A self-proclaimed apostle and head of the Mexican megachurch La Luz del Mundo faces charges of child rape and human trafficking. California has also filed charges against two of his female associates.
US prosecutors filed new charges against Naason Joaquin Garcia, the spiritual leader of the La Luz del Mundo (LLDM) church, after charges of human trafficking and child rape brought against him were thrown out on a technicality.
The Mexican-based evangelical church, founded by Garcia's grandfather, claims to have 5 million members across the world. The members honor the 51-year-old Garcia as an "apostle" of Jesus Christ.
The prosecutors believe Garcia and at least two of his female associates, Susana Medina Oaxaca and Alondra Ocampo, raped and abused underage girls and produced child pornography. Ocampo served as the "groomer and recruiter" of the victims, according to the criminal complaint cited by The Los Angeles Times. The girls allegedly were told that "if they went against desires or wishes of 'the Apostle' ... that they were going against" God. The charges also accuse human trafficking and extortion. Another defendant, Azalea Rangel Melendez, remains a fugitive.
Garcia has denied any wrongdoing.
Prosecutorial problems hold up first case
Earlier this year, a California-based woman sued the LLDM church and Garcia, claiming he and his father sexually abused her for years, starting when she was 12, according to an AP report.
California authorities were forced to refile charges against Garcia after a US court dismissed an earlier case against him in April. After being arrested in 2019, Garcia waived his right to a speedy preliminary hearing. However, the complaint against him was then amended to include possession of child pornography, and Garcia did not waive the right this time. His trial was then repeatedly postponed — in some cases, because the prosecutors did not provide evidence to the defense team — while Garcia remained in custody without bail.
After his lawyers launched a challenge, an appeals court ruled that a hearing must be held within 10 days of the second arraignment unless there is a "good cause" to delay. The criminal case was then thrown out.
Garcia, who is currently in the United States on $50 million (€42 million) bail, is due to appear in court on the refiled charges next week.