‘We were hiding in plain sight’: the horrifying story of La Luz del Mundo

Mere weeks before financier Jeffrey Epstein’s private plane touched down in the New York area and the notorious pedophile was arrested on sex trafficking charges, Naasón Joaquín García disembarked from his own private jet in Los Angeles and was detained for similar reasons. The pastor of the secretive megachurch La Luz del Mundo (LLDM), who had been flying with a coterie of handmaidens and enablers, was wanted for a string of felonies, including human trafficking, production of child sexual abuse images and rape of a minor.

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Epstein, who moved in elite circles and preyed on mostly blond and blue-eyed victims, would go on to become a household name. García and his purportedly religious organization, which allegedly supports the grooming of children for the pleasure of its upper rank and has a footprint in approximately 50 countries, still flies under the radar.

“I wish I could say that that [racism] wasn’t the case,” says Jennifer Tiexiera, the director of Unveiled, a three-part HBO documentary about the hideous crimes that have been carried out over generations at the church, and the growing number of survivors brave enough to disentangle from the cult and share the unspeakable events that have shaped their lives. “But in my own experience of being a woman of color in this country, I’ve seen it time and time again,” says Tiexiera, who grew up in the US and whose heritage is Mexican and Filipino. “How this didn’t get the coverage that its counterparts were getting at the same time is mind-boggling.”

Her new series, produced by Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Films, and based on the original reporting of longtime investigative partners Rhonda Schwartz and Brian Ross, sidesteps the trap of being yet another vehicle of prurient cult content. While megachurches are mushrooming and the public appetite for tales of malfeasance is at an all-time high, there is little of the sensational in this production, which mixes footage created by the church’s internal propaganda arm and original interviews with a slew of survivors. Tiexiera is less rabble-rouser than truly good listener, a rare quality in her field. Despite the shocking revelations that emerge, gentleness and respect are the project’s overwhelming characteristics.

LLDM, which has anywhere from 1 to 5 million followers, was founded in 1926 by Aarón Joaquín González in Jalisco, the Mexican state that is known for being the birthplace of tequila. A former shoe vendor, the self-identified “apostle” built a church that preyed on poor, disenfranchised people who sought salvation and handed over 10% of their earnings as tithings. Aarón held power until he died in 1964, when his son, Samuel Joaquín Flores, took over. Following Samuel’s death in 2014, Samuel’s son Naasón Joaquín García assumed leadership, and would carry on the organization’s nefarious traditions. The three generations of “apostles” preached with alarming gusto and self-regard, and also allegedly helped themselves to the company and sexual services of children – mostly girls, but boys as well – who were groomed to serve the appetites of the leaders.

“We were hiding in plain sight,” says Althea Coronado, a fourth-generation church member and victim who appears in the film. Her disillusionment crystallized in 2014, when the church announced Samuel’s replacement would be his son, Naasón. “I could not fathom that another Joaquín would be the leader,” says Coronado, who is the daughter of LLDM ministers and was all too familiar with the dark ways of the family to believe that a third Joaquín might come to the helm. She puts down her surprise to naivety; she’d expected that the new leader would truly reflect the values of her faith. “There’d always been little doubts here, little doubts there, but we were taught to suppress those red flags,” she says.

Coronado didn’t completely cut her ties with the church until a few years later, when she read of Naasón’s arrest and recognized many of the charges as aligning with her own experience. Coronado was 11 when she gained first-hand experience of the church’s predatory traditions. The person who began grooming her was her cousin. “She was a child as well,” Coronado says. “And she was groomed, and didn’t know any better.”

While Coronado was made to perform sexual acts, it’s the psychological control the church exerted over her that she says has left the deepest scars. “It’s the fears they instill, the doubts about oneself. The dependency, the loss of a sense of self, that is what is most affecting me.” The church also made Coronado hand over collateral – in her case, a letter confessing to sins she had supposedly committed. As a devout child, she had no material for such a letter. “So I made it up,” she says. “I wrote that I had fornicated with someone at school and that I was so sorry. And that I wanted to serve [the apostle] and be at his side.”

She was never not afraid, and asked permission to make any moves well into her adulthood, from traveling out of state to see her parents to attending medical school in Mexico. She had to appeal to the apostle to get married. “I was so afraid that he wouldn’t let me because once you are his in a physical way, then you are his property.”

The church managed to operate for nearly a century without making ripples in the outside world. That changed in the spring of 2019, when investigative reporter Rhonda Schwartz received a tip from somebody who lives in Flowery Branch, a tiny city in Georgia where the church was buying up 272 acres (110 hectares) of land and planning on developing housing units, a shopping center and one of its signature psychedelic-brutalist temples. The tipster had searched online about the group and found a Reddit thread in which victims convened to share their claims of degradation, gaslighting and sexual assault. “It really did seem fantastical, and I could not find a lot written about this group,” says Schwartz.

Little by little, she discovered that the narratives surrounding LLDM were even more sickening than she’d been led to believe. “It’s a strange kind of royal dynasty because this was a self-appointed apostle who then appointed his son and then his grandson, along with these perverted proclivities, and a great deal of power and influence,” she says.

Around the time of her and her partner’s reporting for Law & Crime Network, a citizen tip to the California attorney general’s sexual abuse hotline set off an investigation. Naasón was arrested, and entered a plea deal that resulted in his sentencing of 16 years and eight months in a California prison for sexually abusing three girls. It came as a blow to the victims who’d been preparing to testify in court and see their perpetrator spend the rest of his life behind bars. After all, Ghislane Maxwell was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for her acts as Jeffrey Epstein’s accomplice.

About 30 survivors participated with Tiexiera in her interviews, though only half appear in the final cut of the film. “Our priority was that we weren’t going to do anything that endangered their physical safety, their mental health or their court cases if there had been court cases,” the director says. She and her team created a consent calendar consisting of several check-in points with participants who were always welcome to pull away from the project. “I wanted to make sure that there were no surprises. The last thing I wanted to do was cause any more pain or re-traumatization to an already extremely painful situation,” she says. “I would almost say the art came second, to be honest.”

The scandal has not quashed the church. Naasón remains the apostle, and the supposed messenger of God is now leading sermons via telephone from his jail cell. But a federal investigation is under way, and there is a very real possibility, no doubt aided by the release of Tiexiera’s film, that he will be preaching from behind bars for a whole lot longer.

  • Unveiled is available in the US on HBO Max and in the UK at a later date