A top leader of the La Luz Del Mundo religious organization was arrested on suspicion of human trafficking, production of child pornography, forcible rape of a minor and other felonies, California prosecutors said Tuesday.
Naasón Joaquín García and co-defendants Alondra Ocampo, Azalea Rangel Melendez and Susana Medina Oaxaca — all of whom are affiliated with La Luz Del Mundo — are alleged to have committed 26 felonies in Los Angeles County between 2015 and 2018.
The organization, which is headquartered in Mexico and claims more than 1 million followers worldwide, has two churches in East and West L.A.
“Crimes like those alleged in this complaint have no place in our society. Period,” said California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra. “We must not turn a blind eye to sexual violence and trafficking in our state. At the California Department of Justice, we will do everything we can to prevent and combat these heinous crimes so that our communities are safe. If you see something, report it and we will vigorously pursue justice.”
Prosecutors said García and his co-defendants committed the crimes while leading La Luz Del Mundo.
García, 50, and Oaxaca, 24, were arrested Monday after landing at Los Angeles International Airport, Becerra’s office said. García is being held in Los Angeles on $25-million bail.
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. Melendez remains at large.
It wasn’t immediately clear if any of the defendants had an attorney.
“García and his co-defendants allegedly coerced victims into performing sexual acts by telling them that if they went against any of his desires or wishes as ‘the Apostle,’ that they were going against God,” the attorney general said in a statement.
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 [García] personally and he is an honorable and honest man.”
On Tuesday night, the church defended its leader on its Facebook page and YouTube channel, in what was billed in Spanish as a “Special Message From the Council of Bishops.”
During the roughly 10-minute Spanish-language address, an unidentified man stood at a flower-bedecked altar, surrounded by half a dozen other unidentified men. Speaking in a florid, rhetorical style — and never referring to Garcia by name — he told the congregation that “the apostle of Jesus Christ has been the object of an arrest,” and that he would “with integrity, security and trust … respond to all legal requirements, knowing that God will give testimony.”
He described the church as a “spiritual family” that had gone and would keep going “from triumph to triumph, from victory to victory, in spite of the moments of tribulation.”
“We will not allow any spirit of uncertainty, panic or discouragement to invade us. On the contrary, in these moments the firmness of our faith shines,” he told the parishioners, who at times could be seen praying and wailing in their pews.
The organization — formed in 1926 — has been the subject of controversy for years, 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.
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.
The complaint filed against García and his co-defendants outlines 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 García, that they were going against God.
A month later, in September, Ocampo directed minors to perform “flirty” dances for García “wearing as little clothing as possible,” the complaint reads. After that dance, García 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 minor girls mentioned in the complaint were sexually assaulted by García in L.A. County, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors further allege that Ocampo repeatedly took photos of naked girls, telling them that they were for “the servant of god,” referencing García.
And on at least one occasion, according to the complaint, García thanked three girls for the photos.
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.
Times staff writer Cecilia Sanchez and the Associated Press contributed to this report.