The leader and self-proclaimed apostle of La Luz del Mundo — a controversial church based in Mexico that claims over 1 million followers — has been charged with human trafficking and child rape, California officials said Tuesday.
Joaquin Garcia and another 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.
Garcia, 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 Southern California.
Garcia coerced the victims into performing sex acts by telling them that refusing would be going against God, authorities said.
Garcia is being held on $25 million bail, officials said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Garcia had an attorney.
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.
David Correa, a spokesman from the headquarters of La Luz del Mundo in Guadalajara, Jalisco, said in a phone call that they learned about the charges from the media and were waiting for official information.
“We categorically deny those false accusations,” Correa said. “We know him personally and he is an honorable and honest man.”
The church, whose name translates to The Light of the World, has been the subject of child sex abuse allegations for years but authorities in Mexico have never filed criminal charges.
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 Garcia. 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.