Sex slavery and forced labor charges lodged against La Luz del Mundo church

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When leaders of La Luz del Mundo church said they needed money, she turned over all her earnings.

When they wanted sex, she gave them her body, beginning at age 9.

And when they wanted her to recruit other children to be groomed for sexual slavery, she did that too, she said — until the weight of it all, combined with brutal beatings doled out when she balked, drove her to attempt suicide and then flee the church in October 2016.

These are the claims in a federal lawsuit filed this week by former member Sochil Martin, 33, against the Guadalajara-based megachurch.

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“For nearly 22 years, I was made to work for, travel for, lie for and give my body to an organization that saw me as nothing more than a source of profit and sexual pleasure,” Martin said.

Her claims come amid a sweeping criminal case filed last year that accuses church leader Naasón Joaquín Garcia, 50 and others of human trafficking, production of child pornography, forcible rape of a minor and other felonies. While the defendants have pleaded not guilty, the scandal has roiled the church both in the United States and Mexico.

La Luz del Mundo — or Light of the World — is the largest evangelical church in Mexico. It has branches in 50 countries and boasts more than 5 million members.

Jack Freeman, a minister who has been with the church for 28 years, said he “completely rejects” the allegations and thinks they were timed to disrupt the organization’s Holy Supper. This week’s celebration, which he described as the church’s biggest U.S. event of the year, drew tens of thousands of worshipers to the Pomona Fairplex, he said.

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“It is not about abuse. It is not about this fantastic story she’s come up with,” Freeman said of the lawsuit. “It’s about attention and trying to interfere with the holy event the church is doing.”

Sochil Martin

Sochil Martin, who said she is a former sex slave of La Luz Del Mundo leader Naason Joaquin Garcia, at a news conference in downtown Los Angeles.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

He said those who have accused church officials of misconduct represent a small fraction of its global congregation.

“We continue to have baptisms. We continue to grow,” he said. “So you’re hearing from one individual, and we have over 5 million that would testify otherwise that everything she is saying is untrue and that we are a church of good, decent, honorable people with ministers who care about and love their members and a director who is guiding this church in a very decent way.”

Since the charges were filed by California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, church officials have mounted an aggressive and public defense of their leader.

But the lawsuit goes beyond the allegations in the criminal complaint, detailing what attorneys describe as an institutionalized culture of abuse and exploitation that primed church members to turn over their money, labor and children to church leaders, whom members are taught to regard as God’s messengers on Earth.

The civil complaint, which names La Luz del Mundo, Garcia and a dozen other high-ranking church members, seeks damages for involuntary servitude, forced and unpaid labor, human trafficking, racketeering and sexual battery.

“There are various dimensions to this case. It’s a human rights case. It’s a case about the sexual abuse of children,” said attorney Josh Robbins, a former federal prosecutor. “But it is also a case about organized crime. … And it’s been happening right here in our backyard.”

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Martin was born in Monterey Park and raised by her aunt, a prominent member of La Luz del Mundo who offered her as a sexual servant to the church’s former leader, Samuel Joaquín Flores, and then to his successor and son, Garcia, the lawsuit claims.

Flores’ father founded La Luz del Mundo in 1926, and he, Flores and Garcia all became charismatic leaders of the fast-growing church. While serving as leader, each man was considered by congregants to be the apostle of Jesus Christ, infallible as God and incapable of sin. Members are taught they can achieve salvation only by worshiping the apostle, the lawsuit states.

Martin was first taught to perform erotic dances for Flores at age 9; groomers provided her with revealing outfits and taught her how and where he wanted to be touched, she said in the lawsuit.

By age 12, Martin was regularly performing private dances for Flores, and over the next four years, she said she regularly served him in various states of undress. As part of their training, she and other children were made to memorize Bible passages that their groomers said explained why being “loved” by Flores was a gift from God, the lawsuit states.

When she turned 14, Martin was required to make regular payments to the church. At 16, she started working for the church itself, producing segments for a radio station that eventually grew into its media and propaganda division, according to the lawsuit. Martin said she never received any compensation, and the lawsuit estimates she worked more than 30,000 unpaid hours.

The expectation for church members to provide free labor and donate their property, including titles to real estate holdings, is a common one, she said.

“For far too many La Luz del Mundo members, everything they have is taken by La Luz del Mundo,” Martin said. “Every dollar they make goes to La Luz del Mundo because they truly believe their money will be used to do the work of God on Earth.”

But Martin witnessed church leaders finance lavish lifestyles on the backs of their followers, the lawsuit alleges. It states that Garcia and his family members used donations to buy designer clothing, expensive art and multimillion-dollar estates, including mansions in Malibu and Palos Verdes and ranches in Texas and Redlands that housed menageries of exotic animals, as well as a private museum of restored vintage cars.

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On one occasion, Martin recalled, church members in Southern California were encouraged to donate to Garcia any gold heirlooms and jewelry they owned. The donations were melted down and used to paint the moldings in a Los Angeles home he’d recently had built, according to the lawsuit.

In December 2014, Flores died and Garcia took over the church, assuming the title of apostle. The abuse against Martin intensified, according to the lawsuit.

By then, she was living in Ensenada with her husband, a fellow member whom she’d married with the church’s approval, and she’d given birth to a girl.

Garcia forced her to uproot her life and travel to Guadalajara for months at a time, where he became “entirely unlimited in his sexual demands,” according to the lawsuit.

He also assigned Martin a new role as recruiter and groomer for his child sex harem, the lawsuit states.

“For the last year before [I left the church], when I was with Naasón, it was a nightmare,” Martin said. “Through my entire life, it was a bad dream. I was just living it over and over. But toward the last year, I just saw and lived so many things.”

According to the lawsuit, Garcia once ordered Martin to perform a sex act on a 14-year-old boy, and when she refused, he beat her until she lost feeling in her right leg. Martin later learned the boy was forced to have sex with another groomer, and then with his mother, which Garcia videotaped. She said she fell into a deep depression and attempted suicide by washing down painkillers with alcohol.

Martin’s husband eventually became so concerned for her mental well-being that he began investigating her behavior and in October 2016, he found explicit photo and text message exchanges with Garcia on her phone, she said.

“He said, ‘This is very wrong. You’re all being used, and this is not a church of God,’” she said.

After the couple fled the church, Martin was subjected to a campaign of intimidation and harassment by its members that got worse once they realized she was working with law enforcement on the criminal investigation into Garcia, she said.

Several weeks after Garcia’s arrest, two people walked into her Ensenada home, introduced themselves as private investigators hired by Garcia’s criminal defense team and made vaguely threatening comments about her plans to testify, the lawsuit says. One of them flashed an LAPD business card, Martin said.

Terrified, she fled to California.

But in December, when she was staying with her family in a long-term hotel in the San Diego area, a man whom church members know as “the enforcer” followed her in an attempt to intimidate her, the lawsuit claims.

Martin was forced to find new accommodations. She continues to live in fear, she said.

Attorney Jeff Anderson said the allegations amount to “the gravest peril” his firm has faced and emphasized that Martin is likely one of hundreds of victims.

“We are here today standing with Sochil to sound the alarm and to expose the culture and the predators that are active as we speak — not just for trafficking … but in the silencing of anybody that would speak against them,” he said.

Martin said she hopes she’ll inspire others who were abused to also come forward.

“What happened to us is not right,” she said, her voice trembling. “It is not a blessing. It is not from God. It is not right.”

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