When Mirian, a 45-year-old health worker from Buenos Aires, first heard about Generación Zoe, it seemed like a stroke of serendipity. She had just collected a severance payment from a previous job, when a friend suggested she invest in what was sold to her as a sure bet.
Founded by Leonardo Cositorto, a popular media personality with a rags-to-riches tale, Generación Zoe pitched itself as an “educational and resource-creating community for personal, professional, financial and spiritual development.” Generación Zoe claimed to make money through trading, and promised a 7.5% monthly return on investment for three years for those who put money into its “trust.” In Argentina and other countries, other companies with the Zoe name peddled a similar narrative.
Mirian, who asked to be identified only by her first name out of fear of retaliation from people involved in Generación Zoe, was convinced. She felt like fate and “energies” had brought Zoe into her life at just the right time. So, in August 2021, she visited one of Zoe’s brick-and-mortar branches in the wealthy Núñez neighborhood in the northern part of the city, and handed over $1,000.
It was clear to her that she’d made the right decision. Over the next weeks and months, Mirian watched her savings grow exponentially on Zoe’s online dashboard. Two months after joining, she put more money in, persuaded by Zoe’s latest product: “robots” that could allegedly predict market fluctuations and double your initial investment in just three months.
But for Mirian, Generación Zoe wasn’t just about the money. The program branded itself as an opportunity for personal development — it included a “university” that offered courses on ontological coaching, a type of philosophical practice popular in some Argentine business circles. She attended daily virtual meetings, sometimes with Cositorto himself as coach. She passed exams with flying colors and went to in-person meetings for women in the Zoe community. She recalled being astonished by the abundance of food laid out. “They invited us to everything,” she told Rest of World. “They never asked for a tithe.”
Mirian was fascinated by the mix of spiritualism and financial education Generación Zoe offered, and its emphasis on women’s empowerment. She invited her mother to invest, and upgraded her own membership by putting in more money — her $1,000 initial investment went up to $5,000. She said she felt a special energy flowing among Zoe’s members. “I am in the perfect place,” she recalled thinking. “I love it.”
Over 2020 and 2021, more than ten thousand people bought into Zoe, investing hundreds of millions of dollars between them. Zoe grew rapidly, hyping new tech innovations including the “robots” and a cryptocurrency called Zoe Cash. Its interests and visibility expanded: The Zoe name appeared on burger joints, car dealerships, a plane rental company, and pet shops, all emblazoned with its name. It sponsored soccer teams and even created three of its own. Cositorto’s face was seemingly everywhere. He gave interviews for major TV channels, radios, and newspapers in Argentina, where he was introduced as an expert on cryptocurrency or leadership.
Zoe also spread beyond Argentina to other countries in Latin America and further afield, including Mexico, Paraguay, Colombia, Spain, and the U.S.
Towards the end of 2021, however, the shine began to wear off, as authorities began looking into Zoe’s activities. The same media organizations that had lauded Cositorto as an innovator were now throwing around accusations, calling Generación Zoe a pyramid scheme. Zoe members reported being unable to withdraw the funds they had put into trusts or “robots,” and in early 2022, the value of Zoe Cash plummeted. Angry investors banged on the doors of Zoe’s branches, and investigations against Zoe and Cositorto piled up across Latin America, Spain, and the U.S.
By March 2022, a handful of high-profile names involved with Zoe in Argentina had been arrested, or were wanted by the authorities. In April, Interpol traced Cositorto to a luxury Airbnb in the Dominican Republic and extradited him to Argentina, where he was charged with illicit association and fraud. Investigators estimate that people invested at least $120 million in Zoe during its last six months of operations from Argentina alone.
Zoe’s rise came amid a global frenzy in consumer trading of stocks and cryptocurrency. Between 2020 and 2022, the value of cryptocurrencies rose dramatically, and stock trading apps like Robinhood saw a boom in popularity. This correlated with a period of economic insecurity for many countries; since 2018, Argentina has been grappling with record-high inflation and a drastic currency devaluation.
Alongside this investment fever came many frauds, thefts, and crashes. Prosecutors have accused Cositorto of running an age-old scam. Behind its facade of crypto and trading tech, they claimed, Zoe was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.
Based on legal documents and interviews with lawyers, alleged victims, and Zoe leaders including Cositorto himself, Rest of World tracked how Zoe captured minds and wallets in Argentina and beyond — and how it then came crashing down.
Initially, Mirian supported Cositorto, even after his arrest. But eventually, she too lost faith in Zoe. She had lost all the money she put in. “It was all a fictitious cloud,” she said.
When Rest of World visited Cositorto at the Bouwer prison in Córdoba in October 2022, he was awaiting trial — prosecutor Juliana Companys expects it to happen sometime this year. A heavyset man with a clean-shaven head, Cositorto denied the charges against him and told Rest of World that the reason for his downfall was simple: People were jealous of his success. “It seems that people are very envious that a bookseller bought the biggest mansion in Latin America,” he said.
Leonardo Cositorto was 16 years old when he faced his first entrepreneurial rite of passage. It was the late 1980s, and he was a slim teenager, with a full head of hair. His father Guillermo, who had owned a bookstore that closed down during one of Argentina’s many economic crises, decided to mentor him in the art of selling books door-to-door. The way Cositorto tells it, he soon overcame a crippling stutter and proved to have a natural gift. At 21, wanting to spread his wings, he traveled to Spain to become what he calls a “professional salesman.” He told Rest of World that he then got a job working for DS-MAX, a multinational direct sales company that specialized in selling discount merchandise, books, and coupons.
It was a piece of cake, he said: Coming from Argentina, a country where inflation was rising to 3,000% at the time, selling anything in a stable economy felt easy. It was around this time that Cositorto first heard the words “network marketing.” By the age of 24, he claimed, he had made one million dollars.
Cositorto returned to Buenos Aires in 1994. Over the next couple of decades, he said, he opened and closed several of his own direct sales businesses, including selling perfumes and prepaid calling cards. According to Cositorto, it was around then that he met Maximiliano Batista, who would become his friend and a partner in Generación Zoe.
Cositorto also explored other, more spiritual interests. In 2003, he was ordained as a Christian minister and started studying ontological coaching — a wide discipline that focuses on identifying and changing attitudes and behavior for personal development; it was a growing trend in the country’s business circles.
Cositorto says that with Batista as his right hand, he created the first version of Generación Zoe in 2017, with an idea to combine tourism and ontological coaching by taking coaching clients on trips. But it really clicked in 2019, when he discovered a new universe: “the digital world and stock trading.” Generación Zoe offered customers courses on stock trading, but it also claimed to venture into the investment arena directly. It promised a monthly return of 7.5% over three years on any investments over $500.
“I generated a new disruptive model, a new offer in the Latin American market, [so that] people with low and medium income could access a privileged education,” Cositorto would say in his first deposition.
Zoe grew during 2020, but it really took off in 2021. By 2022, the organization had expanded to other countries in Latin America, and the U.S., and claimed to have 75 branches across the world — sometimes appearing as different companies that included the Zoe name. Inside the centers, which looked like a cross between a bank branch and a classroom, members could take classes on a range of topics and deposit cash. According to the testimonies of alleged Zoe victims, stacks of dollars circulated with little to no security.
Zoe’s growing success was highly visible. A plethora of enterprises flourished under its name. Cositorto even created his own Zoe-branded church, “Aviva Zoe,” promoted as “the church for broken people.”
During one of the church “masses,” on a stage next to a live band, a pastor blessed Cositorto and Batista. “We will be the spiritual reform, the educational reform, the political reform, the financial reform. Because God is with us,” he said, after anointing both of them with oil.
However, one branch recently denied that their church had anything to do with Zoe and scrapped “Zoe” from its name. They said they had named it “Zoe” in gratitude for donations the company made to the church.
Cositorto himself never shied away from the limelight, hobnobbing with prominent businesspeople and politicians, and regularly taking to radio and TV to tout his company and share his views. In a radio interview in November 2021, he called the Covid-19 pandemic — which by then had claimed some 116,000 Argentine lives — a “plandemic.” Cositorto has since said that he paid for media appearances like these, and used them to push Zoe’s “leadership” courses. Generación Zoe appeared to be constantly innovating. One of Cositorto’s most prominent former protégés, Rosa María González Rincón, joined in March 2021, and soon became “trading director” at Generación Zoe. (González Rincón previously participated in IM Academy, a group that claims to teach how to invest in cryptocurrencies. Spanish police are currently investigating it for fraud.)
At Generación Zoe, González Rincón claimed to have invented the “robots” that became the organization’s crown jewel. “I developed a robot, that is no more than a signal system that works through mathematical and statistical models, which predicts how much the market is going up or down,” she said in a YouTube video uploaded by Zoe in July 2021. In the video, intercut with stock footage of robots and stock exchanges, González Rincón shows a graph on her cellphone, purportedly of a “market operation” in which she earned $124. But what really put Generación Zoe on the map was Zoe Cash, a cryptocurrency launched in September 2021. Cositorto claimed Zoe Cash was backed by gold from gold mines that it owned. “One gram, one coin. One gram, one coin. One gram, one coin!” he chanted at the launch event in a hotel in Buenos Aires’ Puerto Madero neighborhood.
In a YouTube video of the event, Cositorto sounds exultant, waving around his index finger as he walks through a cheering crowd. “They laughed at us when we said our currency is backed by gold,” he says. “Yesterday, we made the second payment [to purchase] our gold mine, now we have two of them!”
From around June 2021 to the beginning of 2022, Zoe fever spread across Argentina. Karina López, 44, from Buenos Aires, was among the believers. Her 19- and 22-year-old kids had made a good profit trading other cryptocurrencies during the pandemic, and López felt she had no reason to doubt Zoe.
“They had sweetened my ear,” she told Rest of World over a phone call. “They [said] that they were releasing a cryptocurrency, that they had an arrangement with Visa to release a credit card, that they worked with soccer players, that they had a plane rental company.” According to López, Zoe representatives promised to give her back five times what she invested.
In the city of Villa María, 500 kilometers west of Buenos Aires, Marcelo Peñaloza, a bus driver, invested $650 into Zoe’s “trust.” It was roughly half his monthly salary. He said a Zoe representative at his local branch had promised a 7.5% monthly return on his investment, and he planned to use the money for a family vacation. At the time, inflation in Argentina had hit 94.8%, and Argentines like Peñaloza were struggling to keep up. “Today, workers can’t save money, it gets devalued every day,” he told Rest of World.
Some of the individuals involved in Zoe had prestigious pedigrees, which helped persuade Peñaloza that it was a legitimate operation: High-profile former judge Héctor Yrimia presented himself as the “legal director” of the group; former policeman and ontological coach Miguel Echegaray was in charge of handling Generación Zoe’s money; and actor and comedian Gabriel González, who featured in the popular TV show Pasión de Sábado, promoted Zoe heavily. In the big finale of his play, The Carlos Paz Game (inspired by Korean TV series Squid Game), González gave contestants what he claimed was $500 worth of Zoe Cash as a prize. He later said he was only a “student” of Cositorto.
Peñaloza said nobody told him to invest, but in an 88,000-population town like Villa María, it was noticeable when his neighbors — whom he knew to have invested in Zoe — were doing well for themselves. “You just thought, ‘Why not me?’”
Gloria, a hairdresser also based in Villa María, told Rest of World she was inspired to invest in Zoe after attending a seemingly unrelated event in October 2021. (Gloria asked to use a pseudonym out of fears that being associated with the scandal could affect her career.) For the previous five years, she had volunteered her skills by making free wigs for cancer patients. She was invited to talk about her campaign at a “Women and Leadership” conference in a luxurious four-star hotel. She remembers speaking about her work, but also being distracted. One week earlier, she herself had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she didn’t have enough money to pay for her treatment.
Little did she know that the conference had been organized by Generación Zoe to attract potential investors. During a break, said Gloria, a Zoe “leader” in Villa María told attendees about her trips to Mexico, her new car, and her new lifestyle. In the hotel’s restroom, another Zoe representative approached Gloria and told her about “robots” that magically made money. Gloria told her about her own situation, sharing that she planned to sell her van just to pay for the treatment. “Come to the office and invest it,” Gloria recalled the representative saying.
Gloria went to Zoe’s Villa María branch with her husband. She put $2,000 into the trust and $2,000 into a “robot.” After one month, she seemed to have made a $1,710 profit on her investment. But instead of withdrawing the funds, she was convinced to reinvest in a newly launched “Christmas robot,” and then in a “January Christmas robot,” which promised even bigger returns. She invested an additional $12,000 — it was all of the family’s money.
Six other investors who spoke to Rest of World shared similar stories: Just when they were about to collect their money from Zoe, another, more tempting investment opportunity appeared.
Members were also offered a cut if they got others to join. “They don’t put a gun to your head to bring in people, but if you did, they gave you 20% of what that person invested,” Sofia, a former Zoe member from Córdoba, told Rest of World. Sofia asked to use a pseudonym because she had received threats in Zoe WhatsApp and Telegram groups.
Sofia convinced her in-laws to invest. “Zoe took a part of me that I didn’t know, that involved this feeling of, ‘If they can do it and are earning 10,000, 20,000 or 50,000 dollars per month, why can’t I?’” she said. “[Cositorto] connected very well that part of each person.”
In retrospect, she feels ashamed for being swept up in the excitement. “I am a transpersonal psychologist and a bio-decoder [a type of alternative therapist], so I come from social sciences,” she said. “I should have realized I had fallen in the hands of a narcissist psychopath.”
While members were being pushed to invest more, some outside observers began to have doubts about what Zoe really was. Activist Pablo Salum, in his 40s, began to suspect something was off in late 2021. In the late 80s, Salum’s family had been recruited into a cult disguised as a yoga school, “Escuela de Yoga,” which operated over nearly three decades and was dismantled in August 2022. Sixteen of its members were charged with illicit association, human trafficking, and money laundering, and an investigation into its operations is still ongoing.
Salum escaped in 1991 at the age of 14, and immediately made it his life’s mission to bring down other similar groups.
In October 2021, Salum came across a leaked video on Cositorto’s social media — it was a longer version of the video where Cositorto had launched Zoe Cash. In a hotel event room, Cositorto passes the microphone to members of the audience and asks how much they “won” with Zoe, which they answer. Salum felt something was off. He uploaded the clip to his YouTube channel in November. “Does ‘pyramid scheme’ ring a bell?” he asked his audience. “See how this guy manipulates this group. He should be in prison.”
Soon after, Salum filed a lawsuit against Cositorto for “human trafficking” — since Argentina does not have laws against cults, this was the closest legal term he could find for what he viewed as coercive practices. He told the media at the time that Cositorto threatened him, and that he received death threats as a result of the lawsuit (Cositorto has denied this in interviews).
Salum found other Zoe skeptics online. In February 2022, he teamed up with an anonymous user who goes by the name Beto Mendeleiev. Mendeleiev told Rest of World he found Cositorto to be an “eccentric” character. “A smoke seller,” he wrote in a Twitter direct message. “I stumbled upon the gold mines videos and I said to myself, ‘This is great.’ I started to research the case more deeply then.” Mendeleiev chose to remain anonymous, due to his fear of threats.
Soon after, a third Twitter user joined Salum and Mendeleiev’s squad — Javier Smaldone, a computer security researcher.
Smaldone started to make posts related to Generación Zoe because, he said, he found Cositorto’s promises funny. “It was like a joke,” he told Rest of World in a Buenos Aires bar in October.
But when Smaldone came to understand the scale of the operation, he started investigating Zoe more seriously. He searched for information online and in the government’s official bulletins. “There you can find, for example, every company owned by Leonardo Cositorto,” he said. “I download photos or videos that I think they might delete. For example, [Zoe co-leader] Maximiliano Batista’s Instagram was deleted, but I could download part of it.”
Mendeleiev, Smaldone, and Salum published videos from Cositorto’s “masses” and Zoom meetings, and shared Zoe’s crudely edited promotional flyers. They revealed high-ranking members and their roles in the organization, and exposed their ties with politicians. From the beginning, Smaldone and Mendeleiev accused Generación Zoe of being a “pyramid scheme.” Salum goes further; he alleges that Zoe is a “coercive organization.”
In videos, media interviews, and legal testimony, Cositorto and his partners often accuse these Twitter users of being the reason for Zoe’s downfall. But by the fall of 2021, officials had started looking into Zoe as well.
In September 2021, Paraguay’s National Securities Commission released a statement revealing that Zoe Capital, Zoe’s company in Paraguay, was not authorized to operate in the country. That month, Paraguayan police raided Zoe Capital’s branch in Asunción, investigating potential fraud. They detained four people, whom they interrogated and later released.
In October, Argentina’s National Securities Commission made a formal request to Generación Zoe, the Trading University (Zoe’s educational arm), and Cositorto to stop offering “marketable securities.”
A month later, in Villa María, prosecutor Juliana Companys started investigating the local Zoe branch after receiving a tip from an anonymous caller.
In Córdoba province, which includes Villa María, it is the responsibility of the prosecutor to lead investigations. Companys, whom local media has labeled as “tough” and “unyielding,” started tapping the phones of local Zoe leaders. She also began looking into the videos published by Zoe members and by the squad of Twitter vigilantes, which she said were instrumental to the investigation. She soon came to believe that Zoe was a front.
“There was no technology involved whatsoever,” she told Rest of World in October 2022. “It was a textbook scam.”
She dismisses the existence of the “robots” with their promises of high returns. “[That technology] doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, because if it did, everyone would become a millionaire overnight,” she said. “Nobody saw that software, nobody saw their money doubled. There are no registered earnings from it.”
Companys also called in a stockbroker to analyze what González Rincón, the “robot” creator, had said in her classes and public appearances. In his statement, the broker said González Rincón didn’t know what she was talking about. Companys also spoke to people who had taken González Rincón’s classes — they told her they didn’t understand what she had said either.
Companys also claimed that Zoe Cash could never have worked the way Cositorto said, and that his organization never owned any gold mines. “By law, gold mines aren’t for sale in Argentina,” she told Rest of World. “Gold mines belong to the Argentine state and are exploited by tenderers, and they can’t be yielded. That never existed.”
Most damningly, Companys said that an analysis of Zoe bank accounts revealed that the organization’s only revenue was “the contributions of the different victims.”
Apart from just 1% invested in Bitcoin, “there were no investments at all,” she said.
According to Companys, the organization was almost completely broke by December 2021. That’s when Generación Zoe launched its “Christmas robot,” which promised a 100% return over seven months and convinced people like Gloria, the hairdresser, to reinvest. Two months later, a new “January Christmas robot” promised even greater returns — 100% over three months.
Later, when the criminal case against Cositorto and other Zoe leaders began, the broker testifying for Companys would point out how unlikely this level of returns was. “It is insane,” he would say in his deposition.
But, despite her findings, Companys couldn’t order any raids unless a victim came forward with a complaint.
On February 17, 2022, Marcelo Peñaloza, the bus driver, went to collect his money from Generación Zoe. At that point, he had invested $1,000 into a “robot” on top of his initial $650 investment. But when he got to the Villa María branch, it was closed. He walked the three blocks to Companys’ office, knocked on her door, and filed a formal complaint.
The next day, Companys ordered 11 simultaneous raids on Generación Zoe’s headquarters in Villa María and the homes of people associated with the company.
But the Zoe offices were empty; even the computers were gone. Only the furniture remained.
Companys told Rest of World there had been a tipoff. “There were members of the federal and the provincial police that tipped off [the organization] about the raid at 2:30 in the morning, so they emptied everything.” She said that law enforcement had a vested interest in Zoe’s success. “[The police officers] were investors. They considered Zoe was something that gave them a lot of money, and they had plans to leave the force.”
Five police officers were subsequently arrested. One was charged with “aggravated concealment.”
Meanwhile, Companys issued a warrant for Cositorto’s arrest, but he had already fled the country. As the investigation progressed, he went on the offensive.
In February 2022, Cositorto hired media-friendly lawyer Miguel Pierri, who started an aggressive campaign. He filed a complaint against Companys in May for “violating guarantees and rights.”
“It was an intimidation tactic,” Companys told Rest of World. The prosecutor general’s office gave her its full support.
Even as more and more Zoe members found themselves unable to access their money, some still came to Cositorto’s defense.
Mirian, the health worker who had invested part of her severance pay, remained convinced that Cositorto was the real deal, and that banks and governments wanted to bring him and Zoe down. An avid Twitter user, she organized a group to defend Cositorto online. She filmed a tutorial for other Zoe believers, explaining the best hours to tweet, the most effective things to share, and how to retweet and amplify each other’s posts.
“We had people from Peru, from Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, and none of them even had an idea of what Twitter even was. We had to open accounts for them,” she recalled.
Mirian woke up at 3 a.m. every day to coordinate the team across time zones. The troop managed to get hashtags such as #BeStrongLeo, #ISupportLeo, #WeAreAllZoe, and #GetOutCompanys trending. “Testimonies supporting Leo came from all over the world,” she said.
Other supporters took to the streets to defend Cositorto. In February 2022, some 150 people marched to Buenos Aires’ Obelisk, the icon of the city, to make their point. “We are being sabotaged by the press, banks, and mentally weak people that got scared and now regret it because they see this is working,” one of them told the Clarín newspaper.
Still on the run, Cositorto held Zoom calls with Zoe members from a beach house in an undisclosed location. He kept telling them the accusations against him were lies, and that they would get through this.
Investigators didn’t know where he was broadcasting from. They could tell he had entered Colombia, but when they tracked his IP address, it corresponded to Spain. According to Companys, they found that he was using a network address translation (NAT) to disguise his location.
Meanwhile, Cositorto’s Facebook and Instagram accounts maintained a steady stream of posts. Companys contacted representatives at Meta, who revealed that the posts were being uploaded from Buenos Aires. But it was a dead end: Companys found that Cositorto’s partner was posting on his behalf.
One day, however, Cositorto got sloppy. “His mistake was that he opened Facebook and Messenger from his cellphone without NATing it,” said Companys. Meta’s data indicated that he was staying in Juan Dolio, a seaside community in the Dominican Republic.
Cositorto then uploaded a video angrily replying to Smaldone, who had claimed the Zoe leader was in Cartagena, in Colombia. “Don’t underestimate me, I will not be that easy to locate,” he said. Little did he know that authorities would locate him using that very video.
Interpol officers in Argentina and the Dominican Republic who had joined the investigation tracked Cositorto’s cellphone and found the antenna it connected to. Then, they combed through Airbnb posts in the area. In one of the listings, they recognized some of the trees, the swimming pool, and the barbecue area from Cositorto’s video. But when local police arrived at the house, he had already moved on.
In the background of his next Zoom meeting was a room with a distinctive pillar. The house had a sea view, and very showy, surfer-style decor. Investigators filtered Airbnb’s Juan Dolio offerings by the highest price and found it almost immediately.
As he tells it, on April 4, 2022, Cositorto was in the house with one other person. Cositorto told Rest of World that he went outside and saw the house surrounded by armed police officers. He didn’t immediately make the connection that they could have been there for him. “Maybe there is a complaint about drug-dealing because you’re Colombian and someone is playing a movie in their head,” he recalled saying to the other person. Cositorto sent him downstairs to see what the fuss was about.
But when he came back, he said the one thing Cositorto didn’t want to hear: “They are looking for you.”
Cositorto didn’t resist and gave up his cellphone immediately.
“I have nothing to hide,” he said.
“I know what he’s going to tell you — the same thing he tells everybody,” a prison guard warned me on arrival at the Bouwer prison in Córdoba.
It was Friday, a visiting day, and dozens of people queued up, holding boxes with goods for imprisoned relatives. I walked through four doors and gates into the prison’s interview room.
Cositorto is being held in preventive custody while he awaits his trial, which is yet to be scheduled. When I visited, he was staying in what local media has dubbed the “VIP wing” of the prison, along with other affluent prisoners. His Zoe partner and longtime friend, Maximiliano Batista, who was detained at an airport in Buenos Aires in March 2022, is also there. Batista is charged with illicit association and fraud, which he denies. Through Guillermo Dragotto, one of his lawyers – whom he shares with Cositorto – Batista told Rest of World that he only became Vice President of the company because Cositorto asked him to. “He was the only owner of Zoe,” he said. “I was a coach and motivator inside the company.” “I didn’t make a fortune and I didn’t purchase any goods. The only thing I ask is that they let me prove my innocence outside prison. Preventive custody in Córdoba is very unfair and prolonged.”
Batista and Cositorto’s lawyer, Dragotto, agreed. “People who have not been convicted are being punished in advance with a deprivation of liberty,” he said.
Cositorto sat at a table, sporting a clean-shaven head and a puffer vest, watched by two closed-circuit cameras and a prison guard. He told me that he was having a tough time. He missed his family, particularly his 17-year-old son. But, as a man of faith, Cositorto said he tried to stay calm. On the walls of his cell, he said he had written: “God gives his worstba battles to his best warriors.”
Cositorto denounced the allegations and charges against him, calling it a conspiracy concocted by people who feared his revolution. Figures in business and politics, with whom he once associated, had turned their backs on him, he claimed. He also pointed fingers at Zoe members and investors. “It’s easy to play the victim now: ‘I put 600 dollars,’” he said. “Yes, but you studied, you traveled, you sold, you collected a commission, maybe you earned more than what you invested.”
Cositorto defended the nature of his business, which he denied was operating illegally. “Here in Argentina, there is a mental issue: People believe that sales networks are ‘pyramid schemes,’” he said. “They speak from a tremendous ignorance.”
Cositorto accused Smaldone, Salum, and Mendeleiev of waging a war against him and causing a currency run on Zoe Cash. He insisted the gold mines that backed Zoe Cash were real and that entrepreneurship “takes time.” According to him, Zoe’s “robots” worked perfectly, although they required some “supervision.” He said that the 7.5% returns he had promised were not just possible — they were a small sample of what Zoe was capable of.
“We had a monthly cash flow from 40 to 50 million dollars, but we had projected way more,” he said. “We kept growing because I come from the world of networks. I come from the world of duplication.”
Despite accusations of siphoning millions from regular investors, Cositorto spoke freely about one of his lavish ambitions: He wanted to buy the most expensive mansion in Argentina, located in the city of Pilar, and sell the adjacent lands to Zoe leaders. He had planned to name it “Zoe Paradise” and create his own version of Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse for the neighborhood. Records indicate that Cositorto had even paid the first installment on the property — one million dollars, which he lost when he fled the country and couldn’t make the rest of the payments.
Cositorto also tried to distance himself from the Villa María branch of Generación Zoe, which he claimed acted autonomously and without his knowledge, out of “greed.”
Companys told Rest of World that Cositorto’s claim about Zoe’s Villa María branch going rogue doesn’t hold up. She said bank records show money being wired from Villa María to Cositorto.
After spending six months as a fugitive, Miguel Echegaray, who acted as Zoe’s accountant and has been charged with fraud and “illicit association,” went to Companys’ office. He was arrested on site. In his deposition, he said Cositorto had given every order. Héctor Yrimia, Zoe’s former legal consultant, fled the country and claimed that Cositorto tricked him. The location of González Rincón, who claimed to have created the robots, is still unknown. Cositorto claims all three of these former Zoe colleagues have betrayed him. In the months since Cositorto’s arrest, prosecutors in other regions of Argentina have been conducting investigations of their own. In Buenos Aires, lawyer Gustavo D’Elía told Rest of World he represents at least 1,800 alleged Generación Zoe victims.
On October 18, around 30 protestors gathered in front of the courthouse dealing with the case. They blew whistles, played snare drums, held signs, and waved an Argentine flag. They demanded that the prosecutor in charge, Ariel Lijo, take a more aggressive approach. “Learn from Companys,” they shouted. “Justice! We want our money back!”
Karina López, who had invested in Zoe and led the demonstration, had written a speech. But she was overcome with emotion, and couldn’t read it. She broke down and just screamed at the courthouse for help.
In Goya, a city of more than 77,000 in north Argentina, local prosecutor Patricio Palisá claimed his wife had received threats after he started investigating Zoe. Other investigations are taking place in the provinces of Salta and Santa Fe. Outside of Argentina, investigations are ongoing in Mexico, Colombia, and Spain. In March 2023, a Florida court ordered three of Zoe’s representatives in the U.S. to pay $847,159 to people they had sold “unregistered securities” to, which provided no returns.
Tales about Zoe investors who lost it all circulate among former members like ghost stories. There are people who attempted or died by suicide, people who sold their houses or quit their jobs to invest in Zoe, people whose marriages fell apart after the crash, people whose relatives stopped talking to them after they convinced them to invest — only for them to lose everything.
Not all of them have made legal complaints. One former construction worker who invested told Rest of World he had received threatening phone calls after denouncing Zoe as a scam in investors’ WhatsApp groups. “When they start saying that they know your house, your children and all that … you start to get scared,” he said, asking not to share his name or location out of fear of retaliation. “I put $3,400 [in bots]. All of my savings. Today, I have virtually nothing.”
Mirian, who organized supporters on Twitter, hears a lot of these stories. In the end, it was more of a feeling than a specific event that made her change her mind about Zoe and Cositorto.
After Cositorto was arrested, his ex-wife Laura Schwindt, with whom he remains close, took over the reins of Zoe. Mirian said she felt that Schwindt didn’t appreciate what she had done for the organization. Mirian didn’t expect money, but an “emotional payment, an energetic payment” that never came. Her faith in Zoe crumbled. Soon after, she said, she realized Zoe was “a vicious and malicious circle that dragged you.”
She has now partnered with another former investor to help alleged victims. They started a WhatsApp group called “Zoe support,” where they provide emotional support and advice to other former Zoe members. She and Smaldone, her former Twitter foe, are now good friends and talk almost every day.
For her part, Schwindt is convinced that Cositorto and Zoe will be vindicated. I met her at a Starbucks in the city of Martínez, where she recalled how she first met Cositorto. It was around the year 2000 and he was conducting a coaching course in an evangelical church. She was struck by the way he “captivated” people. They were married for 10 years.
She continues to believe in Cositorto and his ventures. “Truth will come to light. I hope it will be soon. The axis of evil and the traitors will be revealed. I am very committed to that. I have a lot of information. I think Leonardo is going to be free,” she said, sipping a cup of hibiscus tea.
At one point in our conversation, she compared Cositorto to Nelson Mandela. “Not because he is going to spend that much time [in prison], but because of his social impact. When people realize the truth and learn about his innocence, they are all going to love him,” she said.
Back in Villa María, Gloria got the money she needed for her chemotherapy from her friends. The treatment was successful. She lost her hair but chose not to wear a wig. “I have been [working] with this for so many years, that I could deal with it well,” she told Rest of World.
Peñaloza, the bus driver, appeared relatively sanguine about his experience. “I went to the races, I bet on the wrong horse, and I lost,” he told me when I met him at a local bar.
Even though he faces two charges, with a possible sentence of up to 25 years in prison, Cositorto is undeterred. He said he’s offering “spiritual coaching” classes to his fellow inmates while in jail. He said that most of his fellow inmates have opted out of the course, which he puts down to their fear of being associated with him by the authorities. Beyond these classes, Cositorto spends his time recording voice notes to be disseminated to Zoe believers, whom he still addresses as “leaders.” He typically closes his messages with four words that have become a tagline of sorts: “Big things are coming.”
Last September, he also launched a new educational company, All Us, from jail. “It is a network marketing company that has a $10 bimonthly fee. Of course, it has royalties. If you do what you have to do, in six or eight months, you can have a team of 5,000 or 10,000 people from all over the world. $1 for each one is $5,000 or $10,000 per month. They are already saying this is a pyramid scheme,” he told Rest of World.
By December, according to Schwindt, who is also overseeing All Us, he had attracted 6,000 members. Cositorto made headlines again last month following reports of an escape attempt (which he denies). According to the media, a fellow prisoner in Córdoba had sold him an escape plan that included a helicopter going into the penitentiary’s backyard and picking him up. Cositorto, reports said, would have paid $45,000 in advance for the breakout. But it turned out to be a dud — the aircraft never came. It appeared as if Cositorto had fallen for a scam.