Rape of a 15-year-old girl. Trafficking of minors to engage them in sex acts. People trafficking. Possession of child pornography. Forcing a woman to perform oral sex and sexually abusing her. Extortion. These are just some of the accusations Naasón Joaquín García, leader of La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World) church, will not have to face after reaching a last-minute deal on Friday with California’s Prosecutor’s Office. In exchange for pleading guilty to three of the 19 charges against him and serving a 17-year prison sentence, the so-called apostle of Jesus Christ – as he is known by his followers – will not have to stand trial.
The plea deal is a blow to the five plaintiffs who wanted a chance to share their stories. It also spares Joaquín García from life imprisonment, which he would likely have been sentenced to if found guilty of most of the charges. “How can they make a deal with a child rapist and human trafficker?” asked Sochil Martin, the whistleblower who first brought to light the abuses perpetrated by the self-proclaimed “servant of God.” “Give us peace, not an agreement,” she said.
But US authorities consider the agreement a win. “Today’s conviction sends a clear message that sexual exploitation is never acceptable in California. We will hold you accountable if you break the law,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta on Friday.
The agreement was reached last Friday, less than 72 hours before the selection of the 12-member jury was set to begin. It brings an end to a high-profile case that has been dragging on for three years, with the coronavirus pandemic and multiple appeals delaying the process. As part of the deal, Joaquín García, who claims to have five million followers in 50 countries (according to Luz del Mundo figures), admitted to having forced two minors to perform oral sex on him and having committed sex acts against one of them.
At a hearing in August 2020, an FBI agent described how Joaquín García forced a young girl to perform oral sex on him in the shower. According to the indictment, he told the minor that as an apostle of God, he would not be punished for his actions. The document also states that he sexually harassed a 15-year-old girl. Testimonies from the victims, along with thousands of incriminating text messages, explicit videos and pornographic images, would have been revealed at trial, if a deal was not reached.
Five people who left the cult told EL PAÍS that they received threats, were harassed and, in some cases, even had to flee Mexico, despite the fact that Joaquín García was behind bars in pre-trial detention. “When there are weapons involved and they are threatening your children, you know that they have crossed the line,” said one of them. “They are criminals, the church is a façade.”
La Luz del Mundo has consistently defended the innocence of its leader and accused the press of lying and distorting the information. Even now that he has pleaded guilty, representatives from the church say it doesn’t prove anything. Silem García, a spokesperson for Luz del Mundo said that Joaquín García only confessed because “he was not going to have a fair trial.” The church’s website makes only one reference to its leader: “The Apostle of Jesus Christ Naasón Joaquin García is the spiritual guide and teacher of our faith.”
Joaquin García is described as serious, fearsome and strong-willed by those who know him, but there is little public information about him before his rise to power. With dual nationality, he was in charge of the church in the United States and led congregations in California, Arizona and Texas. He is the fifth of eight children and during much of the 50 years that his father, Samuel Joaquín Flores, was at the head of the organization, he seemed an unlikely successor. Several members who belonged to the church said that Benjamin Joaquín, the first-born male, was the more charismatic candidate, but he was not chosen due to internal disputes.
Following the death of Samuel Joaquín at the end of 2014, Joaquín García took control of the institution by “divine mandate.” His father was also accused of sexual assault, but the charges never reached court. Joaquín García, following in his father’s footsteps, promoted a cult of personality within the church. He was often referred to by followers as “the anointed one,” or the “man of God,” while his family was the “chosen race.” In separate interviews with EL PAÍS, several former members admitted that they would have committed a crime, if the church or its leader asked them to.
Joaquín García also had strong political connections. Thanks to these connections, he was able to celebrate his 50th birthday in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a famous cultural center in Mexico City. Prior to his arrest in June 2019 in Los Angeles, he also laid the first stone of a mega-church in El Salvador, alongside the country’s president, Nayib Bukele. And he was known for his flashy lifestyle. While most followers of Luz del Mundo come from a humble background, the church leader had a private jet, dressed in expensive suits and drove luxury cars. After his arrest in California, bail was set at $90 million, the highest amount in the state’s history.
“As the leader of La Luz del Mundo, Naasón Joaquín García used his power to take advantage of children,” said Attorney General Bonta on Friday. “Today’s conviction can never undo the harm, but it will help protect future generations.” But for the victims, the plea deal has denied them the chance to see their alleged abuser locked away for life.