LOS ANGELES (AP) — The leader and self-proclaimed apostle of La Luz del Mundo, a Mexico-based church with branches in the U.S. that claims over 1 million followers, has been charged with human trafficking and child rape, California officials announced Tuesday.
Joaquín García and a follower of the church, 24-year-old Susana Medina Oaxaca, were arrested Monday after landing at Los Angeles International Airport, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office said.
Around 1,000 worshippers gathered at the headquarters of La Luz del Mundo in Guadalajara, Jalisco, on Tuesday evening to pray for García as he was held in Los Angeles on $25 million bail.
García, 50, faces 26 counts of felony charges that range from human trafficking and production of child pornography to forcible rape of a minor. The charges detail a series of disturbing allegations involving three girls and one woman between 2015 and 2018 in Los Angeles County.
The fundamentalist Christian church, whose name translates to The Light of the World, was founded in 1926 by García’s grandfather. It has been the subject of child sex abuse allegations for years but authorities in Mexico have never filed criminal charges. It has more than 15,000 churches in 58 countries, according to its website. The church’s followers must adhere to a strict moral code in exchange for the promise of eternal salvation.
García — who was a minister in Los Angeles and other parts of Southern California before becoming the church’s leader — coerced the victims into performing sex acts by telling them that refusing would be going against God, authorities said. He allegedly forced the victims, who were members of the church, to sexually touch themselves and each other. One of his co-defendants also allegedly took nude photographs of the victims and sent the pictures to García.
García 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, the complaint states.
“Crimes like those alleged in this complaint have no place in our society. Period,” Becerra said in a press release. “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 state’s Department of Justice through an online clergy abuse complaint form.
David Correa, a spokesman from the church’s headquarters, said in a phone call that they learned about the charges from the media.
“We categorically deny those false accusations,” Correa said. “We know him personally and he is an honorable and honest man.”
Church officials said García has always behaved lawfully and rejected the attorney general’s charges.
The church’s statement Tuesday said they hoped the accusations would not lead to discrimination and religious intolerance against its followers.
A third follower, Alondra Ocampo, 36, was arrested in Los Angeles County and is being held at the sheriff’s Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood ahead of her arraignment Wednesday in Los Angeles. A fourth defendant, Azalea Rangel Melendez, remains at large.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the defendants had an attorney.
In May, an opera concert at Palacio de Bellas Artes, the main cultural venue in Mexico, generated controversy because in some places it was presented as a tribute to García. Critics said a secular state such as Mexico shouldn’t use a public place for that purpose.
The work, “The Guardian of the Mirror,” was broadcast on social networks and screened outside the Palace, with the church’s followers in the audience.
La Luz del Mundo denied that it was an homage and said the opinions expressed in social networks were not promoted by the institution.
Airport police referred media inquiries to Customs and Border Patrol, which did not immediately have a comment.
Verza contributed reporting from Mexico City.