Secrecy and the Institutionalization of Sexual Abuse:
The Case of La Luz del Mundo in México
Dr. Jorge Erdely
Co-editor, Revista Académica para el Estudio de las Religiones
Co-editor, Revista Académica para el Estudio de las Religiones
Dr. Lourdes Arguelles
Professor, Claremont Graduate University, California
Professor, Claremont Graduate University, California
This paper explores the relationship between secrecy, messianism, and the institutionalization of sexual abuse in La Luz del Mundo (“The Light of the World”), a Mexican religious sect quickly expanding to the United States. The first part presents an introductory historical overview of the origins, beliefs, practices, and ideological forces that helped shape the organization, an organization that may be viewed as a “total institution,” according to the theoretical model of Erving Goffman. The second part explores the creation of an elite group within La Luz del Mundo, known as "The unconditionals" (“los incondicionales”). Inspired and fashioned after paramilitary models, this force of hard-core loyalists is used to repress dissent and control and manipulate information in order to further expand the power of main leader Samuel Joaquin over his followers. Samuel is deemed by his faithful to be the embodiment of the divinity. It is argued that the structure of The unconditionals — with its vow of unquestionable obedience, an atmosphere of secrecy, and fanatic loyalty to the leadership figure — has been crucial in institutionalizing what appears to be the ceremonial sexual abuse of minors as a theologically valid liturgical feature to venerate Samuel. The medical and social impact of reported cases of this practice is discussed. The wealth and publicly known political connections of the sect with Mexico’s most powerful political party help explain the impunity with which this and other alleged human rights violations have occurred for decades in a country where corruption in the judicial system is widespread.
Introduction. Origins of LLDM: An Overview
Using a theoretical framework pioneered several decades ago by Erving Goffman, Mexican anthropologist Fernando González and sociologist Renée de la Torre have published research on the church La Luz del Mundo as a “total” institution". Translated into English, the name of this religious group, founded and based in Mexico, means “The Light of the World.” Although the group has some theological similarities to a mainstream Unitarian Pentecostal denomination, it is better known for its theocratic agenda and liturgical particularities that appropriate both Jewish symbols and fascist ideas. La Luz del Mundo (LLDM), which clearly complies with Lifton’s recently reviewed criteria for labeling an organization a cult, is also a wealthy organization with a transnational project. It has a theocratic agenda and political arms, one of them is the Federación Nacional de Colonos en Provincia, which is structurally and historically linked to the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), one of Mexico’s oldest and most powerful political parties.
La Luz del Mundo emerged as an organization in an unlikely setting and historical period. It originated in the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, during the late 1920s, a period leading up to the War of Los Cristeros. Guadalajara is located in the Mexican state of Jalisco, a state well known in those times for its staunch Roman Catholicism and marked intolerance of any religious minorities. The War of Los Cristeros, or la Cristiada (1926–1929), was a bloody struggle between the Mexican federal government and groups of pro-clergy Catholics for possession of areas of influence and power. Oddly enough, it was in this location and during this time of strong intolerance of non-Catholic options that La Luz del Mundo began to flourish. That such an unlikely process could take place was largely due to the inherent bond between the incipient religious organization and military and government officials opposed to the Catholic Church. This bond was embodied in the relationship between the founder of LLDM, Eusebio Joaquín González, a former soldier in the army, and his previous commanding officer, General Marcelino García Barragán. García Barragán was elected governor of Jalisco (1943–1947) under the banner of the PRI and would eventually be appointed to the position of National Secretary of Defense. Eusebio Joaquín, or Hermano Aarón (Brother Aaron, as he later came to be called), had become his close and valued aide. During his governorship, the former General favored his faithful soldier by supporting the establishment in Guadalajara of La Luz del Mundo which, under the General’s protection, flourished and developed a discourse that was markedly nationalistic, anti-clerical, and very much aligned with the politics of the PRI in the post-Cristero era. This was, incidentally, the same García Barragán who would attain international notoriety years later in October 1968, as Defense Secretary of the army in the infamous student massacre in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas de Tlatelolco, in Mexico City.
Aarón Joaquín: The Foundations
In 1926, Eusebio Joaquín came under the influence of two itinerant mystic preachers connected with the Iglesia Apostólica de la Fe en Cristo Jesús. The two called themselves Saulo and Silas, after the New Testament prophetic figures of the Book of Acts. That same year, Eusebio Joaquín abandoned the army and followed Saulo and Silas to the city of Monterrey, Mexico, where he claimed to have received his famous calling, an audible message from God, with obvious Abrahamic overtones, which said, “Your name shall be Aaron, and I will make it known around the world, and you will be a blessing, and your seed shall be like the stars of heaven.” A few days later, he claimed to have received another divine message. This time he was reportedly told, “Next Thursday I want you to go to the land that I will show to you.” After this last message, Eusebio Joaquín embarked upon a long journey on foot, which took him to the distant city of Guadalajara. According to LLDM’s version, he arrived there on December 12, 1926, a day that is still officially celebrated by members of the organization he eventually founded.
In the years that followed, Eusebio Joaquín would syncretize some military and nationalistic ideologies with a variety of seemingly mystical and ascetic beliefs and rituals that he had learned from Saulo and Silas and the above-mentioned Iglesia Apostolica. Though Joaquín continued to revere that organization, at least for a time, he eventually separated completely from it and pursued an independent path.
This was a crucial period for the crafting of the general theological framework of what would eventually become LLDM. To this day, the diverse ideas that shaped Eusebio’s mindset at that time can be seen reflected—albeit some in rather mutant fashions—in liturgy, creed, and theological praxis in the communities. Therefore, temple rituals do resemble to a degree early twentieth-century Unitarian Pentecostal services, although mandatory attendance at public prayer meetings several times a week is enforced with military-like discipline. The same is true of the aggressive focus on planting missions and lay preaching, anti-religious establishment rhetoric, strong emphasis on baptism by water immersion, mystical revelations and visions, and glossolalia. All these elements are embedded in a pyramidal structure of government in which obedience, strict discipline, loyalty, and secrecy—all of these characteristics of military bodies—are strongly emphasized. Politically, LLDM’s members have been indoctrinated for several decades—indeed, sometimes induced and even commanded—to vote for the same political party, the PRI, and to lend support, en masse, to key government officials in public gatherings when those officials are campaigning for office.
On December 31 1934, the first official temple of La Luz del Mundo was built on two lots of Calle 46 in the Reforma Sector of Guadalajara. Since then, temples, and eventually the current main temple in the neighborhood called Hermosa Provincia in Guadalajara, have played key roles in the lives of the faithful and in proselytizing, publicity, and public-relations strategies.
Much of the adepts’ time revolves around heavily structured temple activities ranging from worship services to political indoctrination gatherings, and, in some cases, paramilitary training and land-claim issues. Temples—usually at least one per important city is rather conspicuous and not infrequently luxurious—are regarded by followers, and often proclaimed by leaders, as visual attestations of God’s favor upon LLDM’s mission in this world. That mission includes proclaiming the only path of salvation for humanity, a path that, according to LLDM beliefs, was lost since apostolic times, but was revealed again to its founder, Aaron.
Although the New Testament is often quoted at length by pastors and parishioners to try to sustain this position, great emphasis is also placed on believing in Eusebio and his son Samuel Joaquin, the current leader, and on the necessity of belonging to the organization as the only plausible alternative to eternal damnation. Significant parallelisms between Jesus and Eusebio and Samuel as portrayed in LLDM’s hymnology and liturgical praxis have been well documented.
A great deal of the Hebrew Scriptures is also used to support the position that LLDM is the new Israel, and several ad hoc metaphors have been incorporated for many generations, both in the leadership’s discourse and in the hymnology of the organization. It is safe to say that this perspective has also been assimilated by the core of the sect.
Some Jewish sacred and identity symbols are also common. The Star of David has been used as part of the uniform of paramilitary security personnel at the group’s headquarters. Samuel Joaquin has sold pictures and postcards of himself preaching to packed auditoriums from the middle of a life-size replica of the Ark of the Covenant, golden Cherubs prostrated before him. In architecture and decoration, symbols such as the Golden Menorah, among others, are not uncommon.
There is not, properly speaking, a formal LLDM written creed, only different and rather general statements of faith that may resemble superficially those of some mainstream Pentecostal denominations. These are short, somewhat fluid statements that change depending on whatever public controversies or political scenarios the sect is going thorough. Most of the core and conspicuous controversial doctrines of the sect seem to be transmitted and preserved mainly orally and shared according to the level of commitment of the followers. Literature from different historical periods, though, preserves some of these doctrines.
Official biographies are not very helpful either for gaining insights into the group’s beliefs, and representatives of the organization have been known to give partial or misleading information when asked specifically about key doctrines. Faced with this state of affairs, the researcher can, among other things, focus on studying the rich hymnology of LLDM and follow the praxis of its communities through ethnographic studies. Lex orandi, lex credendi reads an ancient theological axiom: Few things reflect the real beliefs of a religious community as its liturgical life.
Along with other elements that will be mentioned later, the imagery about ancient Israel is a powerful theme in the construction of the identity of LLDM as a distinct people or nation, and this imagery is used by the main leader to justify his claim to kingship. All this has obvious implications for the subject matter of this article, for as will be seen, this notion is tied to a real theocratic agenda that has allowed the leadership to concentrate power and concomitant impunity by utilizing the group’s strong cohesion. The claim to kingship has also allegedly been used by Samuel Joaquin to engage periodically in orgiastic heterosexual practices involving minors, under the pretense of a “Solomonic” right to recruit to his harem as many of his subjects as he pleases. This, of course, is one of the teachings not taught to the public on Sunday services, nor is it readily acknowledged by the main hierarchy.
Method and Data Collection
Doing research to elucidate not only historical facts, but also the reasons behind certain types of human and institutional behaviors in organizations—religious or otherwise—that are secretive in nature, have political connections, and engage in alleged large-scale cover-ups is complex and presents particular challenges. In such cases, carefully selecting the most appropriate research methods is crucial and frequently calls for using multimethod approaches to gather valuable data. Proper analysis to test hypotheses and attain objective conclusions is also important. The primary method used for this study is classical qualitative research. This requires the collection and analysis of extensive narrative data in order to gain insights into phenomena, insights not possible using other types of research. The significance of narrative analysis in qualitative research has been well established by contemporary sociologists such as Arthur W. Frank. Ethnographic observation in naturalistic settings and discourse analysis are other appropriate research tools for multitask qualitative studies. Using ethnographic methods, personal interviews, and field research over an extended period of time and according to standard procedures, we have gathered multiple narratives and extensive data on the internal life of La Luz del Mundo (LLDM). Quoting research methodology expert L. R. Gay:
The rationale behind the use of qualitative inquiry is the research-based belief that behavior is significantly influenced by the environment in which it occurs. In other words, behavior occurs in a context and a more complete understanding of the behavior requires understanding of the context in which it occurs.
Therefore, in contrast with mainly descriptive studies, classic qualitative research seeks “answers to questions related to how things got to be the way they are.” The goal of such approach, simply put, is to gain in-depth understanding of the phenomena studied. It is also standard to utilize historical research methods whenever extensive document collection and concomitant analysis take place in a study. Archival and library research that included perusing relevant works quoted within this paper was key to get a deeper grasp of context. This research, along with personal interviews and the cross-checking of information with authors of relevant works on LLDM, helped ensure that crucial data included in this study is as accurate as possible.