LOS ANGELES – Sochil Martin was nine years old when her aunt told her that she had been “selected” to serve the pastor of the Luz del Mundo church at the time, Samuel Joaquín Flores.
That's how she began her “consecration” – her word for the process of persuading girls in the cult, using biblical quotes, that it was good to perform any erotic dances and sex acts the pastor requested.
One of the citations used to recruit her as a “maiden” for Flores referred to a young and beautiful virgin procured to warm King David because he was cold, Martin said. And she used that same tactic, under pressure, to procure other minors who were sexually abused by the current director of the church, Naasón Joaquín García.
Garcias has been jailed in Los Angeles since June while awaiting trial on charges of rape, child pornography, people trafficking, extorsion and other crimes.
Martin, 33 and a California native, spoke for the first time with a Hispanic news media. She was the first to denounce to U.S. officials that minors in the church were sexually abused systematically on the direct orders of Garcia.
After she spoke out, four more women, including three minors, alleged they were victims. Their testimonies formed the basis for the charges pending against Garcia in Los Angeles Supreme Court. The investigation led to the arrests of Garcia and two alleged accomplices, Alondra Ocampo y Susana Medina Oaxaca, when the three landed in Los Angeles aboard a private jet eight months ago.
“There are hundreds (of victims), and if we're talking about the time of Aaron (Garcia's grandfather and founder of the cult) there are thousands,” said Martin, who will be one of the key prosecution witnesses in the trial.
Martin, who served as a personal assistant to Garcia until a few years ago, is also the lead complainant in a civil lawsuit filed in a federal court in Los Angeles against the Luz del Mundo church, its international director, his wife Alma Zamora, son Adoraim Joaquin, brothers Uzziel, Rahel and Benjamin Joaquin, five bishops, one “bodyguard” and the church publication Berea Internacional.
The lawsuit accuses them of organized crime, people trafficking, forced labor, sexual abuse and other crimes. The 65-page complaint includes explicit details of Martin's abuses, such as peforming erotic dances when she was a minor “in various stages of undress,” recruiting other girls under pressure for Garcia's “harem,” having sexual relations with whoever “The Apostle” ordered and being raped by him “dozens of times.” He also beat her several times when she did not comply with his aberrant orders, the lawsuit adds.
How victims were selected
“He told us explicitly who to search for, how to search for them, what color skin, what kind of hair, how he liked their lips, their eyes, their figures. He asked for all that, and our job was to go and find it,” Martin told Univision.
The recruitment of these “maidens” started by searching in the church temples for girls who were pretty and 10 to 11 years old, she added.
Garcia “would start to call them to talk to them and we had to work to 'consecrate' them with biblical explanations, like the ones we were given,” she said. “They teach you, with biblical texts, how the old 'Servants of God' had their own maidens or eunuchs who served them, and that if it was proper for them it was also proper for these times.”
The next step in the abuse, Martin said, involved Azalea Rangel García, who is a fugitive. She's alleged to have been a member of the Luz del Mundo's inner ruling circle. She faces two charges of rape and forced oral sex, crimes in which 'The Apostle' is believed to have participated.
“After that age, when they are 13, 14, that's when someone like Azalea, someone with another rank, would take them to his (Garcia's) bedroom to be with him. Boys also, not just girls,” she said.
The children, grandchildren and nephews of bishops, pastors and members of the congregation were all victimized by Garcia, according to Martin, who added that church members are so fanatic they consider it “a blessing” rather than sexual abuse.
“That happens all over the world, not just the United States or California. Everywhere they visit, they have their 'secretaries,' the high-ranking ones, and those bishops, those pastors, those pastors who have something 'special' to give them ... it brings them more blessings," she said.
“The congregation sees when the children go into the big house, his office,” she added, referring to the mansion at the main church headquarters in Guadalajara, Mexico. “They go in an out at nine, eleven (pm), one in the morning, and no one says anything because they decide not to believe it."
What the church says about Martin
Defense attorney Alan Jackson did not reply to messages from Univision asking for comment on the case and Martin's allegations. Church spokesman Eliezer Gutiérrez received a copy of the comlaint but did not comment.
Garcia pleaded not guilty and a judge denied him bail, accepting warnings from prosecutors that he represents a danger to the community and could flee. The next hearing in the criminal case is set for March 9.
Martin's allegations are similar to those submitted by California prosecutors, who alleged that Garcia could just send a text message to his accomplices and they would deliver to him girls for his sexual fantasies. Authorities also alleged that victims were groomed with biblical passages, and that not even their parents could protect them.
Two law enforcement officers have already testified before the Los Angeles Supreme Court that they found images of child pornography in electronic items confiscated from Garcia, and they have a video showing him in a sex act with two others, including a teenage boy.
A document submitted by prosecutors in December said new evidence uncovered against the pastor includes text messages in which he mentions drugging the girls so they would not know what happened to them.
“The excessive amount of evidence … shows that the accused Garcia in fact used his position in the church to use girls to satisfy his apparently insaciable sexual apetite,” the prosecutors wrote.
La Luz del Mundo had been waiting for Sochil Martin's legal blow. In a defense motion submitted Aug. 21, she is accused of being part of a “plot” to set a trap for Garcia, persuading girls to let themselves be recorded in sexual acts in order to blackmail the pastor.
Defense investigators questioned potentially friendly witnesses who claimed that Martin acted on her own to abuse the minors and sought out disgruntled church members to speak out against the self-described “Apostle of Jesus Christ.” They claimed she was helped by one of the alleged victims mentioned in court documents, identified as Jane Doe 4.
Martin denies those allegations and says they are part of the church's constant pressures on its members. “Plot?” she asked. “We live in the United States, in California. They are not going to arrest you here if they didn't find something for which they are going to send you to jail.”
"A dangerous person"
The civil lawsuit, in the hands of a southern California law firm, seeks monetary compensation that is not specified. The lawyers believe other alleged victims will join the lawsuit, which is independent of the criminal case.
“La Luz del Mundo, as an institution, has a pattern of benefiting from criminal behavior against its membership. It's not just the 'Apostle.' It goes down to the leadership of the organization and to other members who are aware, who agree and who are accomplices in different abuses that continue,” said Martin's attorney, Deborah Mallgrave.
“It's the aspect of sexual servitude, of forced labor, of forced donations by members who are pressured, forced to collect thousands of dollars in donations, for the church as well as for the 'Apostle' directly, under the threat of eternal condemnation of their souls if they don't obey.,” Mallgrave added.
The attorney said Luz del Mundo is a “criminal organization” that has gotten away with crimes for years, while Martin called it “a mafia” that benefits from the cult of personality it practices since it was founded in Guadalajara in 1926.
“The goal of my lawsuit is to protect the children,” said Martin, who added that a just punishment for Garcia would be life in prison. “He is a dangerous person,” she warned.
Several stages of her life are detailed in the lawsuit, which says she was “enslaved, trafficked and sexually abused” by church leaders. “She was raped dozens of times and suffered several beatings, causing her physical and emotional damages and mental wounds that afflict her until today,” the complaint says.
It adds that Garcia sought her out even when his father controlled the church. When he took control of 2014, he brought her into his inner circle to abuse her sexually, force her to have relations with others and recruit girls in the congregations.
“He only called you for his sex groups, his fantasies,” Martin told Univision.
Other parts of the lawsuit allege that the “Servant of God” asked some trusted followers to have sexual relations with animals, to practice incest and join orgies he organized.
“One time, Mrs. Martin was called to the office of Naasón (Garcia), where she found Naasón and a girl of 16, her torso naked. Naasón ordered her to have sex with the two. When Mrs. Martin refused, Naasón held her and raped her,” the lawsuit alleges.
When Martin abandoned the church and denounced what was happening, the church started harrassing her and pushing her to remain quiet. In November of 2016, three bishops went to her home in Ensenada, Mexico, and offered her 500,000 pesos ($26,780) for her silence. She did not accept.
Two days after Garcia was arrested in California, two investigators hired by defense lawyers forced their way into her home to warn her that she was attacking a “powerful institution” controlled by a man with “lots of money.”
Fearing retaliation, her family moved to Calfornia. They felt safe in the San Diego hotel provided by state prosecutors until Dec. 7, when they learned that a church “bodyguard,” David Mendoza, was staying there as well. They reported him to police, who confirmed he was registered as a guest. The family had to move to a new shelter.
The complaint also alleges that a presumed cult attorney, Yobani Chacon, tried to intimidate her by recording her on his cell phone at a restaurant in Pasadena in August.
Posts in social networks constantly attack her, and her home in Ensenada was vandalized with signs branding her family as "heretics” and “apostates.”
Martin "continues to live in fear,” the lawsuit states.
“It's like a nightmare,” Martin said of her life after she started denouncing the church.
For a time, she suffered from a severe depression and tried to commit suicide. She said her only motivation now is to make sure that the justice system punished those who have abused minors and adults in the Luz del Mundo church, as well as those who helped them.
“So many years, and no one did anything,” she said. “If someone had done something for me, this would not have happened to me, this would not have happened to those children.”