Naasón Joaquin Garcia, above, leader of Mexico’s La Luz del Mundo church, was arrested last week in California on charges of human trafficking and child rape – but the church insists that he remains its spiritual head.
Church spokesman Silem Garcia (not related) said:
We believe these accusations are defamation and slander of our international director, the apostle of Jesus Christ. His position as apostle of Jesus Christ was given to him by God, and for life, and he continues to lead the church.
Garcia, 50, and a follower of the church, Susana Medina Oaxaca, 24, were arrested Monday after their chartered flight from Mexico landed at Los Angeles International Airport.
Church volunteer Abdei Lopez said:
Wherever it is that he is, he still our leader, he still an apostle of Jesus Christ. We continue our daily prayers, we are continuing our normal lives and that’s the unity that I think distinguishes us from other communities, as we are a united community.
A third defendant, Alondra Ocampo, 36, was arrested in Los Angeles County and a fourth, Azalea Rangel Melendez, remains at large.
The group faces a 26-count felony complaint with allegations that range from human trafficking and production of child pornography to rape of a minor. The charges detail allegations involving three girls and one woman between 2015 and 2018 in Los Angeles County.
A judge raised Garcia’s bail Tuesday on Tuesday from $25 million to $50 million after investigators conducted additional search warrants.
His attorney, Dmitry Gorin, said on Wednesday he’s had murder cases with lower bail and called the figure “outrageous” and “unreasonable” at Joaquin Garcia’s arraignment in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The defendants’ arraignment was extended to next Monday. They did not enter pleas at the hearing, where family members – including Joaquin Garcia’s wife and three children –and more than a dozen congregants were in the audience.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra scheduled a news conference in Sacramento on Thursday to urge additional victims to come forward.
The fundamentalist Christian church, whose name translates to The Light of the World, was founded in 1926 by Joaquin Garcia’s grandfather. His father also led the church and was the subject of child sex abuse allegations in 1997, but authorities in Mexico never filed criminal charges.The church claims about 1.8 million followers. Its male members favour suits and short hair, and female members wear veils that cover their hair and modest dresses. There are about 1 million US members.
Said Mexico City church member Ruben Barrera:
We have always encouraged prayer, honesty. Look at the way we dress, it is very honest, the haircuts, the way the women dress. We practice what we preach.
Barrera said that based on his knowledge of Joaquin Garcia’s life, he believes the accusations are “categorically” false.
Around 1,000 worshippers gathered at the headquarters of La Luz del in Guadalajara beginning on Tuesday evening to pray for Garcia as he was held in Los Angeles. Religious services were held hourly in its white, wedding cake-like cathedral.
Garcia is named in 14 counts and Ocampo in 21. Oaxaca and Melendez are each named in two counts.
Garcia – who was a minister in Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California before becoming the church’s leader – allegedly coerced the victims into performing sex acts by telling them that refusing would be going against God, authorities said.
One of his co-defendants also allegedly took nude photographs of the victims and sent the pictures to Garcia, the criminal complaint said.
Garcia told one of the victims and others in 2017, after they had completed a “flirty” dance wearing “as little clothing as possible,” that kings can have mistresses and an apostle of God cannot be judged for his actions.
AG Becerra said in a statement.
Crimes like those alleged in this complaint have no place in our society. Period,. We must not turn a blind eye to sexual violence and trafficking in our state.
The Attorney General’s investigation began in 2018, prompted in part by a tip to the California Department of Justice through an online clergy abuse complaint form.
The arrest is sure to prove an embarrassment for Mexico, in part because similar allegations have never resulted in charges there and in part because the church has long had political influence.
Said sociologist Bernardo Barranco of the Center for the Study of Religions in Mexico:
It shows the enormous difference between the quality of law enforcement in Mexico and the United States. In Mexico, unfortunately, there is an innate protection for clergy, not just for the Luz del Mundo.