Elisa Flores’s siblings were sure that it was the work of the devil. After all, their pastors said as much every day: Naasón Joaquín García was under attack by Satan’s forces on Earth. Those same satanic forces had also taken hold of Elisa, who after worshipping at La Luz del Mundo (LLDM) her whole life, suddenly stopped believing in the innocence of the apostle of Jesus Christ, as the faithful call their religious leader. “They told me I was possessed,” said Flores. A few days later, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, and an entire community turned their backs on Elisa Flores–she had ceased to exist for them. “I lost everything,” said Elisa.
It all started in late 2020. Elisa Flores wanted to celebrate the new year with the family and contacted one of her siblings to organize the party. “What do you think about everything that’s going on with Naasón?” she asked him. He had left LLDM some time ago, but Elisa was still very much a part of the church. Her brother said that Naasón Joaquín García had been arrested in June 2019 and charged with more than 30 counts of child abuse, rape, human trafficking, and possession of child pornography. She denied it all—it just wasn’t true. Then her brother sent her a long list of links so she could see for herself. But no, she still believed in the church–it was all a big lie.
The pastors of her LLDM church in the small Texas town of Luling told Flores and the congregation to pray 24 hours a day and ask God to save His servant. Flores was attending one of the church’s daily services when she first learned of García’s arrest. “They told us that Apostle Naasón was fine, not to worry, and to pray with all our might,” she said. At first, she thought maybe it was an immigration problem, or maybe a misunderstanding about taxes. How could they accuse a saint of committing a crime?
Before Apostle Naason’s arrest, LLDM had embraced the internet, and told its congregants to use it to become better Christians. Then they were suddenly ordered to stop using the internet. But it was Elisa’s conversation with her brother that planted the seeds of doubt, and before long, her eyes were opened wide, and she saw it all. “The world came crashing down on me,” she said. The church that her parents helped build as missionaries and that once preached the gospel in garages, the community where she had learned to speak Spanish, the organization to which she had dedicated her life–all were implicated in the cover-up of a child exploitation scheme.
Things began clicking in Elisa’s mind. As a teenager, she was chosen to serve in the home of Samuel Joaquin García, Naasón’s father, who led LLDM for more than 50 years. The Apostle Samuel would often take one of Elisa’s 15-year-old friends to a private room. The girl became pregnant and was ordered to have an abortion. “They took my baby! They took my baby away from me,” cried Elisa’s friend. “If you say anything, no one will believe you because I am God’s apostle,” Samuel told them. The young girl’s parents threw her out of the house–she was an embarrassment to the family. “I couldn’t say anything,” Flores said. “Obeying the apostle was a blessing because he doesn’t sin–he is God… they would read Bible verses to us that justified it all,” she recalls. “If he had ordered me to take off my clothes, I would have done it. Because he is God on Earth,” she said. What about going to the police? “Many LLDM members in the United States are undocumented and are afraid to talk.” Decades later, history repeated itself. “Why shouldn’t I believe that Naasón really did those things? After all, I saw what his father did.”
“Women had to be submissive–we were there to serve,” says Karen Aguilera, a granddaughter of an LLDM pastor. “We always had to follow behind, always had to say yes, always had to be available. It was very frustrating,” she said. One day when she was 13, one of her friends got very excited–she had been chosen to serve in Apostle Samuel’s house. She told them that she had gone to his bedroom to rub his feet and back. He was so pleased that he planned to make her his personal masseuse. “Shut up! Don’t repeat that,” said another girl who also served in the “apostolic house.” “What happens in the house of God’s servant is not to be discussed with anyone.”
The case against Naasón Joaquín García was built on the testimony of five girls, almost all of them minors, who were chosen to be “maidens.” Other female assistants of the Apostle Naasón taught the maidens to do their work, which was not limited to domestic chores. They were taught to please García by dancing suggestively, taking photographs in lingerie, and having sexual encounters with him.
The chorus of voices denouncing LLDM claim that hundreds of victims were abused for decades. “The church is a façade. We are talking about a cult–a criminal organization,” said Karen Aguilera’s husband, Daniel Mendoza. In 1997, allegations against Samuel García surfaced in the press, but he never faced trial. Likewise, Eusebio Joaquín García, Naasón’s grandfather, never faced trial for sexual assault allegations.
“Of course there were suspicions. You’d see girls come and go, and then you’d never see them again,” said Aguilera. “But no one actually said, ‘Samuel raped me,’ and so we ignored our consciences,” said Mendoza. EL PAÍS contacted LLDM spokespersons for an interview, but did not receive a response. Even though García confessed to abusing at least two minors, LLDM publicly continues to assert his innocence.
“It’s part of the brainwashing that they do,” said Mendoza. He and his wife worked for years at LLDM in communications and media functions. Mendoza explained that information from the outside is controlled by LLDM, as is every bit of information about what happens inside the church. “They claim to have five million members, but it’s actually less than a million,” said Mendoza. “The church covers up information, inflates numbers, and manipulates people with lies, telling them only what they want them to hear.” True to form, thousands of LLDM members were recently observed outside their churches praying for Garcia’s release, unaware that their leader had already confessed to his crimes.
“It’s like living in a bubble,” says Francisco Espinoza, a former LLDM member who left the church when he heard about Naasón García’s crimes. Every time scandal has rocked the church, it doubles down. In the late 1990s, the accusations against Samuel García turned the church into an even more cult-like and authoritarian organization. His son continued the trend. “The apostle was everything, everything...he was God,” remembers Elisa Flores, a single mother who had trouble making ends meet. She even went into debt so she could give more than US$1,000 a month in offerings, tithes, and gifts to the apostle. “They made you believe that without him you were nothing.”
Daniel Mendoza and Karen Aguilera left the church in late 2014, almost as soon as Naasón Garcia began his “apostleship.” They didn’t agree with the church’s direction, but they couldn’t be very vocal about it since church members are obligated to denounce anyone who speaks ill of the apostle, whether it be a spouse, a child, a sibling, or a friend. “In just a few days, we went from being respected members of the church to scapegoats, dogs who deserved to die,” said the couple. “And the worst of the worst in the community led the attack,” said Mendoza.
“They smashed our windows, left messages under our door, scratched our car, and even posted death threats on social media,” said Mendoza. Little by little, the intimidation escalated. “They threw rocks at my daughter, and threatened us at gunpoint. Sometimes they would wave their guns to intimidate us. That’s when we knew we had to leave,” he said. When they moved to another part of Mexico, LLDM tracked them down. Now they live in the United States, but the threats continue, even with LLDM’s leader in jail.
“They’ve told me that they know where I live, that they are going to make me pay because I’m a traitor,” said Francisco Espinoza, who is also estranged from his parents and two brothers. “I know at least seven women who told me in very graphic detail about their experiences, but most of them don’t want to talk–they’re afraid.” But Espinoza couldn’t be a part of the church any longer. “Once, before he became the apostle, Naasón masturbated in front of me,” he said. “He was like a father to me–my whole image of him crumbled.” When the accusations against García became public, Espinoza left the church and his community behind. “What hurts me most is that my dad and mom are feeling sorry for this man who committed all these crimes. This religion is like a drug–it’s very hard to quit,” he said.
Naasón Joaquín García was given a reduced sentence after making a controversial plea deal with the prosecution that enabled him to avoid spending the rest of his life in prison. During his sentencing hearing, victim testimonies laid bare the enormous damage cause by the latest LLDM scandal: abused children, broken families, humble people who gave all they had to the church, and whistleblowers who have been lynched on social media and threatened by a community they once loved. “Not a single day goes by that I don’t feel shame and guilt for being a part of this cult, for defending it. It’s something that I have to live with,” said Mendoza, who is working on a book about his escape from LLDM.
“I still hurt, especially for the people who are still with LLDM, and for those who will leave and feel completely lost,” said Elisa Flores. It took her several months to get her life back, but then one day she took all her photos of Naasón García and burned them in the fireplace. “For the first time I felt free,” she says, relieved. She was wearing earrings and pants, both forbidden for LLDM women. She now knows that spending a little money on a vacation instead of giving it all away to the church won’t consign her to hell.
Naasón García’s plea deal sparked outrage among those who risked their lives to testify against him, expecting a life sentence for their abuser. There was no trial, and he didn’t have to answer for crimes that were not part of the plea deal–human trafficking, rape, and possession of child pornography. LLDM’s pact of silence remains intact, and no action will be taken to end the abuse. The LLDM followers’ pact with their apostle remains as strong as ever despite the desperate cries for justice. All of this was at stake during the three years that it took to prosecute Naasón García.
But this is not the end of the story for many people. “The church will never be able to repair all the damage from the negative press coverage. It won’t be able to overcome the emotional and moral damage suffered during this case because everyone now knows that LLDM is led by a pedophile,” said Mendoza. The self-proclaimed “servant of God” still faces civil lawsuits in the United States, additional investigations in Mexico, and potential federal charges for other alleged crimes. For now, LLDM’s religious leader will spend the next 16 years and eight months in jail, and dozens of former followers will seek their own path to freedom.