'Victory for the victims': La Luz del Mundo 'cult' leader faces new charges

Elisa Flores, a member of the Houston congregation for 46 years, describes a family torn apart by allegations of sexual abuse inside the church.

Houston Chronicle/October 27, 2023

By Eric Killelea

The leader of Mexico-based evangelical megachurch La Luz del Mundo, who is apparently running 18 Houston congregations while serving a state prison sentence for sexually abusing girls, has now been charged with two counts of child pornography.

Naasón Joaquín García, 53, was charged this week with felony crimes alleging he "produced and possessed" child pornography, according to the U.S. Justice Department. García, who is set to make his initial appearance in federal court in Los Angeles in the upcoming weeks, could face a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison if convicted of both counts.

In the indictment, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California accused García of forcing a 16 year old to "to engage in sexually explicit conduct" to record, save and share images and possessing an iPad which contained five videos of child pornography.

Former believers in Houston who say the "cult-like" church taught them to view García as the apostle of Jesus Christ and to keep silent during his court proceedings are celebrating the new charges. Yet they worry for family members who continue to attend daily gatherings across the city in support of their spiritual leader. "The federal charges are a sign of relief," Elisa Flores, who attended services at La Luz del Mundo in Houston for 46 years, said Thursday. "Finally, this is a victory for the victims of this cult. It’s a way to keep the children safe."

García and the church were thrown into the national spotlight when he was arrested on state charges in California in June 2019. Authorities said they seized an iPad from García at the time and found five videos of child pornography.

Flores, who has said she was sexually abused by a church member when she was 12 years old and recently noted that she knew of other women who were sexually assaulted, recalled seeking help from her brother to remove herself, her five children and grandchildren from the Houston church community in January 2021.

The charges were "mind shattering," she said. "Children are taught that the apostle is a man of God and without him there is no salvation ... It’s hard to see him for the monster that he truly is."

Flores eventually believed prosecutors were too lenient when, in June 2022, they dropped16 counts against García including allegations of human trafficking and raping children and women. In exchange, Garcia pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual abuse and was sentenced to the California Institution for Men in Chino.

Flores was livid when learning that García made a 15-minute phone call to his devoted congregants on Aug. 14 to celebrate the birthday of his grandfather. “I’m not physically present, but I’m here with all of you,” García said, according to the Spanish-language newspaper El País. “You may not see me, but you can definitely feel my presence in this wonderful gathering.”

"From his prison cell, he is still guiding this church," Flores said. "That's not justice for the victims. That's not justice for me. That's not justice, period."

Garcia’s grandfather, Eusebio (Aarón) Joaquín founded La Luz del Mundo in 1926 in Guadalajara, Mexico. His grandfather and father, Samuel Joaquín Flores, led the church until he took it over in 2014. The church now claims it has more than 5 million followers globally. An email seeking comment from the church on the new federal charges wasn't immediately returned.

Flores and her eight siblings grew up in the church in Houston. In fact, Samuel Joaquín Flores named her after his wife.

Today, Flores is no longer part of the church. Three of her siblings are out, too. But five other siblings and  aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces have since shunned her and her children as they denounce the state and federal charges against their apostle. "I've lost part of my family," she said.

Flores has considered changing her name given to her by the church. But she believes the namesake helps fuel her efforts to speak out against alleged sexual abuse crimes. "Samuel named me and I thought that I belonged to him and the church," she said. "To use this name and to speak against the church feels very powerful."

Other former church members have described their experiences in numerous news segments and in the 2022 three-part HBO docu-series Unveiled: Surviving La Luz del Mundo.

Flores has sought to help former church members speak about their own experiences in church in Houston. In March, she joined local immigration rights organization FIEL Houston at a news conference held in front of the sanctuary near the East Freeway, where a teenage girl alleged that she was sexually abused by a relative and church member. That person, Juan Garcia Perez, remains at large. Flores believes that Perez fled to Mexico years ago.

Kaleb Lemus, the church’s choir director in Houston, was arrested and charged in August with a felony count of indecency with child sexual contact, according to the Harris County District Court records.

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