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Leader of religious group based in Mexico charged with sex crimes

Naason Joaquin Garcia, who heads the organisation that claims one million followers worldwide, and three co-defendants allegedly committed 26 felonies in southern California between 2015 and 2018.

FILE: Faithful take part in the 2018 annual Holy Convocation of La Luz del Mundo (The Light of the World) church on 14 August 2018, in Guadalajara, Jalisco state, Mexico, where its headquarters are located. Picture: AFP

LOS ANGELES - The leader of La Luz Del Mundo, an international religious organisation based in Mexico, has been arrested in California on charges of human trafficking, child rape and other felonies, authorities said Tuesday.

Naason Joaquin Garcia, who heads the organisation that claims one million followers worldwide, and three co-defendants allegedly committed 26 felonies in southern California between 2015 and 2018.

Garcia and his co-defendants, all of them women affiliated with La Luz Del Mundo (The Light of the World), are accused of coercing minor girls into performing sexual acts by telling them that if they went against the wishes of "the Apostle," as Garcia was called, they would be going against God.

"Crimes like those alleged in this complaint have no place in our society. Period," California's Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. "We must not turn a blind eye to sexual violence and trafficking in our state."

According to the 19-page charge sheet, the minors, who were members of the church that was founded in 1926, were encouraged to perform "flirty" dances for Garcia while scantily clothed, to touch each other sexually and were sexually assaulted by the guru.

Garcia also allegedly boasted about "a king having mistresses and stated that an apostle of god can never be judged for his actions."

The complaint states that Garcia, who is being held on $25 million bail, and one of his co-defendants, Alondra Ocampo, also raped a minor between 1 October 2017 and 8 February 2018 in the Los Angeles area.

The other two defendants in the case were identified as Azalea Rangel Melendez and Susana Medina Oaxaca.

Ocampo and Oaxaca have been arrested while an arrest warrant has been issued for Melendez.

Becerra said authorities launched an investigation in 2018 thanks to information submitted to the California Department of Justice through the clergy abuse online complaint form.

Although La Luz del Mundo is headquartered in Mexico, its influence has spread to California and other regions in recent years.

In a statement the church denied the charges, saying it was confident Garcia would be proven innocent.

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