Millions of low-income Hispanics in the United States and Latin America donate 10% of their monthly income to evangelical churches. The donations are known as tithes. The faithful, also give cash offerings when they attend services and volunteer at church fundraising events.
A Univision investigation that examined some of these congregations revealed that their handling of the millions of dollars donated by parishioners lacked transparency and little or nothing is known about how the money is used.
What is undeniable is the luxurious lifestyle of the pastors and their families. Private planes, mansions, luxury cars and expensive clothes are part of the lifestyle of the spiritual leaders, some of whom justify it by explaining that wealth is a blessing from God, a philosophy known as the prosperity gospel.
The Guatemalan pastor Carlos 'Cash' Luna summed it up like this:
"An apostle taught me; 'Cash, one always takes two things to church, a bible and a checkbook: the bible so you can learn what God is going to tell you, and the checkbook to show your love for him.’"
Although they are exempt from taxes, the informality with which the congregations manage their finances has led the authorities to open investigations.
Photo: Carlos ‘Cash’ Luna/House of God
Carlos Luna’s voice breaks remembering the humble beginnings of his church “La Casa de Dios” (House of God). Gazing up slowly towards the stage lights, the pastor recovers from his sadness and claims joyously that perseverance has helped him overcome many hurdles.
On a recent Sunday in October, 12,000 worshipers at at his mega church in Guatemala City, the largest church of its kind in Latin America, listen enthralled to his every word.
“Is it coincidence that we now have such a large roof over our heads when we used to come to a small house to worship?” asks Luna, only to provide the answer himself. He says all his achievements are result of his hardwork in the service of the Lord.
Photo: The House of God church in Guatemala City/Univision
However, others question the reasons behind Luna’s financial success. According to witness accounts, there are more earthly factors to his success, including a Guatemalan businesswoman jailed for drug smuggling and money laundering.
Sources say that Marllory Chacón, alias ‘The Queen of the South’ (‘La Reina del Sur’) was a major contributor of money to the pastor. In 2015, she was sentenced to 12 years in jail on drug smuggling charges. Luna’s name does not appear in any public court documents regarding Chacón, though parts of her file were sealed by a judge.
According to court documents, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) infiltrated Chacón’s organization around 2010. Univision spoke a Colombian pilot Jorge Herrera, who says he transported cocaine for a powerful Colombian cartel, and claims to be the DEA’s source inside Chacón’s organization.
Photo: Marrlory Chacon/Univision
According to Herrera, Luna was in the first meeting he had with Chacón in Guatemala in 2010, one of many meetings he said he recorded for the DEA with a camera hidden in a button on his shirt.
“They were basically talking about delivering money because the pastor, ‘Cash’ Luna, said they had laid the groundwork for (building) the church and needed to move forward with the project,” said Herrera.
According to the pilot, Luna was close to Chacón.
“Trust me, that dude [Luna] was Marllory’s right hand. He was her advisor. To me, he’s a manipulative man,” said Herrera.
Herrera clarified that Luna did not play a part in the drug smuggling deals, but he knew very well what her business was and he accepted her money.
“He knew that a drug smuggling pilot was coming to talk to them. He knew there was an organization and that I had a partner. He knew that Marllory was a drug dealer. He knew absolutely everything,” said Herrera, describing the events at the time.
Photo: Colombian pilot Jorge Herrera
Its two massive Sunday services are an impressive display of sound and lighting engineering.
The church was inaugurated in 2013 by former Guatemala President Otto Pérez Molina, who was forced to resign two years later and remains in jail on corruption charges unrelated to the church.
Univision requested an interview with Luna in October after attending one of his church services. His spokesperson, Marly de Armas, said the pastor had a busy schedule for the next two months that made it nearly impossible to accept.
Univision later sent Luna 26 questions based on the information obtained from the sources for this story. Among other things, Univision requested his version of the alleged relationship with Chacón.
De Armas responded three weeks later: “We are sorry that an unreliable source abused your good will. The information you claim to have received from that person is false.”
A person close to Chacón’s family, who asked to remain anonymous, told Univision that they took money to Luna’s house on Chacón’s orders.
According to the source, Luna constantly asked Chacón for money, which bothered her. “‘Son of a b….’, she would say. ‘He wants more each time’,” the source said, quoting Chacón.
Chacón and Luna were next door neighbors in Guatemala City, their mansions barely 100 feet apart, and shared the same entrance surrounded by a large wall; information that Univision confirmed using drone imagery.
“They had the same gate but used different intercoms,” explained the source.
Photo: The House of God church in Guatemala City - Univision
Herrera remembers the residences well. According to him, the first meeting with Chacón was at her house. The pilot described the residence as “an extraordinary mansion” surrounded by a zoo, which he compared to the famous collection of animals of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
It caught his attention that there were fragrance atomizers outside the house, which automatically released odor neutralizer to cover up the smell of animal droppings.
“Security at the entrance was unbelievable. We passed the first security layer, which locked us in between two gates,” said Herrera. “The first one to come out and authorize our access was ‘Cash’ Luna. He approved, and we went in.”
The charismatic 56-year-old pastor has said that the reason why people call him ‘Cash’ is because he couldn’t pronounce his name correctly as a child, and instead of saying Carlos, he would say ‘Cash’.
His critics have said that, regardless, his name perfectly fits the lifestyle he and his family enjoy in one of Central America’s poorest countries.
His fortune has been constantly criticized. Luna travels in a Cessna Citation plane with a U.S. license. It was acquired on September 2014 by Glory Wings 3, an entity registered in Delaware, famous for its corporate secrecy laws.
The plane’s ownership was later registered to House of God, before being transferred to a Bank of Utah’s fiduciary fund. In an interview with the BBC, Luna said the plane is church property.
A person close to the transaction, who asked to remain anonymous, said the aircraft was bought for $2 million. After the purchase, Luna paid approximately $250,000 for improvements and requested to have the biblical reference, “Mark XII” painted on one of the turbines.
In the last six months, Luna has used the plane to travel to Mexico and Colombia. In these countries, he has conducted religious ceremonies known as ‘Glory Nights’, in which he claims to heal the sick in stadiums packed with thousands of worshippers.
Photo: The mansions of Luna and Chacon side by side in Guatemala City/Univision
Many of Luna’s followers don’t seem to be concerned by his lifestyle. Robin Martínez, former church photographer, told Univision that the most important thing is God’s message, delivered through the pastor.
“If he mismanages the tithes, he will be accountable for that, but I go to receive the word that has transformed my life, which he has given me,” said Martínez, who currently works as a bicycle messenger in Guatemala City. “I can’t only look at the money management.”
Following the original publication of this article in Spanish, a spokeswoman for Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office confirmed that authorities have opened an investigation into Luna and his alleged links to Chacón, a convicted drug trafficker.
The House of God issued a statement in which it questioned the motives of Univisión’s investigation saying it sought “to damage the image of Pastor Cash Luna.”
It added that that church has for the last 24 years “complied with the legal norms that apply to Christian churches.”
The statement also asked church leaders to pray for Luna and his family, as requesting that they refrain from posting negative links on social media “that feed discord.”
Cash Luna issued a separate statement saying he “categorically rejects” the allegations in the Univision article saying he was “respectful of the law” and had “always complied with the norms and obligations to which I am subject.”
In a separate video message, Luna stated that he was willing to cooperate with the Attorney General’s office, adding that “there has never existed a link to Marrlory Chacón as claimed in the report and we have never received money from her.”
On his website he described a list of questions submitted to him by Univision as “petty, insolent and rude.”
Chacón’s lawyer denied that she ever laundered money through Luna or his church, though she did not specify if he had ever received money from her.
The Ecumenical Christian Council of Guatemala issued a statement asking Luna to provide information to local authorities regarding allegations that he received money from Chacón.
The statement also asked the Public Prosecutor's Office to conduct an investigation, noting that displays of wealth, such as lavish churches stood in sharp contrast to the poverty of many Guatemalan children who lack basic necessities.
María Luisa Piraquive likes to recall the dream in which she helped Jesus select the souls that would rise to heaven on the day of the final judgment.
“He says to me, help me to select the souls for the kingdom, and I told him, yes my lord I will do it, and I started ... and I threw all the souls up to the heavens,” said the head of the Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International (IDMJI).
Her story always draw smiles and applause from her flock.
Piraquive said she understood the dream was a message from God and proclaimed herself director-for-life of the church in 1996, following the unexpected death of her husband, Luis Moreno, a modest village preacher with whom she admits a stormy relationship in her memoirs
Her church has grown quickly since then, and with it the scandals. Several defectors from her congregation have accused Piraquive, 69, and her church, of fraud, abuses and discrimination. Some cases have been dropped, and the church has obtained corrections from several news media and social networks. But the doubts persist.
Piraquive, who lives in the United States, is under investigation in Colombia for money laundering and illegal enrichment, according to an official statement sent by prosecutors to Univision, adding that prosecutors have asked for cooperation from the U.S. government.
Also under investigation for the same crimes are her children Perla, Ivan Dario, Carlos Eduardo and Cesar, all involved in the church, according to the statement, signed by Luz Bahamon, director of the money laundering crimes division at Colombia’s federal prosecutor’s office.
A Texas attorney for Piraquive told Univision the pastor had no comment.
Univision sent written questions that were answered by Carol Villamil, the church’s legal representative. Villamil said the Colombian prosecutor's investigation was preliminary, had been going on “for more than 14 years” and had “found no crime at all.”
Prosecution files show the investigation remains open.
"The complaints by your sources against the church are not new and do not correspond with reality," Villamil wrote. "They are part of a slanderous campaign against the church, and those people face a string of lawsuits.”
Villamil's reply added that she was attaching confirmation that the investigations in Colombia, the United States and Argentina were closed. No such document about the U.S. investigation was attached. A document from Colombian prosecutors was dated prior to the statement received by Univision from the prosecutor’s office in Colombia confirming the church remains under investigation for money laundering and illegal enrichment.
Photo: Church service/IDMJI
Two sources who asked for anonymity told Univision that they were interviewed by U.S. officials seeking information about Piraquive's activities and the management of church money. They declined to provide any details that might undermine the investigation.
Another potential witness, Jeffrey del Romero, a former IDMJI member in New Jersey, told Univision that one of Piraquive's sons, Ivan Moreno, filed a complaint with the FBI in 2006 against her and the church. He said Moreno asked him to drive him to an FBI office after the son, then about 26 years old, turned up at his home with two women.
"They also brought a mound of documents. They asked me to please take them to an FBI office in Newark, and they went inside," del Romero recalled. "What he said was that he had denounced all the illegal activities of his mother and the church."
The FBI did not respond to a Univision request for comment about a possible investigation of Piraquive.
At the time that Moreno allegedly filed his complaint with the FBI, the son had declared war on his mother and the church, alleging that they discriminated against him because he was gay.
Photo: Piraquive with her son, Ivan Moreno
A church guide book, approved by Piraquive and with limited circulation, says that homosexuals must be taught that their condition is "caused by unclean spirits and therefore it was important to avoid the physical act." The church has said it follows the bible's teachings.
In an interview with the Colombian radio station La FM, Moreno complained about more than discrimination. He alleged that IDMJI diverted large quantities of money into personal accounts.
"There's a lot of money, but the saddest part is that it's not ... spent on what it should be spent on," he said.
Eight years later, he retracted his allegations.
Piraquive's church boasts that it operates in five continents and has bases in 25 U.S. states, including Florida, New York, Arizona, Texas and Washington.
It recently inaugurated a mega-temple in Atlanta and is building another in Bogota that takes up an entire city block. It has temples as far away as New Zealand, Romania and the United Arab Emirates. Churches in the United States are not required to report their revenues due to their tax exempt status.
The most frequent allegations against IDMJI involve the enrichment of its leaders and the unorthodox handling of donations it receives from members.
Piraquive, who says she embroidered bed covers to feed her family for years, received a church salary of $186 a month in 1999. That amount was provided to Colombian prosecutors by her nephew, Oscar Bedoya Jair, a pastor who has accused the church of mismanaging funds.
Photo: Piraquive at a sewing machine before she became head of her church
But within a decade Piraquive was able to afford a six bedroom home in South Florida for $1.8 million, as well as purchasing expensive homes for her children. Property record in the city of Weston, northwest of Miami show she bought another house for $402,000.
Photo: Piraquive’s $1.8 million mansion in Weston
Just feet from her mansion, her daughter Alejandra owns a $1.3 million home. Another daughter, Perla, and her husband Oscar Carrillo, bought another Weston home in 2010 for $1.6 million.
Her son Ivan Moreno, owns a $310,000 apartment in Fort Lauderdale. His mother gave it to him in exchange for ceasing his attacks on her and the church, according to a complaint submitted to prosecutors in 2014 by Hector Navarro, an Argentine lawyer who heads a support network for victims of religious sects.
The apartment was purchased in October 2007, a few months after Moreno reported that he had reconciled with his mother. “The only thing I wanted was to have … peace, have harmony, and that's when I reconciled with my mother in June of 2007,” he said in an interview with the RCN radio network in Colombia. “We realized that there had been a lot of bad misunderstandings.”
Piraquive also sold a house in Broward County to Moreno for $100 in 2013, which he then sold earlier this year for $1 million.
A U.S. government database shows the Internal Revenue Service slapped a $75,992 lien on a Piraquive property on Lavender Circle, Weston in 2008. The IRS uses such liens when property owners owe taxes. The church did not respond to a question about the lien from Univision.
Piraquive and her husband did not hide their poverty in the 1990s. Priscila Angulo, who helped establish a church branch in the Colombian province of Santander, said they complained about their meager income.
“They were poor people, and they told their story. What's more, Don Luis (Piraquive’s husband) always said that what was for the church went to the church, and what was for them went to them,” said Angulo.
Photo: Pricilla Angulo/Univision
They drove between Bogota to the capital of Santander, Bucaramanga, a distance of about 260 miles, in a modest car and could not afford airline tickets, she added.
The complaint filed by Navarro also asked for an investigation into the death of Piraquive's husband, based on doubts expressed by Bedoya. He also complained that a church member in Bogota was physically attacked in what he described as an exorcism, and alleged lies to church members to obtain donations to the church.
“With this ruse, the leaders of the IDMJI have become immensely rich, used the donations of church members to buy luxurious properties in Florida, Spain, Switzerland and Colombia,” Navarro wrote in his complaint.
Bedoya declared to prosecutors that Piraquive, “her sons and Mr. Carlos Alberto Baena increase their wealth in an unusual manner, without any basis.” Baena, a pastor, is now Colombia's deputy Minister of Labor.
When Piraquive was summoned to answer the allegations, she said they were false.
“They have no way to prove that. There are no documents that confirm we are listed as owners,” she said.
The Colombian prosecutors' investigation also called Priscila Angulo to testify. She has become the most persistent critic of the church after a bitter dispute with Piraquive.
The case was dismissed by a Bucaramanga regional prosecutor, who dismissed the testimony of five witnesses, including Angulo. In a decision dated Dec. 24 2015, the prosecutor said the five witnesses were not considered because their testimonies were taken by an investigator who was an active member of the church. Angulo later published photos showing Piraquive with the investigator, Moisés Cabrejo.
Angulo, who is a lawyer, said she plans to ask the judge in charge of the case to review what happened.
The prosecutor's office told Univision that there was “abundant evidence” to support its decision and that it was not required to explain “any reason for not considering the interviews with the people mentioned.”
For five years Doris Bohórquez was the coordinator of the International Maria de Moreno Foundation (IMMF) in New Jersey, an international non-profit founded by Piraquive. She quit in 2014, she said, because she did not approve of the way the money was handled as well as other church practices.
She joined the congregation to study the Bible, she said, but above all as a social activity, “to share Sundays with someone who wants to go out to eat after searching for God,” she said.
Photo: Doris Bohórquez
Bohórquez, who is an accountant and real estate agent, added that she started to grow disillusioned when she realized that there was no clear division between money that went to the foundation and a church non-profit, Mira USA, supposedly established to assist the community.
It has the same name as a political party created by Piraquive in Colombia in 2000. The party won four seats in the Congress that year.
“What I noticed in 2014 was that practically all the money of Mira USA went to the Mira political party,” she added.
The party's treasurer also served as treasurer of the church, and owned a $700,000 home in the New Jersey area.
Univision obtained the U.S. foundation's revenue reports, which show Piraquive’s son, Ivan Moreno, as a 40-hour a week employee in 2012 and 2013 with an annual salary of $30,000. Bohórquez said Moreno did not work at the foundation.
“I used to say, this guy, how come he gets $30,000 a month? For what?” she added.
The church has said that since the foundation carried out many different activities, it's possible Moreno worked in some educational project unknown to Bohórquez.
The church told Univision said Bohórquez refused to cooperate with court officials, without providing any details.
The church statement said Bohórquez and other accusers used the media “apparently with the goal of influencing judicial decisions and favoring economic interests, provoking smears and hate speech against the church.”
Bohórquez said she's never avoided judicial officials and in fact filed a complaint against the church in a New Jersey court.
“They forget that they are not in Colombia, where they can try to influence the legal rulings,” she said.
Bohórquez said she also did not trust the way in which the money collected during church services was handled. Although the law requires independent accountants to count the money, the pastors usually took the cash home.
Standing in front of the New Jersey home of an IDMJI pastor, Bohórquez said that was one of the places where church and foundation monies were delivered.
“My understanding is that they have machines here that count the money,” she said. “We only closed up, put it (the cash) in a briefcase, put a lock on it and everything was transported here. They were the ones who opened it, counted it and did whatever they wanted with the money.”
Bohórquez quit the church in 2014 and started gathering documents to support the complaint she filed in a U.S. federal court in September 2017 against Piraquive and more than 40 people, businesses and companies linked to the church. She accused them of conspiring to commit fraud, misleading practices and money laundering.
Piraquive was summoned to testify, but her lawyer objected to most of her questions. Bohórquez had decided to handle the case by herself, without the help of other lawyers.
“It's very expensive,” she said. “But there's nothing I am alleging that is not true.”
When Bohórquez asked Piraquive if she had ever been questioned as part of an investigation, the pastor answered, “No. Those are private matters.”
The judge threw out Bohórquez' complaint early this year because he lacked jurisdiction. Bohórquez told Univision that she will continue to denounce what she saw while she was a church member.
“These people have abused faith, abused the believers. They abused us for their personal benefit,” said Bohórquez, who now regrets the time she dedicated to the church. “There's no real love of God there … because if there was a love of God, they would not do the things they do.”
Textos: Gerardo Reyes y Peniley Ramírez
Translation: David Adams
Diseño y programación: Juanje Gómez
Produción digital: José López