Joaquín García, the leader of La Luz del Mundo, a church based in Mexico with branches the U.S. and over 1 million followers, has been arrested in Los Angeles on charges of human trafficking and child rape.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office said García was arrested along with one follower of the church, Susana Medina Oaxaca.
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Garcia faces 26 counts of felony charges, including human trafficking, production of child pornography, and forcible rape of a minor. The charges were brought following an investigation into a case 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.
“Crimes like those alleged in this complaint have no place in our society. Period,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “We must not turn a blind eye to sexual violence and trafficking in our state.”
David Correa, a spokesperson for the church, has refuted all charges against its leader. “We categorically deny those false accusations,” he said. “We know him personally and he is an honorable and honest man.”
Following Garcia’s arrest, on Tuesday night around 1,000 of the church’s followers gathered at the headquarters of La Luz del Mundo in Guadalajara, Jalisco. He is being held on $25 million bail in Los Angeles.