Catalina is accustomed to theatrics. As a talent agent living in Buenos Aires, she represents celebrities for a living. Yet when two of her playwright friends invited her to join a women’s self-help group on WhatsApp that included a number of famous actresses, she figured it would remain private. Catalina, whose name has been changed to prevent retaliation, had no idea that by signing up for the telar, she would soon be embroiled in a nationwide scandal.

Telares de abundancia, which loosely translates to “looms of abundance,” are get-rich-quick schemes that take the form of support groups, and they are increasingly common in Argentina and the rest of Latin America. They’re social networks that promise their members’ dreams — both financial and emotional — will come true in exchange for total devotion and an initial cash investment. Built on New Age beliefs, telares are structured like classic Ponzi schemes: According to a former telar member, new inductees start out at the “earth” level, and as they invite more people to join, they advance — to “wind,” “fire,” “water.” Once an individual recruits two members, they receive a “gift” of $11,520, or eight times what they initially put in. At that point, they have the option of starting their own group. The model dates back to the 1990s, but telares have blown up across Argentina in recent years, thanks to Facebook and WhatsApp.

When Catalina joined her telar, she was asked to pay an initial fee of $1,440, about three times her monthly salary, to a single mother named Dalia. This down payment gave Catalina access to a WhatsApp group and weekly meetings as well as to a Google folder full of hokey images and inspirational quotes steeped in spirituality. The telar had only about 15 members, but observing the camaraderie among the women eased some of the anxieties Catalina initially had about it. It wasn’t just that her friends had invited her or that the telar counted some of Argentina’s best-known stars among its members, Catalina was drawn to the “one for all, and all for one” spirit and the emotional and financial solidarity that came with it. Everything the group shared was rooted in women’s empowerment. “I was gripped by the allure of sisterhood,” Catalina recalled. “Fulfilling your dreams. Destroying your fears.”

Catalina first heard about the telar in February 2019, a tumultuous time for Argentina. Violence against women was on the rise, and the country was swept up in a debate over whether to legalize abortion. Homegrown feminist movements were suddenly put under an international spotlight. That March, hundreds of thousands of people participated in national strikes and marched on International Women’s Day, the streets dotted with the movement’s emblematic green scarves. Online, activists organized around hashtags such as #NiUnaMenos and #YaNoNosCallamosMás. Women found spaces for intimate exchanges on social media and in WhatsApp groups, often under the old feminist slogan “The personal is political.”

This moment created a new, feminist vocabulary — which some people were happy to exploit. Telar creators co-opted the rhetoric of activism and spread it on the same platforms that incubated the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements. But the appeal wasn’t only political: After years of currency devaluation, Argentina’s economy was on shaky ground, and a potential lifeline, even if it risked being a scam, was something to be taken seriously. This was especially true for women, who, in Argentina, have higher levels of unemployment. Ariel Wilkis, an Argentine sociologist who studies money and relationships, characterized telares as relying on a combination of vulnerability and magical thinking. “People take costly risks because they need money and bet that the risks will pay off,” he told Rest of World. “This means that the most implausible systems seem feasible.” And indeed, to many, telares represented an opportunity for financial independence that would otherwise be unattainable.

Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images

Unfortunately for Catalina, within weeks of joining her telar, it began to attract negative attention. The national news outlet Infobae leaked an audio recording of actress and director Jazmín Stuart trying to recruit women from the entertainment sector. The Argentine press, and Twitter, went on the attack. “Do you know that you are a white-collar criminal disguised as a new age feminist?” tweeted one prominent radio host at Stuart. “Every time I hear audio of you explaining how to scam people, I ask myself whether you’re being blackmailed or if you’re just an asshole who can’t do math.”

Meanwhile, Catalina was still stuck on the second level of the telar: wind, tasked with whisking new people into the group. She had hundreds of megabytes of files to help with her recruitment efforts, including many images that might hang in a dentist’s office. “Sometimes your enthusiasm can ignite many,” read one, superimposed on an image of a lit match with a smiley face. She never managed to persuade anyone to join.

After her telar became a public target, the spiritual rhetoric and words of support quickly vanished. At that point, everyone in the telar who hadn’t yet gotten paid realized that they wouldn’t be getting their $11,520 so-called gift. “The sisterhood went to shit,” Catalina said. “Everyone was just fighting for their riches.” Newer recruits tried to get those who had already cashed out to return their money, but many refused. Catalina created a new WhatsApp group with the goal of imploring her fellow telarinas to return the payments. Everyone blocked her.

As with all pyramid schemes, it takes only one person’s failing to recruit two others for the structure to completely fall apart. This is why most telarinas never make it past the first stage and, like Catalina, never recoup their initial payment. Mathematically, the exponential growth required to expand the network means that telares could work only if the population, and its financial resources, were infinite.

Because of their informal structure, it’s difficult to estimate how much money is tied up in telares. Eva Sacco, an Argentine economist and mathematician, explains that cash is often given in person, in envelopes, and treated as a personal gift. “It’s much more difficult to estimate [numbers] because these are not classic schemes where you have an easily quantifiable list of people. They are not registered as commercial transactions, so there’s no way of registering them as a payment,” she said. These challenges are compounded by the fact that there often isn’t a single person running a telar, although more-senior members of the organization sometimes serve as hermanas mayores (“big sisters”), guiding new recruits and making sure the system functions smoothly. 

While there hasn’t been much data collected about telares, or how many people have joined them, there has been a handful of high-profile arrests. In 2018, a woman in the western province of La Rioja was apprehended for running a network that ensnared 1,500 people and took in about $100,000. The following year, Argentina’s top prosecutorial office issued a warning that the networks could be covers for scams. The telar de las actrices, however, was the highest-profile bust. In its wake, entire segments of prime-time TV were dedicated to explaining how telares worked.

Despite all the red flags, women continue to join. As the economy has worsened, telares have become ubiquitous on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, informal credit scams have also begun to pop up on regional payment apps like Ualá and Mercado Pago. Yet in order to succeed, telares have to continually recruit new members, which adds an extra level of complication: Not every person who joins a telar becomes a victim.

This year, the Incan winter solstice, Inti Raymi, fell on June 22. If not for the pandemic, Micaela (an alias) and ten of her fellow telarinas would have celebrated together in Peru. After so many months of being in touch only through Zoom and WhatsApp, the women wanted to meet in Cuzco to celebrate in person. But as has happened with all plans in the time of Covid-19, the reunion was canceled.

Micaela, who is from Argentina, has lived in Peru’s Sacred Valley for the past four years. She entered her telar over a year ago, joining more than 50,000 women across South America. Unlike Catalina, Micaela didn’t have to make her $1,440 payment immediately. The woman who was set to receive her gift let Micaela pay in installments, telling her she trusted her. And when it was Micaela’s turn to enter the wind phase, she had no trouble finding new members, recruiting two tour guides traveling in Cuzco, an Italian and an Argentine. 

After only 13 months, Micaela collected her $7,200 gift, which she used to take time off to spend with her newborn son. She worked her way to the highest level of the telar — “ether” — which means she now serves as a guide for new members. “I accompany them as a guardian. I’m there to advise them and encourage them by showing my experience of having received a gift — the sign that the telar works,” she explained. Both of her recruits have also received their gifts and put the money to good use: One opened a yoga studio, and the other a natural-products shop.

Micaela said she had never heard of the telar de las actrices. Still, she’s upset that they would give telares a bad name. “Telares fail when they don’t have women who are truly united in sisterhood,” she said. Micaela understands that telares are not for everyone, that some people have issues with joining a group that requires members to immediately hand over money to a woman they don’t know. But they’re building an alternative economy, their members claim — one based on solidarity. It might be built on dubious math, but what economy isn’t? Telares merely reflect the financial and social systems that have made them necessary.

“It kills me when someone calls it a scam,” Micaela said.

As the economic crisis mounts in Argentina and Latin America, ploys like the telares will become even more appealing to those struggling to stay afloat, and digital networks are only exacerbating the problem. Through payment apps, Facebook groups, and WhatsApp chats, people have easy access to schemes too attractive to turn down, which are given a veneer of respectability by the language of social justice. But the problem at the heart of the telares is that neither resources nor individuals are unlimited. Micaela may have been one of the few to receive her gift, but the vast majority will not be so lucky. For someone to win, there must always be someone who loses.