Last month, the Danish newspaper, BT, published new video footage of fugitive and alleged cult leader, Mogens Amdi Petersen, and two high-ranking aides shopping at a Costco supermarket in Ensenada, on Mexico’s Baja coast.
The elusive Petersen is founder of the Tvind Teachers Group, widely regarded as a political cult. Since 2006 he and four associates have been wanted by the judicial authority of their native Denmark for serious financial crimes. In August 2013, the five were added to the Interpol website’s ‘Red Notices’ database for wanted persons.
In the video, the two women shown with Petersen are fellow Danes, Ruth Sejerø-Olsen and Marlene Gunst, who — since 1992 and as far as we know, still — form the cult’s 2nd-level management, directly below Petersen and his ‘number one girlfriend’ and co-leader, Kirsten Larsen.
Petersen, Gunst, and Larsen are three of the five who are Interpol-listed fugitives.
The video was shot in October 2019 by the photographer Thomas Vann Altheimer, a Dane who has spent some time in northern Baja.
Ensenada is a 145 km/90 mile drive south of San Diego. The group’s high-security, luxurious headquarters, ‘TG Pacifico’, lies 72 km/45 miles further south on Baja’s northwest coast, in an area called San Juan de las Pulgas. Petersen, now aged 81, and several top Teachers Group (TG) members are known to have been living there at least part-time for many years.
The impressive development, complete with a cathedral-like conference centre, an observatory, and a towering pointed obelisk, also includes offices, meeting rooms, an art exhibition space, a gymnasium, squash courts, an outdoor swimming pool, and accommodation for around 300 people. The 28,000 sq. meters (7 acres) of buildings, designed by the Danish architect Jan Utzon, sit on 740 hectares (1,830 acres) once part of an agricultural ranch bordering the Pacific Ocean.
BT posted several related articles over the following week. A few stories review some of Petersen’s bizarre and colourful history, as has long been reported by Denmark’s media, as well as by Tvind Alert and, occasionally, other English-language news outlets. BT has however included some lesser-known facts, and also reports new developments in the Tvind saga, which we’ll come to further down.
We’ve summarised several of BT’s articles, while contributing further details for a more complete perspective.
BT tells of Petersen’s youthful fame in Denmark as provolæreren (the provocateur teacher), after he in 1965 as a teacher trainee had been denied a permanent job at the Kroggård School in Odense due to his long hair and unorthodox behaviour.
A few years earlier, he had founded one of Denmark’s first collective households, also in Odense. The thriving community hosted art gallery events, authors’ evenings, and political debates.
Steen Møller Madsen, one of Petersen’s then housemates, recalled in a 2000 Danish TV documentary that Petersen “was a person who ran around with his beard and his large Icelandic sweater, and was always very active and had a very contagious charm, an almost charismatic radiance.”
It was in this household that Petersen began to talk about travelling around the globe and visiting the Third World.
In the late 1960s he emerged as a kind of hippie guru and Maoist-inspired, revolutionary firebrand.
BT also recounted that in 1969 Petersen was arrested and sentenced to six months in a German prison for throwing rocks at police during a protest against a neo-Nazi group meeting in Flensburg, in northern Germany. His Danish lawyer appealed the sentence to a higher court. This resulted in Petersen’s sentence being reduced so that it matched the six weeks he had served in prison by that time.
“Bitter for a pacifist to be convicted of violence,” Petersen told reporters upon his release.
During his stint in the German prison, he was assigned to pack toilet paper for 50 pfennig a day — equaling about US$ 2 today. He could have earned more in prison by making nuclear protective equipment for the West German defense, but he refused on moral grounds.
Also while in prison, Petersen confronted management and secured the right for convicts to watch movies a few times per week, and to be taught languages.
Soon after his return to Denmark, Petersen founded an alternative school system that became known as Tvind. First came the Travelling Folk High Schools (De Rejsende Højskoler [DRH]), in which students and teachers journeyed together to Third World countries with the ambition of improving living standards of the poor.
Petersen also formed a collective, later named The Teachers Group (Lærergruppen), in which members pooled their money, labour and time for the common good. Growing within a few years to several hundred persons, the TG had a secretive inner circle that directed the broader Tvind organisation.
In 1972, The Necessary Teacher Training College (Det Nødvendige Seminarium [DNS]) opened. Tvind later established schools for troubled youth in Denmark, funded by the government.
In 1977, TG members founded the Humana People-to-People Movement to run self-described humanitarian aid projects in Third World nations. 1977 also saw the formation of the TG trust fund, Den Selvejende Institution Fælleseje (The Self-Governing Institution Communal Ownership), commonly shortened to Fælleseje (pronounced: FAIL-us-eye].
On the run
By the late 1970s the Danish media began to suspect Tvind of fraud. Several reports had also emerged about strict discipline and financial exploitation of members. The survivor stories continue to this day.
Petersen, increasingly paranoid and claiming to be a target for Western intelligence services such as Britain’s MI6 and the American CIA, ‘went underground’ with Kirsten Larsen in 1979. The pair weren’t seen publicly for the next 23 years.
Danish police alleged that during this period the couple remained in control of Tvind and the TG, chairing meetings and making investment decisions from secret locations.
In 1987 Petersen and Larsen directed the formation of the ‘Humanitarian Fund’, to which about 340 TG members subscribed, and paid a portion of their earnings. The Fund was supposedly used to support ‘good causes’.
By 1991 they ruled their organisation from the comfort of a multimillion-dollar penthouse on Fisher Island, a private luxury community off Miami’s coast. The upscale residence and, later in the decade, 13 others in Miami were covertly purchased by TG offshore companies. The apartments were occupied by several senior TG members.
Years later, the police found that the Humanitarian Fund’s good causes were fronts through which the TG laundered the money in order to secretly build an offshore business empire, and purchase expensive properties such as a beachside villa in the Caymans, and the Miami condos.
In September 2000, after the earlier mentioned TV documentary interviewed former TG members who alleged that Tvind was committing tax fraud, the Danish government began a criminal investigation into the group’s Humanitarian Fund. In March 2001, Petersen and aides Poul Jørgensen, Bodil Ross Sørensen, and Eva Vestergaard were charged with tax evasion and financial breach of trust.
During a large-scale raid on eight Tvind addresses in April 2001, police and tax officials seized and later decrypted a trove of computer documents that suggested the TG elite systematically transferred money from their Humanitarian Fund to themselves.
Petersen’s obscurity ended by that October, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten revealed that he had been living in opulence on Fisher Island for a decade.
In November, a case summary in English was filed by the Public Prosecutor for Serious Financial Crime — popularly known in Denmark as Bagmandspolitiet (The Financial Police).
In February 2002, FBI agents arrested Petersen on an international warrant at Los Angeles International Airport, while he was traveling from southern Africa to Mexico shortly after tighter 9/11 airline screening went into effect. Larsen was with him, but the FBI let her go, as the warrant applied only to Petersen.
When he appeared before a U.S. judge shortly after his arrest, the faithful Larsen and Ruth Sejerø-Olsen were there. In court, Larsen claimed to be an assistant to Petersen’s then lawyer, Robert Shapiro (of O.J. Simpson fame). And while leaving court, wearing black sunglasses, she declined to confirm her identity to journalists.
After fighting extradition for six months, Petersen gave up and requested to be transferred to Denmark. He was held in a Danish prison for several more months.
The Financial Police removed Vestergaard from the charge sheet but added Larsen, Sejerø-Olsen, Marlene Gunst, Sten Byrner and Christie Pipps (aka Kirsten Fuglsbjerg). All are said to have helped orchestrate the TG’s growing network of offshore accounts since the 1980s.
The highly publicised trial began in March 2003 at the district court in Ringkøbing, Denmark. It was one of the longest, most complex and most expensive criminal fraud trials in Danish history. All seven of those charged with Petersen willingly appeared in court in solidarity with their leader.
Three years later, in August 2006, all were acquitted except Byrner, who was partially acquitted but found guilty of debtor fraud and given a one-year conditional sentence — a slap on the wrist, basically.
Within two weeks, prosecutors filed an appeal against all except Sejerø-Olsen and Sørensen, on the basis of new evidence. Danish law required prosecutors to serve those six defendants personally with legal papers, but before that could happen, all except Jørgensen fled the country.
Now the Financial Police were seeking Byrner and Pipps, along with Petersen, Gunst, and Larsen.
Jørgensen’s appeal trial began in November 2007. In January 2009 he was found guilty of tax fraud and embezzlement, and sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment. He is believed to have served only half of that sentence.
In August 2013, Petersen and the four other Tvind fugitives were remanded in absentia by Denmark’s High Court, so that an international arrest warrant could be issued. Then came the Interpol ‘Red Notice’ listings.
After fleeing Denmark in 2006, Petersen remained hidden for 10 years. Then, in June 2016, Danish television channel, DR3, filmed Petersen at a distance as he walked outside of the TG Pacifico headquarters in Mexico.
Mexico a safe haven
Denmark has made several attempts, reportedly as recently as 2015, to persuade Mexico to extradite Petersen and the other accused. But Mexico refuses to cooperate, citing its law that prevents a person from being extradited to another country if the person has been acquitted in that country’s first judicial instance — in Petersen’s case, the district court in Ringkøbing.
Petersen’s lawyer, John Korsø Jensen, told BT that there has been no specific extradition request since. Jensen also said that his client’s health prevents him from travelling. “It’s no secret that he’s an older man who has various impairments,” Jensen said.
True, Tvind’s guru is getting on in years, but in the Costco video he certainly looks chipper enough as he enjoys the phenomenal savings.
Perhaps more than a law is causing Mexico’s reluctance to turn over Petersen and cohorts. Corruption and bribery might also be a factor, according to Danish former detective chief inspector, Per Leo Jepsen, whom BT interviewed.
Jepsen thinks the TG in Mexico use their financial power to grease the right palms in order to avoid any problems with local authorities.
“They are likely paying people off,” Jepsen told BT. He also thinks that it would be easy for TG members to travel on forged passports made from stolen ones that are then converted with new information.
“If you are a criminal and willing to take advantage of the opportunities that exist, then it’s not that difficult to obtain fake papers today. And by the way, it never has been,” he said.
Tvind Alert began covering the TG’s palatial oceanfront complex in 2006, while it was still under construction. Back then we reported that the parcel was purchased from Mexican landholders between 1999 and 2003 by a Mexican-registered company called TG Pacifico S. de R.L. de C.V. The Spanish abbreviation translates as Limited Liability Variable Stock Corporation.
We also reported that two high-ranking members of the TG’s financial directorate, Bolette Gunst and Birgitte Krohn, were known to have been very active in the development of TG Pacifico.
Bolette Gunst, a Tvind ‘teacher’ and graduate of the Necessary Teacher Training College, was a board member of the notorious Humanitarian Fund before its dissolution by Danish authorities in 2001. She is the sister of Marlene Gunst, one of the five Interpol-listed TG leaders still sought by Denmark.
Birgitte Krohn is a hard-core TG member who has been involved in many of the group’s offshore companies and secret trusts. She is regarded by the Financial Police as having played a central role in the Humanitarian Fund. She was a board member of ‘IFAS’, one of the TG’s alleged subsidiary ‘environmental projects’ that prosecutors assert was a front for laundering money. She was cited several times in the prosecutor’s 2001 Tvind case summary, but never charged. In 2002 she was one of eight TG members separately charged with money laundering in Belgium, but acquitted for lack of evidence.
As per usual with Tvind projects, TG Pacifico has drawn allegations of fraud and corruption. In 2006 an informant contacted Tvind Alert, writing that the TG had been allowed to proceed with construction of the facility in spite of Mexican laws forbidding ownership of coastal properties by non-Mexicans, and had ignored restrictions on drilling for wells.
There have even been allegations that the TG holds no legal title for three-quarters of the property. According to our informant, Krohn and Bolette Gunst acquired 557 hectares (1,376 acres) from an intermediary who had recently left prison, and who did not hold legal title to the property. The original owners were left dispossessed.
“People [in Baja] call them ‘The European Mafia’. There is no redress because they buy everybody — delegates, lawyers, authorities, more people than your mind can imagine,” our informant alleged.
Tvind asked prosecutors to drop case
In a new development, BT reports that in 2019, Petersen or other Tvind officials tried to persuade Denmark’s Financial Police to dismiss all charges against the organisation. This is shown in an excerpt of a letter that BT has obtained and authenticated. Titled Tvindsagen [the Tvind case], the letter is signed by Chief Legal Officer, Per Justesen of the Financial Police, which in 2012 merged with another agency and was officially renamed the Public Prosecutor for Serious Economic and International Crime (Danish acronym: SØIK).
The letter refers to a ‘request for waiver of prosecution’, which the Financial Police received after a 20 December, 2018 meeting at its headquarters with Tvind representatives. The correspondence appears to continue into 2019.
BT interviewed Birgitte Vestberg, a Danish lawyer and retired public prosecutor in international criminal cases. She commented that for Tvind “it makes sense to request a waiver of prosecution. It means he [Petersen] or they [other TG leaders] would like the Public Prosecutor to withdraw the appeal case. … It’s equivalent to having the slate cleaned, so that the charges are dropped before any indictment is filed.”
The letter, translated from the Danish, reads:
The Tvind case
By letter of 29 January, as a follow-up to the meeting of SØIK on December 20, 2018, you have submitted a request for waiver of prosecution, and request that a new meeting be held as soon as possible. You have also requested acknowledgment of receipt of the request.
By letter of February 12, 2019, you have demanded a response.
I acknowledge receipt of your letter of January 29, 2019 and announce that I expect to reply within a month.
With kind regards,
Per Justesen, Chief Lawyer
It isn’t clear whether the letter refers to the whole tax evasion case, parts of it, or new charges in the Tvind case. It’s also not clear who sent the request, as BT possesses only an excerpt.
John Korsø Jensen, Petersen’s lawyer, is aware of the letter and acknowledges that it came from the Financial Police. But he told BT that the letter contains “some nonsense,” without specifying what’s incorrect. He added “the letter has nothing to do with a waiver of prosecution, to put it bluntly.”
When BT pointed out that the letter directly refers to a prosecution waiver request in the Tvind case, Jensen deflected by advising the newspaper to “ask the Financial Police” about it.
The Financial Police declined to comment to BT on the case, except to confirm that it’s still pending.
Danish politicians: Bring Amdi home
BT interviewed two of the Danish parliament’s legal affairs spokespersons, who expressed profound frustration and embarrassment that Petersen lives free in Mexico.
“I can only encourage the government to take it up with their Mexican counterparts so that he can be extradited,” said Preben Bang Henriksen, of the centre-right political party, Venstre. “It shouldn’t be possible in a case like this to hide, as Mogens Amdi Petersen does. He should return to Denmark and to a judge,” he told BT.
Kristian Hegaard, of the social-liberal party, the Radicals, said “Even though it’s quite a few years back, this type of tax fraud is essential to get to the bottom of. The Minister of Justice should have an adult talk with the Mexicans.”
Henriksen and Hegaard aren’t alone in their opinion. In April 2017, when then-Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, travelled to Mexico on a state visit, many in Denmark’s parliament saw it as an opportunity to increase pressure on the country to finally secure Petersen’s extradition. Rasmussen did raise the issue in a meeting with then-Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto. But the request was denied, with Peña Nieto explaining Mexico’s policy of not recognizing an extradition on the basis of an appeal case.
Amdi still in charge
BT has obtained an internal TG document that suggests the elderly Petersen still pulls Tvind’s strings from his Mexican compound.
The newspaper describes the document as a kind of vision statement for 2019 and 2020. It is signed ‘KLAP’: the initials for Kirsten Larsen and Amdi Petersen.
The vision describes a strategy for how the TG will change first the African country of Mozambique and then the world. Tvind has many projects in Mozambique.
“Following the detailed consequential ladder from dream to plan we should dream big and plan common sense,” reads the introduction in English.
It goes on to say “Our vision, strategy, tactics and vision are to change our TG Country [the country where the group operates] and establish connecting links with Mozambique and then the world.”
According to BT, the document doesn’t explain how this is all to happen.
BT interviewed Jes Fabricius Møller, a historian and author of På Sejrens Vej [On Victory’s Road], a 1999 book about Tvind. He has read the document and says that “rattling English and lofty idealism” is typical of Tvind.
“One detects a certain revolutionary rhetoric in it. Not in a classical form, but because it’s based on the fact that Tvind knows better. They have seen the light,” says Møller.
He adds: “Amdi is getting up in age and likely not running on all his cylinders. [The document] is for internal use and will probably be used to mobilize forces within Tvind. It’s also a way of emphasizing that the Old Man is alive.”