Naasón Joaquín García, the Luz Del Mundo church leader charged with crimes including rape of a minor, recently changed his plea to guilty. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
MEXICO CITY — The leader of one of Latin America’s largest Christian religious organizations just pleaded guilty to sex abuse charges in a U.S. court.Naasón Joaquín García, considered the “apostle” of the Mexico-based megachurch La Luz del Mundo, pleaded guilty to two counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act against a 15-year-old child. Joaquín, 53, was arrested in Los Angeles in 2019 and faced wide ranging charges. He maintained his innocence up until accepting the plea deal on Friday. He could receive up to 16 years and eight months in prison.
“[Joaquín García] used his power to take advantage of children,” U.S. Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement. “He relied on those around him to groom congregants for the purposes of sexual assault. Today’s conviction can never undo the harm, but it will help protect future generations.”La Luz del Mundo, or the Light of the World in English, has millions of followers around Latin America and the U.S. who revere Joaquín and members of his family as living apostles who embody the will of God. The church counts several prominent Mexican politicians as followers and is one of the most powerful religious organizations in the country, even though the Joaquín family has faced accusations of sex abuse against children for decades. Joaquín Garcia’s grandfather, Aaron Joaquín, founded the church nearly a hundred years ago. He was later succeeded by his son, Samuel Joaquín, (Naasón’s father). During this period, the church built temples around the world adorned with massive busts of members of the Joaquín family. The family even constructed their own mini-city called the Hermosa Provincia in a neighborhood of the western Mexican city of Guadalajara that serves as the Luz del Mundo's equivalent of the Vatican.Joaquín García’s arrest in June 2019 shocked the millions of followers of the Luz del Mundo. Just three weeks prior, he'd been celebrated in Mexico City's renowned national performing arts center, Bellas Artes, for his May 15 birthday. The event was a who's who of Mexico's elite and powerful politicians, including several prominent members of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's ruling MORENA party.
But the public facade of the prominent religious leader quickly crumbled after his arrest. U.S. authorities detained the leader at the Los Angeles international airport, along with a 24-year-old woman named Susana Medina Oaxaca. Meanwhile, another woman, named Alondra Ocampo, 36 at the time, was arrested at her home in Los Angeles. Joaquín García, Oaxaca, Ocampo, and a fourth woman, named Azalea Rangel Melendez — who remains to this day on the lam — were charged with over two dozen felonies in Los Angeles County between 2015 and 2018.In their felony complaint, authorities cited three underage Jane Does groomed in Los Angeles principally by Ocampo, who were later abused by Joaquín García. A fourth Jane Doe in the complaint alleged that she worked as a groomer for Joaquín García in Guadalajara, and had been raped multiple times by the leader of the Luz del Mundo.At the time of Joaquín García and Oaxaca's arrests, authorities confiscated their belongings, including an iPad and iPhone. What was found on those devices was especially disturbing, according to preliminary hearing court documents of police testimonies obtained by VICE World News, and led to additional charges related to incidents that took place in 2019. The device allegedly included videos of sex acts with children, some involving incest between family members.Joaquín García’s trial was delayed several times and was scheduled to finally begin this month, before the disgraced religious figure accepted the plea deal. His co-accused Ocampo had reportedly agreed to testify against Joaquín García. Fred Thiagarajah, Ocampo’s lawyer, told VICE World News that Ocampo allegedly worked as a groomer for Joaquín García and compared her role to that of Ghislaine Maxwell’s relationship with deceased pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
The case has also renewed interest in sex abuse allegations against Joaquín García’s father, Samuel Joaquín, who served as the “apostle” of La Luz del Mundo for nearly 50 years before his death in 2014. Thiagarajah told VICE World News that Ocampo was raped for years by Samuel Joaquín beginning when she was a child, before being recruited as a groomer for Joaquín García when he took over as the head of the church following Samuel’s death.Ocampo’s claims mirror allegations against Samuel Joaquín that appeared 25 years ago.In 1997, two women, Karem León and Amparo Aguilar appeared on Mexican television and alleged that they’d been sexually abused by Samuel Joaquin in the early ’80s when they were 13 years old. Two months later, a man named Moises Padilla appeared on television and publicly accused Samuel Joaquín of sexually abusing him when he was 16 in the early ’80s. He also alleged his sister had been abused by Samuel at the age of 13. Six months later, Padilla was reportedly abducted in Guadalajara, driven to the outskirts of the city, and stabbed 57 times. Padilla survived, and blamed the church for the attack from his hospital bed afterward.In total, four former members filed criminal complaints with the Guadalajara prosecutor's office alleging that they were sexually abused by Samuel Joaquín in the early ’80s, but no charges were ever officially laid against the church leader because they had reportedly passed the statute of limitations.The origin of the Luz del Mundo dates to 1926 when Joaquín García's grandfather claimed to have had a vision from God. Eusebio Joaquín González said that God told him to change his name to Aaron, and he began preaching around Mexico. By the mid 1930s he founded his first temple outside of Guadalajara and claimed that God told him it was the "light of the world," thus the church's name.Over the following decades, Aaron Joaquín consolidated his power within the organization and developed a strict Christian doctrine that saw Aaron designated as the Apostle of God on Earth. Since its outset, the Luz del Mundo enforced a patriarchal system of worship that has changed little over the past hundred years, where women are taught to submit to their husbands. They are required to wear veils and long skirts in services, and they are not allowed to hold positions of power within the organization.Even in the early days of the Luz del Mundo, the church found itself embroiled in scandal. In 1942, a quarter of Aaron Joaquin's flock abandoned the church after he allegedly had a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl and stole money from his followers.