Friday, June 21, 2024

Jailed Luz del Mundo church leader under investigation for money laundering in US

The leader of a Mexico-based megachurch, who is serving more than 16 years in a California prison for sexually abusing young followers, is now under investigation in the U.S. for possible money laundering and human trafficking, the newspaper Milenio reported on Monday.

Naasón Merarí Joaquín García was arrested at the Los Angeles International Airport in 2019 and charged with 19 counts of sex crimes against children. He was convicted in 2022 after agreeing to plead guilty to three of the charges and is now being held in a state prison near Fresno, California.

State prosecutors said Joaquín García used his religious position to have sex with girls and young women, telling them it would lead to their salvation (or damnation if they refused).

Joaquín García remains the leader of the La Luz del Mundo (Light of the World), an evangelical church with five million worldwide followers that was founded in 1926 by his grandfather, Aarón Joaquín González.

Believers consider Joaquín García, 54, to be what he has deemed himself: an “apostle” of Jesus Christ. He took over the pulpit in 2014.

When the church held a service last August — with Joaquín García preaching via a video recorded in prison — it drew an estimated 500,000 people to Guadalajara, where the church has its world headquarters.

The luz del mundo church in Guadalajara
Luz del Mundo, or Light of the World, is an evangelical church based in Guadalajara. (Wikimedia Commons)

During the August service, Joaquín García spoke of sinners who have been “plunged into a field of guilt … due to a whim of the flesh … an unhealthy whim.” He added that he often turns to God seeking “mercy and forgiveness.”

Now, U.S. agents with the Department of Homeland Security are investigating Joaquín García for financing his luxurious lifestyle by diverting donations and tithes given to the church, as reported by Milenio.

The case, which is being prepared for trial, also claims the church failed to inform the U.S. Treasury of its income and history of large international money transfers, Milenio noted.

In 2020, Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) gave the Attorney General five complaints against La Luz del Mundo for money laundering, Milenio added. The UIF found that the church had made big purchases of vehicles, real estate and private security.

Moreover, a U.S. grand jury charged the religious leader last October with additional crimes: two counts of possessing and producing child pornography, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

That case stems from an iPad that Joaquín García had with him when he was arrested in 2019, which the FBI said contained videos depicting a 16-year-old girl engaging in sexual activity.

Joaquín García is serving a sentence of 16 years and 8 months at the California Institution for Men in Chino. In 2022, he pleaded guilty to two state counts of forcible oral copulation involving minors and one count of a lewd act upon a child who was 15. In exchange, California prosecutors dropped 16 counts that included allegations of raping children and women, as well as human trafficking to produce child pornography.

If convicted of the two new charges, Garcia would face 15 to 30 years in federal prison for producing child pornography and up to 10 years in prison for possessing it.

With reports from Milenio, Proceso and AP

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