Religion

US, Mexico shaken by child porn charges against La Luz Del Mundo church leader

The arrest of the leader of the La Luz Del Mundo church following allegations that he sexually abused children and solicited sexually explicit photos of minors has sent shock waves through Mexico and the United States.

Naason Joaquin Garcia, 50, and co-defendants Alondra Ocampo, Azalea Rangel Melendez and Susana Medina Oaxaca – all of whom are affiliated with the religious organization headquartered in the Mexican city of Guadalajara – are alleged to have committed 26 felonies, including human trafficking, production of child pornography and forcible rape of a minor, in Los Angeles County between 2015 and 2018.

A day after the charges were announced, Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador faced scrutiny about a concert earlier this month at the Palacio de Bellas Artes that appeared to be a tribute to Garcia. The government had given permission for the space to be rented for the event.

Lopez Obrador responded that authorities in Mexico did not have the information that came to light Tuesday when Garcia was taken into custody at Los Angeles International Airport.

"What I can say is my conscience is at peace, because I am a supporter of respect and tolerance," he said. "That is what I defend."

Garcia, Ocampo, 36, and Oaxaca, 24, were scheduled to be arraigned in downtown Los Angeles later Wednesday. Melendez remains at large, authorities said.

Prosecutors allege Garcia and his co-defendants committed sex crimes locally for years while leading La Luz Del Mundo. The organization, which claims more than 1 million followers worldwide, has churches in East and West L.A.

The church – formed in 1926 – has been the subject of controversy for decades, as it has spread from Mexico into California and other areas. In the past, critics have compared it to a cult that preys on the poor. Samuel Joaquin Flores, Garcia's father and predecessor who died in 2014, was previously the subject of child sex abuse allegations that he adamantly denied. He never faced charges.

La Luz Del Mundo, which translates to the Light of the World, names Garcia on the church's website as its international president. Garcia is described on the site as having "dedicated his life to serving God from a young age."

Garcia served as a role model for other youths, "bringing a message of love and salvation to people's souls" and was sent as a missionary to Spain and Portugal, according to the site.

For more than 20 years, the website says, Garcia served as a church minister in various places in the U.S., including Los Angeles, North Hollywood, Huntington Park, San Diego, Santa Ana and Santa Maria.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, a spokesman for the church said that the allegations against Garcia were false and that the church trusts that the legal system will find him innocent.

"The apostle of Jesus Christ has always adhered to the law," said Ashley Valdez, the spokesman. "The church categorically rejects each allegation made against him."

With tall columns and sculptures of lions, the Light of the World church in East L.A. looms large over what neighbors have described as a relatively quiet area. A stained-glass window at the front entrance carries the names of Garcia's late father and grandfather, previous leaders of the organization.

A large banner wishing Garcia a happy 50th birthday in Spanish hangs on one side of the building, which is also inscribed with the phrase "House of God and Gate to Heaven."

The church has been open through the night for congregants to pray following the announcement of the charges against Garcia. By Wednesday morning, a dozen congregants had filled the first of about 50 pews inside the sprawling church. Women wearing long dresses covered their hair with colorful headscarves.

Congregants at the church refused to talk about the allegations.

"We can't talk," said a man in the building's parking lot. "I don't know anything."

"We ask that you respect our sacred space," said a female congregant nearby. "Our statements are online."

But a neighbor who grew up in the area said he had heard rumblings about inappropriate behavior at the church – namely women complaining about Garcia's advances.

Other neighbors said the church owns several houses on its street that appear to be empty. Erica Huerta, a college adviser at a high school in Long Beach who lives nearby, said she sees girls in long skirts walking to the church early every morning.

"It's a routine – we know they're going to church," she said.

In a statement posted to the organization's Facebook page, religious officials defended Garcia, saying he "has always behaved in accordance with the law and with full respect for the institutions and the dignity of the people."

"Because of the Christian principles that the church preaches and practices, we reject any conduct that violates the dignity of the people," the statement reads. "Consequently, we hope that the unfounded accusations do not degenerate into acts of discrimination and religious intolerance against members of the church."

The attorney general began investigating Garcia and others last year, prompted in part by a tip to the state Department of Justice through an online clergy abuse complaint form. The criminal complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday against Garcia and his co-defendants outlines graphic and disturbing details about the crimes prosecutors allege they committed.

In August 2017, according to the complaint, Ocampo told a group of girls in Los Angeles County that if they went against the desires or wishes of "the Apostle," a term used to refer to Garcia, that they were going against God.

A month later, in September, Ocampo directed minors to perform "flirty" dances for Garcia "wearing as little clothing as possible," the complaint reads. After that dance, Garcia purportedly gave a speech to the children about a king having a mistress and stated that an apostle of God can never be judged for his actions.

Four people mentioned in the complaint were sexually assaulted by Garcia in L.A. County, prosecutors said.

In one incident outlined in the criminal complaint, Ocampo called a girl, who is younger than 16 and identified in only as Jane Doe 1, to Garcia's home and directed her to serve him coffee in his office without clothing.

When she entered his office, Garcia allegedly put his arms around her, kissed her on the lips and touched her in intimate locations, according to the complaint.

Prosecutors further allege that Ocampo repeatedly took photos of three naked girls, sometimes as they performed intimate acts, telling them that they were for "the servant of God," referencing Garcia.

On one occasion, Ocampo took the girls to an office building, provided them with schoolgirl outfits and photographed them in sexually explicit poses, according to the complaint. On at least one occasion, according to the complaint, Garcia thanked three girls for the photos.

According to Valdez, there are about 40 Light of the World churches in Southern California, and the congregation in East L.A. has about 1,500 members. Garcia, a man whom congregants believe was ordered by God to direct the church, was once a pastor in the East L.A. church.

"He is the mouthpiece for God," Valdez said.

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