and other entheogens are very important to these people; to sell it so blatantly is like a Catholic selling the eucharist on eBay, or a Mormon selling their holy undergarments at Victoria's Secret.
A massive online campaign sprung up against Trinity, with Facebook groups, blog posts and YouTube videos as fodder. Many of his former collaborators turned on him.
Meanwhile, Trinity aligned himself with a Native American Church which has had some success in giving legal cover for people to use entheogens, even though Trinity's behavior disgusted them.
"I kept telling them, 'stop advertising, stop treating your church like a fricking business,'" says James Mooney, head of the Oklevueha Native American Church. "They were discrediting the whole movement."
In late spring of 2016, under all the pressure from opposition, Ayahuasca Healings halted operations, and canceled the Washington retreats.
Dozens of people lost thousands of dollars. When they asked for their money back, Trinity said the money wasn't refundable because it wasn't a "fee" or a "charge" or a "payment" — it was all "donations" to his tax-exempt church.
It's good to be a guru in America.
Just a week before he was supposed to go to Washington, Adam Chehade received the news that his retreat was canceled. He thought he'd lost his last hope for happiness. Symptoms of his continuing depression didn’t help.
"I literally cried for days, grieving the biggest loss that ever happened to me," he explains. "My heart feels like it's going to claw out of my chest. Now I'm just crawling through each day. I'm locked in my room just wondering if I should ask my therapist for antidepressants or risk another $1,000," for an ayahuasca retreat somewhere else.
He has since filed a charge with this credit card company for fraud, against Trinity's Ayahuasca Healings.
Trinity has an airy, vague way of speaking, as if he's addressing the oxygen in the room, not an actual person. And he almost never stops smiling. In an interview via Skype, when asked about something uncomfortable, he often just smiles and replies, "Thank you so much for asking!" as if he'd be delighted to talk about yet another accusation of fraud or another former ally who'd abandoned him.
What about the website Ripoff Report, which says you use "manipulation and pressure" in pursuit of a "cult"? What about long-time ayahuasquero Michael Morris who says you're blind to what you're doing to people? What about the reputable outfit the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, which says your methods of high pressure sales is "highly problematic in moving toward sensible policy"? What about the people calling you "messianic," or a "cult leader"?
His answers come through vague and high-minded. He says, "The medicine teaches us that everything's perfect," even through these apparent difficulties. He suggests that the troubles experienced by people who lost money is a chance for their own personal growth. He’s stoic, unshakable.
Until he’s asked about the retreats in Peru.
After the retreats in Washington were shut down, Trinity moved operations to Peru. He offered sessions to people who missed out on the retreats in Washington.
Some reported good experiences down there. But two people — Sulastri de Andrade, who hosted some of Trinity's retreats, and Clifton Thomas, who attended one — says they were a mess.
For one thing, the leaders were inexperienced. One was living in a tent before Trinity took her in, another was a street performer, playing music in the town plaza with a group of "hippies," Sulastri said, and another was a "Rambo Kung fu shaman" — just some young tough guy who knew Tai Chi.
Sulastri said it was downright irresponsible. A guy passed out the day after a ceremony, and Trinity's crew didn't respond well. "Clearly what [the sick guy] needed was to go to the hospital due to altitude sickness, low sugar and fatigue," Sulastri says. But Trinity and his crew didn't do that. "He was writhing on the ground and they were beating drums over him."
Trinity maintains they did the right thing — that what the sick guy needed wasn't glucose and oxygen, but spiritual help.
"Each of us has our own unique healing ability," Trinity adds, "whether it's sound healing or invocations or performing reiki" — a pseudo-scientific energetic massage. "We were working with our angels."
The sick man ended up being fine. But there are inherent risks with these drugs, including psychosis, heart attacks and seizures, though they should be considered generally harmless, especially compared to drugs like alcohol, tobacco, opioids or meth.
Still, other angels dropped like flies. When one of Trinity's ayahuasca "healers" herself got sick and left, Trinity quickly promoted one of the assistant chefs to the position of "ayahuasca shaman," Sulastri said.
"These kids are dangerous," he continues. "These kids are playing with people's lives. I had to throw them out of our property."
Throughout the interview, the Peruvian accounts are the only ones that ever erase Trinity's smile. Because along with people getting sick, others claim during one ceremony, in the dark, while participants were tripping on entheogens, Trinity received a handjob and/or a blow job from his girlfriend. Both of the accusations strike a particular nerve.
"That is just, like, a rumor,” he responds. “That is just high school gossip. I did not, would not do that.” (Finally: a straight answer and a straight face.) "Why would I choose to get a blowjob from my girlfriend during a ceremony? I can get a blowjob from my girlfriend anytime."
For retreat-goer Clifton Thomas, who says he witnessed the blowjob/handjob, it was like seeing the priest getting blown during Sunday mass at a cathedral. And it was hypocrisy. Trinity's "religion" had always asked its participants to be celibate for the time around the ceremonies, but Thomas (and Sulastri) agree the retreat was all a low-level orgy — this "healer" with this guest, this chef with this healer's girlfriend — drama supreme.
"I was very uncomfortable," Thomas adds. "I kept thinking, I did not sign up for this shit."
What does de Guzman’s story say about the fast-growing world of entheogenic drugs? Maybe it says that when people use entheogens it opens their minds, sometimes just wide enough for scammers to cram in brand-new top-quality bullshit.
But maybe it doesn't say much of anything.
"Charlatanism is everywhere, and I don't think it's higher in the entheogenic movement than anywhere else," Brigitte Mars, a professor at Naropa University in Boulder and an expert on psychedelics says. "There are yogis who sleep with their students while preaching abstinence, and Catholic priests who preach celibacy while raping little boys. In fact, psychedelics help people see through illusions, and pick out charlatanism more easily."
Lately, Trinity has disappeared a bit. His emails have trailed off, and his YouTube proselytizing has dimmed. He's in Mexico now, trying to revive his religion there. He's offered to let people like Adam Chehade come drink with him south of the American border; Adam says no way.
"The truth is that this is not the last time we'll see this," Michael Morris, the experienced ayahuasquero says via Skype from Peru. "There's so much interest, and people are turning to the medicine, and what they're encountering first off is people like Trinity with the full court marketing. People like him don't belong anywhere near the medicine. But that's who's there."
Because they start movements that oftentimes never get shut down, religious hucksters are some of the most dangerous criminals around. Until regular people conscientiously object to the Drug War that fuels these types of opportunities, sufferers like Adam will continue getting screwed.