A religious sect whose members professed to be “anointed by God” forced a pregnant woman and five of her children to walk through fire as part of a cult ritual, according to local residents.
Police reported seven villagers had been killed by the cult earlier this week, while 14 more were found by authorities the next day, bound and beaten in a temple.
The cult, known as “The New Light of God”, is made up of indigenous people who claim to be chosen by God to sacrifice non-believers, even if the heretics are members of the own families, according to residents in El Terron, Panama.
Nine villagers have been arrested and charged with murder, reportedly including a grandfather and two uncles of the five children who died alongside their pregnant mother and a neighbour.
“Nobody expected this,” said a distraught tribal leader, Evangelisto Santo, who added that local people had largely ignored the religious group.
The sect arose after a villager returned to El Terron following a stint abroad, bringing back unusual religious beliefs with him.
“People were dancing and singing and nobody paid attention because we knew that they were in the presence of God,” Mr Santo said of the group.
That was before one of the cult members announced that he had had a vision, which told him everyone in the village had to repent their sins or die.
Last weekend, members of the sect began dragging victims into an improvised church, where they beat them into submission with sticks.
Cult members also stood with machetes ready to attack those who failed to repent to their satisfaction.
El Terron is nestled in the jungle of the indigenous Ngabe Bugle enclave on Panama’s Caribbean coast and is largely cut off from the modern world.
Many in the community, which is home to about 300 people and gets by growing yuca and rice, are Roman Catholics.
On Thursday, local prosecutor Rafael Baloyes described what investigators found when they arrived at the scene of the massacre.
“They searched this family out to hold a ritual and they massacred them, mistreated them, killed practically the whole family,” Mr Baloyes said.
“They were performing a ritual inside the structure. In that ritual, there were people being held against their will, being mistreated.
“All of these rites were aimed at killing them, if they did not repent their sins.”
Josue Gonzalez, a farmer, managed to rescue two of his children – a 5-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy – from the attack, while a 15-year-old son escaped on his own.
However, he was not able to save his pregnant wife and five of their other children before authorities arrived by helicopter and found Mr Gonzalez’s wife, the children and a neighbour decapitated and buried.
The cult members charged in the case reportedly include Mr Gonzalez’s own father, and villagers have said two of Mr Gonzalez’s brothers had declared themselves prophets of the cult.
Authorities could not confirm these arrests to AP.
Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies specialising in Latin America at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the incident was consistent with the practices of some extremist cults.
“Within the logic of religious sacrifices in some extremist cults, there’s no greater proof of faith than to turn over the life of a loved one or family member,” Mr Chesnut said.
Additional reporting by AP