Angels in South America
Round Rock-based Bolivian missionary project in crisis
Ten years ago, Michael Marroquin, a Catholic lay missionary, moved from Austin to Bolivia to establish a charity foundation to help some of South America's poorest people. Now he finds himself in a Bolivian prison on suspicion of sexual assault and child-trafficking; volunteers and workers from the foundation have accused him of personal and financial improprieties, and he has been removed from the project by the Austin board that funds his work. Marroquin's imprisonment and the subsequent fallout threatens both the future of the foundation and the impoverished people of the Chapare area of Bolivia it is designed to help.
Marroquin, 47, set up the Round Rock-based Project Angels of Hope with his wife, Virginia, in 1997. Angels of Hope provides transport, education, and food to 130 children and health and dental care for adults in an area ravaged by poverty. Marroquin conceived the project, he told The Catholic Spirit last year, after he was diagnosed with lupus nephritis in 1989. The disease is commonly associated with kidney malfunction, but the chronic condition can attack the entire central nervous system, including the brain, and can cause neurologic damage. When Marroquin was diagnosed, he told the Spirit, he was given just six months to live. "I spent that time praying, hoping, despairing, and getting sicker," he said. Six months later, he was still alive, and he took that as a sign from God. "I prayed that he would show me what he wanted from me, and I kept hearing, 'Help the poor.' That's how the Angels of Hope foundation started."
In an interview this summer, Marroquin recalled that it became clear to him that God was calling him to go to Chapare: "It was like I was standing in the middle of a football stadium and every chair was filled with a loudspeaker telling me to go," he said. "It was God's will."
The project's main source of funding is a U.S. board of directors, headed by Monsignor Tom Frank of the Austin Diocese, which sends up to $9,000 per month, partly from Austin-based child sponsors called "padrinos." Frank, who counts himself among the padrinos, said last week that he has long been proud of the project and its work, that "everything looked fine," and that there had been no indication that anything was amiss. So, when the board began receiving complaints about Marroquin earlier this year, they were shocked. "It was a big surprise," Frank said.
The complaints, from workers and volunteers at the project, described increasingly irrational conduct by Marroquin – including arbitrary rages and sexual misconduct. Several project volunteers wrote letters to the foundation describing what one letter summarized as Marroquin's "unpredictable behavior and rage."
Communication with the foundation is difficult, says board member Kerry Joe Brockman – most communication is by e-mail and, occasionally, telephone. But Marroquin regularly returned to Austin to raise funds. His most recent visit was around Christmas, Brockman recalled, when he visited various congregations. During the visit, just months before the allegations reached the board, Brockman and Frank said Marroquin seemed fine. Through church activities, Brockman has known Marroquin for years and has always considered him a "genuine, caring, loving person and a very spiritual person." "He's a wonderful person – he's zany, crazy, and goofy. He is the kind of person that if you stubbed your toe in the front yard, he'd come over to comfort you. If you were working on your roof, he'd come help you out." As such, says Brockman, the recent allegations of serious criminal conduct are difficult to comprehend: "It is exactly contrary to everything I've known – 180 degrees."
In response to the complaints, on May 11 the board told Marroquin that it would no longer support his presence at the project. Five days later, after an investigation begun by international child-protection agency the Defence for Children International (Defensa de Niñas y Niños Internacional, or DNI), Marroquin was arrested by the Bolivian authorities called the Special Force in the Struggle Against Crime (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Crimen, or FELCC). He was taken to the San Sebastian prison in Cochabamba on suspicion of sexual assault against two 15-year-old girls, of trafficking in children, and of irregularities in the adoption process (i.e., forged documents) of his 7-year-old adopted Bolivian daughter. (At least one Bolivian newspaper, Los Tiempos, reported that the local Bolivian district attorney has formally charged Marroquin with sexual assault and child-trafficking. Marroquin's Bolivian lawyers deny that he has been formally charged with any crime.)
As of this writing, Marroquin remains in prison while the investigation continues.
The DNI has declined to comment on its ongoing inquiry. So far, the most disturbing allegation the DNI is investigating is a charge that Marroquin repeatedly sexually assaulted two 15-year-old Bolivian girls who live near the Project Angels of Hope. In written complaints to the U.S. board, more than one volunteer complained of feeling "physically endangered" and "extremely nervous" around Marroquin.
After Marroquin's arrest, board members contacted by e-mail said that the project should continue without Marroquin. Frank wrote, "The USA board sees a difference in the current personal difficulties of the founders, and the project itself, and we do believe that it should continue with or without the founders' presence." The board has appointed Angels of Hope's resident physician, Dr. Ramiro Angulo-Tores, as director. Interviewed in Bolivia, Angulo-Tores said that the project is running a lot better without Marroquin. "It makes us think that now we will have a better opportunity to develop."
Interviewed last month in his Cochabamba prison cell, Marroquin angrily denied all the allegations against him and accused other project members, in Bolivia and the U.S., of conspiring against him. He vowed that he would return to run Angels of Hope. "When I get out of here, I am going right back to the Chapare to get my foundation back," he said. He added that he believes he has been imprisoned so that he couldn't defend himself against an attempt by other foundation employees to get their hands on the money sent from the U.S. "I have been maliciously, falsely accused," he said. "There isn't a shred of evidence against me. They want to close the foundation over my dead body."
Virginia Marroquin, who traveled to Bolivia to support her husband and to act as an observer for the U.S. board, makes similar accusations. "I feel that all this is a result of a conspiracy of some of the local project employees in order to get Michael out of the way," she said, "and for them to take over not only his position and salary but also to personally profit from the funds sent by the U.S. board." Marroquin and his wife were unable to provide any specific evidence to support these counterclaims, and there is no public report of any official investigation into their accusations in either the U.S. or Bolivia. Frank says that Virginia Marroquin was asked to be an observer for the board but concedes that the information she has provided has been "one-sided." The project is still up and running, she told Frank, but not as well as it was when Michael was there. "She pretty much says [the charges] are trumped up against her husband," Frank said. (Frank said it appears that Virginia spent most of her trip trying to get Marroquin out of prison.) Frank said it isn't clear when the board will be able to send anyone else. So far, Brockman and Frank say, gathering the information has been difficult at best.
Meanwhile, a new board has been formed by local Bolivians to run the project in Marroquin's absence. This committee of 34 directors, led by the doctor, town council representatives, a local priest, and parents of the children at the school, has won the support of the U.S. board. "We take that as a good sign of the locals taking more ownership of a good project," Frank said. Dr. Angulo-Tores points to procedural changes that are already in place. "The new board offers transparency, security, and empowerment," he said. "It allows the people who benefit to participate in all of the processes of the foundation."
Virginia Marroquin insists the new committee is illegitimate. "This is totally illegal, since Project Angels of Hope's constitution states that only the founders have the right to elect a new committee. If this 'new committee' wants to continue, I suggest they open a new project, and I wish them luck soliciting funds to run it." She said she is currently looking into setting up a new foundation in the area, potentially drawing funds away from the existing project.
Marroquin himself not only renounced the Bolivian board but also the power of the U.S. board to support it or even to remove him from his position. "The U.S. board was only ever set up to manage the donations from people in the States," he said. He also notes that a number of the project's assets are in his name, including the school bus that transports children from poor villages to the project's site, meaning that under current circumstances, he believes only he can legally run the project.
From the board's perspective, Frank and Brockman insist they want the good work of the project to continue but that, in light of the allegations, the board was compelled to remove Marroquin. "We felt like to protect the foundation and the children, we had to separate from him," Frank said. In fact, Frank and Brockman said that the decision to remove Marroquin in part was prompted by the Catholic Church, which has developed a no-tolerance policy for sexual-abuse allegations. Although the project is not "directly operated or run by the church," Brockman says, "in the eyes of many people, we're viewed as an extension of the church. And unfortunately, the church, in going through its recent scandals, they more or less gave us a precedent that there's one strike, and you're out – or, one allegation, and you're out."
Podge Cunnane, director of the volunteering arm of the project in Chapare, says he's concerned that the conflict is going to damage the foundation as a whole. "Michael has set up a great project here, but following all that has happened, I think the best thing for him to do would be to leave it to continue with local administration – although it is ultimately up to the Bolivian people to decide," Cunnane said. "What we need now is the people in Austin to commit to their continued support. The worst thing that could happen is that the board, or the padrinos, remove their funding. I urge them to carry on and support the project, which has done so many great things. If not, all the hard work that has been done here with the support of people from Austin could be undone."
At press time, Marroquin was still in prison in Cochabamba. More information on Project Angels of Hope can be found at www.projectangelsofhope.org, although references to Michael Marroquin and the founding of the project have apparently been removed, and there is no mention of his arrest or the current controversy.
Dan Selinger is an English journalist who reported this story from the Chapare region in Bolivia, as well as via e-mail correspondence with Austin-area and other sources from Project Angels of Hope. His work was supplemented with additional reporting by Chronicle staff writer Jordan Smith.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the September 7, 2007 issue: A caption describing a photo of Michael Marroquin in last week's News feature, "Angels in South America," incorrectly stated that it was the "only known photo" of Marroquin. There might be many other photos of Marroquin, but this was the only one available to us. The Chronicle regrets the error.