MONTENEGRO, Colombia - Shortly after winning the presidential elections in Colombia, President Iván Duque - a Catholic - stirred controversy when he asked a high profile priest to perform an exorcism in the presidential office.
It wasn’t long before his administration decided they would banish Satan from the public sphere as well, beginning a years-long war against a self described Satanic sect called the Templo de las Semillas de Luz Satánico.
The three-year legal crusade against the Templo raised questions over whether the laws designed to protect religious freedom in Colombia were instead being used to maintain a christian hegemony.
The bizarre tale begins in 2016, when a former policeman and father of three who goes by the name Víctor Damián Rozo Villareal (his real name is Victor Londoño Villegas) built what he called a satanic temple in the Colombian department of Quindío, just outside the sleepy tourist town of Montenegro.
Rozo began to recruit followers through a savvy social media campaign promising success in love or finance, and wisdom from the dark lord Lucifer. In many ways, his promotional outreach videos aren’t much different from those of tele-evangelical adherents of the “prosperity gospel” in the United States such as Joel Olsteen. That, is if one ignores the inverted crosses, statues of Lucifer and devotees dressed in KKK-esque hoods with long flowing purple and black robes. “What you give to the church will be repaid tenfold, both financially and in wisdom,” claimed Rozo in his outreach videos.
In a region known for both conservative politics and religious zeal, it wasn’t long before his practices became a target of ire among local residents, religious leaders and politicians alike. Within a year he had attracted the personal attention of the governor himself, a priest named Carlos Eduardo Osório Buriticá, who told the local press at the time: “This is not a religion...but rather the exact opposite.” Wild rumors of dark rituals involving human sacrifices spread through Montenegro, an accusation without evidence that Rozo firmly denies.
Rozo, for his part, spoke out often in the press, denying rumors of sacrifice and dark rituals. “Every citizen has the right to private beliefs, liberty of conscience and religious practice,” was a phrase he repeated in dozens of interviews. His argument was that his organization faced undeserved attacks due to christian bias in Colombia’s governmental bodies that ultimately decide who gets religious certification and thus protection under law, and who does not. And it seems that in Colombia, satanists need not apply.
The crux of the argument for his critics came down to article 5 of law 133 in Colombia’s Constitution, which states: “The law [of religious liberty] shall not include activities related to psychic or parapsychological phenomena; satanism, practices magical or superstitious or spiritualistic or other analogous practices that fall outside of religion.”
The bishop of Armenia, the urban capital of Quindío, as well as the governor argued that Rozo’s temple could not be considered a religion under Colombian law by the very nature of calling itself “satanic”.
To his detractors, such as the governor of Quindío, often hostile Colombian press and religious authorities, Rozo was “a scam artist”, “a servant of the dark lord,” or even busy “sacrificing babies.” But according to testimonials from his followers posted to social media, he was a charismatic, spiritual teacher who helped them find purpose, achieve long-held desires or encounter wisdom. According to Rozo, he was just practicing his religious freedom. The only thing everyone agreed on was that the church was highly controversial.
The locals in Montenegro seem to have grown accustomed to the public battle. Attitudes towards Rozo’s church vary widely, from fear to bemusement. The town even boasts a small restaurant called “The Temple of Satanic Sandwiches,” a playful nod to the local controversy.
During a reporting trip, multiple taxis refused to provide VICE World News with transport to the temple grounds. One man in the town square, when asked for an opinion on Victor Rozo, simply made the sign of the cross and began muttering prayers as he walked away, refusing to comment.
Eventually a taxi driver named Hernán Torres agreed to make the trip. “I don’t really have an opinion,” he said as drove down the highway out of town, past agricultural farms and tourist havens for those seeking a relaxing weekend in the countryside. “I drive clients here sometimes. Most of them are foreigners. I don’t really know what they’re up to in there, but I like that it makes the religious people in town go crazy,” he said, laughing.
VICE World News was denied access to the sprawling grounds, which were surrounded by privacy fences topped with security cameras. Neighboring plots displayed signs advertising the existence of traps to keep away potential trespassers. If Rozo sought attention from the press in the past, he seems to have changed his mind after a ruling that year outlawing his organization.
In 2019, the Director of the Office of Religious affairs, Beatriz Lorena Ríos Cuéllar, an evangelical and former advocate for Christian organizations, dissolved the Templo de las Semillas de Luz Satánico. In a copy of the ruling provided to VICE World News, the organization was dissolved for not possessing religious certification, and is now banned from public religious practices.
“I’m not going to talk to a shitty yellow-journalism media company like VICE. You can go fuck yourself,” Rozo initially said when contacted for this article by telephone. Upon explanation that the report would be an investigation into the legal battle from a perspective of religious liberty, he did eventually offer a statement before cutting off contact.
“We are not a religious organization,” he emphasized. “I am a private citizen seeking wisdom in the path of Lucifer with my friends and nothing more.”
Ferney Rodriguez, director of the Corporation Bogotano for the Advancement of Reason and Secularism, a private organization that advocates for the inclusion of secularism in governmental policy, said that the legal battle is an example of the influence conservative religious movements still hold in this South American nation. When Colombian President Iván Duque took office in 2018, his Centro Democrático party had deep alliances with conservative Catholics and evangelicals.
“Churches here have always focused on political power. For most of our history it was the Roman Catholic Church that held a virtual monopoly, but in the 70’s and 80’s evangelicals started to arrive from the United States,” said Rodriguez.
He believes the 1994 laws written to uphold religious freedom were a negotiation primarily by evangelicals with the catholic church and were never really intended to provide religious liberty to other faiths. “The law has an inherent Christian bias,” he continued. “The goal wasn’t true plurality, but rather that evangelicals and Pentecostal organizations would be able to expand into a formerly Catholic sphere of influence.”
But Charles William Schultz Navarro, a former senator, one of the authors of the 1994 Constitution and current director of an inter-faith religious rights group in Bogota disagrees. “You have to understand what we were trying to create,” he said of the 1991-94 Constitutional negotiations. “Our primary focus was human rights, something Colombia had a horrible reputation and history with at the time. We were trying to change that. I think article five [of Law 133] was a mistake made in absolute goodwill. In order to try and create a document that enshrined human rights into law, we had to get very entrenched and diverse powers to come to the table. Our goal was not to exclude, but we didn’t foresee all possible interpretations.”
He views the Constitution as a monumental achievement that forced a government previously unconcerned with grave human rights violations to finally look towards a more humane future.
The decision to dissolve Rozo’s church was a political one, he says. “Duque appointed a director to the Office of Religious Issues [Beatriz Lorena Ríos Cuéllar] that he knew would go after them. And go after them they did.”
For President Duque, the annihilation of the “church of satan” was a political win that pleased powerful religious allies in his administration. To his critics it’s just one more example of the immense power Christian organizations wield in a traditionally conservative government.
Was Rozo unfairly persecuted in Colombia? It’s a question unlikely to be answered anytime soon. The devil never even had an advocate, much less a day in court.