LOS ANGELES – At least three victims of alleged sexual abuse by the leader of the powerful Mexican church La Luz Del Mundo (Light of the World), Naason Joaquin Garcia, are underage girls, authorities in the United States said on Thursday.
“We have four people who are victims, who have given us information and hope to have other people helping us with this case because we believe that there are more victims of abuse of Garcia’s,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said during a press conference.
The four victims are all residents of Los Angeles and members of the local Light of the World congregation.
Garcia, a 50-year-old Mexican citizen, was arrested at Los Angeles Airport on Monday when he was about to leave the US and charges were filed against him at the Los Angeles County Superior Court for 26 felonies, including human trafficking, child pornography and child rape.
Becerra said he expected other victims to come forward because of what he believes to be a pattern of abusive behavior.
“I think it’s more than a sick person. This is a madman, how else can you explain something like this,” the Attorney General said.
According to the indictment, Garcia told his victims that if they defied his desires they would be acting against God, as he was his apostle.
“In addition to Joaquin Garcia, Alondra Ocampo (36) and Susana Medina Oaxaca (24) were also arrested. An arrest warrant has also been issued for Azalea Rangel Melendez, who is currently at large,” read a statement from Becerra’s office.
At first, bail for Garcia had been set at $25 million, but Becerra successfully argued for it to be increased to $50 million, fearing that Garcia might be able to pay the bond.
“Because there is a real fear, because he has his church with more than a million followers that he will raise the money. And he will bail himself out,” said Becerra, explaining that the amount was the highest bail ever imposed in Los Angeles County.
“We have provided the court with the information to back up that credible fear we have (that he would try to flee) that he could bail himself out,” he explained.
He also said that the investigation against Garcia was ongoing and more evidence was being gathered.
“This investigation started because we launched a website where people who had information about cases of sexual abuse against persons in religious organizations, priests, etc. could report these incidents with the confidence that it was going to be private information,” Becerra said.
“On that website we received information. Through this investigation we were able to determine that it was credible, that there was evidence that could prove the criminality of Naason Joaquin Garcia and several members of his religious organization,” he added.
In his appeal for more victims to come forward, Becerra said undocumented immigrants could testify without fear of reprisals and reminded them that they were protected by federal laws.
“I understand that many families, many of the young girls are probably very frightened, very confused. Some of the folks depend on this religious organization, this church, for much of their support (...) and depend quite a bit on what this organization provided to them.”
“He is sick. I don’t care what he calls it. He committed crimes. We’re going to prove it. You don’t do that to children, you don’t do that to adults. You don’t hide behind some religious veil,” Becerra said.
Abner Nicolas Menchaca, a spokesperson for the Light of the World church based in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Wednesday rejected the accusations against Garcia and said that the case bore signs of religious intolerance.
The Light of the World’s rapid growth in recent years was probably a cause for concern for certain groups, he said.
The church claims to have over 1.8 million followers in Mexico, but the country’s official 2010 census says slightly over 188,000 people said they were members.
Garcia is expected to return reappear at court in Los Angeles on June 10.