March 14 (UPI) -- Police in Italy said Wednesday they broke up a "macrobiotic sect" that allegedly enslaved followers by limiting their diet and contact with others.
Authorities arrested 14 people in the Marche region of central Italy and five were placed under investigation on suspicion of running a criminal gang tied to slavery, mistreatment and tax evasion.
Investigators began looking into the group after a young girl alerted police of a guru promising to heal people of otherwise incurable illnesses through a special diet.
Ancona police chief Carlo Pinto told The Guardian Mario Pianes, the group's 73-year-old founder and his wife, Loredana Volpi, manipulated victims into following a strictly controlled diet known as "Ma-Pi" based on the teachings of the Japanese philosopher George Ohsawa.
Pianesi and his wife attended a mass and private meeting with Pope Francis in 2016 and he was an honorary citizen of 12 towns in Italy and across the world.
He was "well respected" in Italy and "dominated" the macrobiotic industry and used claims that he had collaborated with U.N. agencies and had the healing properties of his diet endorsed by scientific journals to discredit medical professionals, Pinto said.
"Pianesi would say that doctors were assassins, traditional medicine didn't work and that only he could help," Pinto said.
Pinto said victims were so devoted to the diet and its alleged healing effects that Pianesi was able to coerce them to give donations and unpaid labor at the association's macrobiotic centers and restaurants.
"I've never come across a case like it in my life," said Pinto. "These were people suffering from physical or mental illnesses. They were convinced that the diet did them good and in return they offered to help the macrobiotic food chain, working for free and effectively sacrificing their own life."
Pinto said the medical conditions of eight victims worsened after becoming affiliated with the sect and the diet caused one female follower's weight to drop to 77 pounds.