When Los Angeles police nab pastor of Mexico's largest church, press scrambles to learn about Luz del Mundo

A story just broke in Los Angeles the other day that has barely raised a ripple in U.S. media. However, Mexican newspapers and TV are transfixed by it.

Most Americans have never heard of this enormous 12,000-seat La Luz del Mundo church complex in Guadalajara. (A translated promo video is here). Built like a multi-tiered wedding cake, its concentric white scalloped walls turn various rainbow colors during festivals. It towers over the city and is Mexico’s largest evangelical Protestant church.

Its pastor, Naasón Joaquín García, was just arrested Monday at LAX and slapped with a bail set at $50 million, the highest ever imposed by a Los Angeles County judge. Imagine if Mexico had thrown Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen into jail. That’s the level we’re talking about.

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times are two of the American print outlets really covering this and even they are scraping for details about this church. From the New York Times:

The leader of La Luz del Mundo, a church with its headquarters in Mexico that claims to have more than one million followers worldwide, was charged Tuesday in Los Angeles with more than a dozen sex crimes, including allegations that he forced children to have sex and made them pose naked for photos, the authorities in California said.

The leader, Naasón Joaquín García, 50, was arrested Monday at Los Angeles International Airport, according to the California attorney general’s office. Mr. García is considered by La Luz del Mundo, which has locations in the Los Angeles area, to be an apostle of Jesus Christ.

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at the airport that morning. Here’s this man walking onto U.S. soil expecting to visit his four daughter congregations in southern California when –- WHAM -– the police show up.

In a 19-page complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Tuesday, prosecutors said there were four victims, three of whom were children. One child and a woman were raped, prosecutors said in the complaint. Mr. García is also accused of human trafficking and forcing children to perform oral sex.

The crimes occurred from 2015 until 2018 in Los Angeles County, the authorities said.

One of the people told a group of girls that if they went against the desires of Mr. García, “they were going against god,” according to the complaint. Children were told to perform “flirty” dances for Mr. García wearing “as little clothing as possible,” according to the complaint.

The complaint said Mr. García gave a group of children “a speech about a king having mistresses and stated that an apostle of god can never be judged for his actions.”

The rest of the piece doesn’t contain a whole lot more than what you can find in a Google search, so we’ll turn to the Los Angeles Times:

Prosecutors said they secured an unprecedented $50-million bail for the leader of La Luz del Mundo church because they feared his followers could raise money to free him from custody and that he would flee the country…

California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra on Thursday said that to his knowledge Naason Joaquin Garcia’s bail was the highest ever imposed on someone in Los Angeles County.

“We have a great apprehension that Mr. Garcia will raise the money to get a bond to bail himself out,” Becerra said. “We have provided the court information to back up the credible fear we have.”

The paper then quoted a local defense attorney saying bail rarely goes over $1 million or in very unusual cases, $2 million. The bail was originally set at $25 million and Becerra doubled that. If you doubt this church has money, get a load of some of the photos of this place here.

For reporters wanting to follow up on this place, do a look-see for local branches of Luz del Mundo near you. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I was surprised to find daughter churches in Canby, Ore., and in south Seattle. Here is a video of the pastor’s followers sobbing over his arrest.

Their doctrine is similar to Oneness Pentecostals: They believe in being baptized in Jesus’ name, not in the name of the Trinity. The church has been led by a family dynasty with the imprisoned Garcia being the grandson of the founder.

TheMexicanLabyrinth.com has a good story about the less-than-savory reputation of Samuel Joaquin Flores, the father of the imprisoned pastor, and the church’s cult-like aspects. A Sacramento TV station has another read on the arrest and this video shows followers marching by the pastor (who is standing on a balcony overlooking the crowd) giving him Nazi-like salutes.

The Associated Press did the best story I could find on the question everyone must wonder: Why was this man arrested in Los Angeles and not in Mexico?

The fundamentalist Christian church, whose name translates to The Light of the World, was founded in 1926 by Joaquin García's grandfather. His father also led the church and was the subject of child sex abuse allegations in 1997, but authorities in Mexico never filed criminal charges.

The accusations were particularly painful for a church that has tried to cultivate an image for its law-abiding, hard-working, conservatively-dressing people in Mexico — a country where it claims about 1.8 million followers. Its male members favor suits and short hair, and female members wear veils that cover their hair and modest dresses. There are about 1 million U.S. members…

Here we go again. Actually, “Pentecostal” would be a better descriptor than “fundamentalist.”

The church also believes there was no salvation on Earth from the death of the Apostle John around A.D. 96 to 1926 when the church was founded. Which definitely consigns a lot of folks to hell. For more videos on their beliefs, click here and here.

The arrest is sure to prove an embarrassment for Mexico, in part because similar allegations have never resulted in charges there and in part because the church has long had political influence.

"It shows the enormous difference between the quality of law enforcement in Mexico and the United States," said sociologist Bernardo Barranco of the Center for the Study of Religions in Mexico. "In Mexico, unfortunately, there is an innate protection for clergy, not just for the Luz del Mundo."

Apparently this pastor has been running this operation for a long time but it took awhile to build a case against him.

This is where Spanish-speaking reporters really come in handy or some English-speaking reporters need to hop on a plane, hire a translator and get to the bottom of this unusual church. So what we need here is a religion-beat pro who speaks Spanish.

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