The Dark Truth About La Luz Del Mundo

Ask anyone about the largest religions in the world, and they'll probably say Christianity, Judaism, Islam... but few might answer La Luz del Mundo. Since the movement got started in 1926, it's spread to — as of 2023 — more than 50 countries. In the U.S., every state has a church of this Guadalajara-based faith. 

Talking about religion is always a little bit controversial, but it turns out that La Luz del Mundo is way, way more than "a little bit" controversial. The church made headlines in a big way in 2019, when the head of the church was arrested in Los Angeles. The charges included things like human trafficking and sexual assault of a child ... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Since then, people who have broken away from the church have come forward to talk about what goes on behind the facade of evangelical worship. And they say it's been going on for a long time.

According to The Journal of the Center for Studies on New Religion (CENSUR), the movement was founded by Aarón Joaquín González. Born Eusebio Joaquín González to a poor family and after served in the Mexican Revolution, he followed the teachings of two fringe prophets, Saul and Silas, before becoming disillusioned by how loose their interpretations of morality were. He established his own church, which would grow under the leadership of one of his many sons — and be plagued by controversy from the start.

Is it a cult? Sect? Religion?

The official doctrine of La Luz del Mundo is based on the idea that after a few thousand years of worship, the original teachings of Jesus have become corrupted. The church brands itself as a "resurgence of the early Christian church," and claims to worship in the way Jesus intended. That's guaranteed because the leaders — descendants of their founder, Aarón Joaquín González — are believed to be apostles appointed by Jesus himself.

At a glance, that seems pretty straightforward. It has some important consequences, though, and anthropologist Elio Masferrer explained to El Pais just what that meant for the church and parishioners: "The apostle is a living God." That meant the apostle's word was equal to the divine, was beyond question, and was to be unfailingly followed. When current apostle Naasón Joaquín García was arrested in 2019, he was the third to hold the position that had been passed down through a paternal line. That family connection has led to what's been described as "a sacred dynasty," and the unquestioning obedience has caused critics to label the religion a sect or even a cult of personality.

What, exactly, is that? The American Psychological Association defines a cult of personality as the "exaggerated devotion to a charismatic political, religious, or other leader, often fomented by authoritarian figures or regimes as a means of maintaining their power." It's a term that's been used in connection with people like Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

All children go through a traumatic ceremony called the revivals

In 2020, Greenberg Gross LLP and Jeff Anderson & Associates issued a legal briefing on the lawsuit filed on behalf of Sochil Martin. Among the key points were accusations that the powers-the-be of La Luz del Mundo started grooming followers as children, saying "LDM is built around a doctrine of absolute faith, obedience, and subservience to the Apostle that begins at a young age." While many children are raised into the faith of their parents, the briefing stresses that children are also expected to obey without question, and demonstrate their loyalty by going through a ceremony called a "revival."

The revival happens when children are 13 years old, and according to the briefing, it involves "show[ing] absolute and unquestionable loyalty to the Apostle by kneeling for hours and declaring that they are nothing and their entire life is for the Servant of God."

Chron spoke with church members who have remained loyal to the institution in spite of lawsuits, accusations, and convictions, as well as those who have broken away from it. Although they're in theory only baptized when they're old enough to decide for themselves if they want to be a part of the church, Raquel Haifa said that free will didn't enter into her decision. She described her revival as being forced to kneel and say "Glory to Christ" until they began speaking in tongues. "I did cry," she recalled, "because I was saying, 'God deliver me from this, make this time pass quickly.'"

Accusations of abuse were voiced a long time ago

La Luz del Mundo apostle Naasón Joaquín García was arrested in 2019, but the archives of the Los Angeles Times prove it's clear that accusations against the church are nothing new. Back in 1998, women — including 31-year-old Amparo Aguilar — came forward to say that they were children when they were sexually abused by Joaquin Garcia's father, Samuel Joaquín (pictured). 

He was the head of the church at the time Aguilar said she was escorted into his bedroom and raped, before being told "not to say anything, because if I did, God would punish me." Hers was one of four accusations, and although they were reported to authorities, it was ultimately ruled that there wasn't enough evidence to charge and prosecute.

There were other accusations, too: Moises Padilla accused Joaquín of assaulting him as a teenager, and after he broke from the church, he says he was kidnapped, beaten, and stabbed 57 times as a warning to him and others. Among critics who campaigned on behalf of victims was Jorge Erdely, an anti-cult activist and Oxford-educated doctor of theology. LDM accused him of attempting to profit off the charges, but Erdely denied the charges and, in 2002, explained to The Guardian why Mexico was the perfect place for a church like LDM to flourish: an iffy judicial structure and record on human rights coupled with "the profound loyalty people feel to an institution" created a perfect storm.

Tithing and forced donations paved the way down a slippery slope

Jennifer Tiexiera is the director of "Unveiled," a 2022 HBO documentary on La Luz del Mundo. She told The Guardian that among the accusations made against the church was one that claimed they had made a fortune preying on the poor, starting with a requirement that had church members tithing 10% of their earnings. Others have suggested that was just the beginning, with a 2020 lawsuit filed with Greenberg Gross LLP and Jeff Anderson & Associates claiming that they were also required to give a weekly offering to the Apostle and another to the church itself, along with a percentage of income that included things like settlements and loans.

And that's not even getting into unpaid labor: Former church member Sochil Martin estimated that she did somewhere around 30,000 hours of unpaid labor for the church during her time as a member, and it's also worth noting that according to El Pais, their flagship temple in Guadalajara's Hermosa Provincia was built mostly by unpaid church members.

That's all made the church incredibly wealthy, and as the saying goes, money is power. Anthropologist Elio Masferrer also says that they have contacts in most of Mexico's political parties, and connections were so close that political entities were known to interfere with judicial processes: "If the political power said that accusations should not go through a judicial process, then no action was taken."

Experts noticed something ominous about their headquarters

The founder of La Luz del Mundo passed control of the church on to his son, Samuel Joaquín, on his death. In the following years, Joaquín bought real estate, established a "holy city" in a section of Guadalajara, and in 1983, they broke ground on the construction of a massive temple said to have cost around $50 million to build. (Given that it was built by unpaid volunteers from the church, that figure is highly disputed.) It's big enough to hold 12,000 people, and experts say that the design is incredibly telling.

Iván San Martín is a specialist in religious architecture at Autonomous University, and told El Pais that the pyramidal shape isn't an accident: It's meant to be a visual representation of keeping the masses at the bottom and God's chosen apostle at the top. He also cites the layout of the surrounding streets: The temple sits in the center of eight streets that radiate out from it, which San Martín says is a layout that resembles centuries-old designs commonly used for prisons and citadels.

There's also a series of tunnels that run beneath the entire structure, which include passages from the apostle's home and office through to secret rooms with one-way mirrors looking into other offices. Only a privileged few had access, San Martín explained that the entire thing was very carefully designed: "It's not a coincidence. It is an expression of the church's control over the earthly lives of its faithful."

Rumors of the Unconditionals

Scientology famously has the Sea Organization, or Sea Org: They're described as "the singularly most dedicated Scientologists," and although La Luz del Mundo officially denies that there are any similar groups or hierarchy within their organization, rumors have long circulated about an elite group called the Unconditionals. In 2023, a former follower identified only as "Abisai" told El Pais that his wife had been a part of the group, and when she told him that she had been chosen, groomed, and sexually assaulted by church leaders, he said, "My world completely fell apart. But I was such a fanatic that, honestly, I didn't believe it at first. She really fought for me to open my eyes."

A 2020 lawsuit filed by Greenberg Gross LLP and Jeff Anderson & Associates also referred to the existence of the Unconditionals: According to testimony of their client, Sochil Martin, they made up the church's inner circle and were subject to even more rules and regulations than church members, even forbidden from spending time with anyone who wasn't in the church.

And it's not a new thing, either. When the Los Angeles Times reported on accusations that were leveled at the church in 1998, they noted that there were claims that the head of the church maintained such control over the group that they arranged marriages. Claremont College professor and immigrant activist Lourdes Arguelles explained that even then, accusations went well beyond religion and into "totalitarian control of powerless people."

The arrest and sentencing of an Apostle

Third-generation La Luz del Mundo leader Naasón Joaquín García (pictured) was arrested in 2019, and according to the Los Angeles Times, he was charged with 26 felonies said to have occurred over the prior three years. Three members of his church were charged along with him: Alondra Ocampo, Azalea Rangel Melendez, and Susana Medina Oaxaca were accused of assisting him in committing some of the offenses, particularly in the grooming of underage girls.

As more information was released, the Associated Press reported that Ocampo pleaded guilty and agreed to give testimony against the church leader. Her attorney, Fred Thiagarajah, explained, "She actively recruited and groomed girls for him. She would target girls and bring them into his inner fold. She was tasked with sexualizing these girls and facilitating their abuse."

Although García pleaded not guilty, he ultimately changed his plea to guilty on three counts: two of forcible oral copulation involving minors, and one of a lewd act upon a child. (Previously, Oaxaca also pleaded guilty to four felony counts involving sexual acts with a minor. At the time of García's sentencing, Melendez had yet to be apprehended.) With the guilty plea, García was sentenced to 16 years and eight months in prison.

The sentencing and plea deal meant a lot went unsaid

Naasón Joaquín García's plea deal was a last-minute sort of thing, as selection for a jury trial was set to start about 72 hours after he entered his plea. Although California's Attorney General Rob Bonta said (via El Pais) that they were considering the sentencing a good thing, not everyone else agreed. In particular, the former church members who were set to testify believed that the nearly 17-year sentence was not nearly enough, and it had also taken away victims' rights to testify at a trial and confront García.

The Los Angeles Times quoted one of the victims prepared to testify as saying that she had wanted to "tell the world who this man really is." She added: "I feel that this plea allows him to escape the true consequences." While many also spoke out about suffering harassment and intimidation from the church behind the scenes, Sochil Martin (pictured) also explained how the verdict was nowhere near good enough, and called it a "slap to the face."

Taking the plea deal meant that thousands of pieces of evidence — including photos, videos, text messages, and testimonies — were going to go unheard, and charges — including child pornography, human trafficking, and rape of a minor — were going unanswered. While some victims, like Martin, have continued to encourage others to come forward, García's official statement says that he "had no choice but to accept [the plea deal] with much pain... to protect the church and his family."

Under the guise of blessings

After the arrest of Naasón Joaquín García and the release of details regarding the charges that he and his associates were facing, more people started to step forward to talk about what they had been through. Sochil Martin was on the front lines of the court cases against García, and she also spoke in the HBO documentary "Unveiled," (via WBUR). According to her, the systematic abuse was presented to victims as a "blessing" from the apostle.

It started with young girls being chosen for inclusion in these special "blessings," and Martin — and others — have said that first, they're tasked with things like cleaning, housework, and cooking. But that quickly escalated into posing for nude photos, performing lewd dances, and ultimately, sex acts. Girls were selected for grooming into the role when they were as young as 8 or 9 years old, and according to Alondra Ocampo — who was charged along with García and testified against him — it was the result of years of programming.

Her attorney explained (via El Pais): "Alondra did it because this man was God's representative on Earth; she has been indoctrinated all her life to believe in that and in the Joaquín family." Those chosen were told that not only did their own salvation depend on their compliance, but that refusing the will of the Apostle would dishonor their families as well, who would have no choice but to view them as an "abomination."

Accusations went back through the generations

Jennifer Tiexiera is the director of the HBO Max documentary "Unveiled," and said (via WBUR) that when she started interviewing Sochil Martin, she was shocked by how long it had been going on. In addition to saying that she had been abused by both Naasón Joaquín García and his father, Martin revealed that her mother had been one of the women groomed from childhood. "So was her aunt," Tiexiera said. "We had women in their 60s, 50s, 40s, and 20s. All of their stories were almost interchangeable."

In addition to the accusations — issued and overlooked — against Joaquín García's father in the 1990s, El Pais says that there have also been allegations going back to the church's founder and first-generation Apostle, Aarón. Back in the 1940s, the church underwent a schism: Officially, church history says that the split happened due to a massive disagreement over whether or not the founder's birthday should be officially celebrated. Unofficially, though, was discontent with the wealth amassed by the church leadership at the expense of members, and rumors that their leader had raped a 13-year-old girl.

After the sentencing of Joaquín García, protestors hit the streets of Los Angeles. His arrest and sentence weren't good enough, and they claimed that behind the scenes, abuse was still going on. One told NBC, "They're no men of God. They don't believe in God. I'm here because I want to tell the members of La Luz del Mundo they're lying."

Many, many people remained loyal

After the leader of La Luz del Mundo was charged with a series of felonies that included some unspeakable crimes against children, after he pleaded guilty and after he was sentenced, something unexpected happened: The faithful rallied around him. El Pais reported that thousands of people cheered and prayed when he issued his first, 15-minute message from behind bars, and according to the church, his message was an "apostolic intercession," where he appealed to God for forgiveness for them all.

The official stance of the church is that they've been targeted by "religious persecution," and many have agreed. Sara Pozos told Chron that the trial had brought the church together: "I think it changed for the better in the sense that now we feel more united, and we feel more empowered." And the Los Angeles Times reported that people were turning out in droves to show that their devotion hadn't wavered, gathering for prayer services and voicing their continued loyalty to their imprisoned leader.

Banners with sentiments like "Honorable!" and "Inocente!" went up around the church's headquarters. It was a former church member named Sergio Meza Jr. who perhaps summed it up best when he said, "This guy is [now] more of a martyr to save the name of the church and his own people."

Why hasn't it gotten more publicity?

The sordid saga of La Luz del Mundo seems to have everything that would be guaranteed to get it in headlines across the world. There's terrible accusations against a massively powerful megachurch, three generations of scandal, and continued claims of abuse and exploitation. But yet, it didn't get nearly as much attention as the case of Jeffrey Epstein, even though the two stories broke at almost the same time. Why?

Director Jennifer Tiexiera spoke with The Guardian around the release of her documentary, "Unveiled." She said, "I wish I could say that [racism] wasn't the case. But in my own experience of being a woman of color in this country, I've seen it time and time again. How this didn't get the coverage that its counterparts were getting at the same time is mind-boggling."

Althea Coronado was one of the La Luz del Mundo members who cut ties with the church, and later spoke out about what she and others had experienced there. She was 11 years old when she was selected to become one of the inner circle, and left the church after news of the arrest, plea, and sentencing. She said that she had long held onto the hope that the actions of the church leaders would align with the faith they preached, but adds that it never happened: "We were hiding in plain sight," she said.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, sexual assault, or spiritual abuse, help is available:

Call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.
Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.