Leader of Mexico-based church accused of rape, child porn

A man cleans a stained glass inside a La Luz del Mundo (The Light of the World) church after its leader Naason Joaquin Garcia was arrested in California, in Mexico City, Mexico June 5, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Cortes

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – The head of a Mexican-based church estimated to have more than 1 million followers worldwide has been arrested in California and charged with crimes including human trafficking, child pornography production and rape of a minor.

“La Luz Del Mundo” (Light of the World) leader Naason Joaquin Garcia, 50, was charged on Tuesday after being arrested at Los Angeles International Airport the day before, prosecutors said.

The church called the accusations unfounded.

“The Apostle of Jesus Christ, Brother Naason Joaquin Garcia, has always behaved in accordance with the law and with full respect for the institutions and the dignity of the people,” it said in a statement on its website on Wednesday.

The prosecutors’ 19-page court filing indicates Garcia was known as “the Apostle” and children were told they were defying God if they were disobedient.

The complaint says three minors and one adult woman were abused, with one child and the woman raped. Others were forced to perform sex acts and “flirty” dances for Garcia wearing “as little clothing as possible”, the complaint added.

“Crimes like those alleged in this complaint have no place in our society. Period,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement Tuesday. “We must not turn a blind eye to sexual violence and trafficking in our state.”

CHURCH DENIES ACCUSATIONS

The filing did not refer to any response by Garcia.

But his church said it trusts the U.S. legal system and the principle of innocence unless proven otherwise, adding: “We categorically reject the false accusations that have been made against him.”

In their statement late on Tuesday, prosecutors said Garcia and co-defendants committed a total of 26 felonies in south California over a period of about four years.

The victims were not named.

He is being held in jail on $25 million bond on 14 charges related to sex crimes, the prosecutors said.

It was unclear if he had an attorney.

The other individuals named in the complaint are Alondra Ocampo, Azalea Rangel Melendez, and Susana Medina Oaxaca, all affiliated with La Luz Del Mundo, prosecutors said.

Ocampo and Oaxaca were also arrested and held on multi-million dollar bonds. A warrant has been issued for Melendez, officials said.

Internet sites say the church has between 1 and 5 million followers worldwide in more than 50 countries including many followers in the United States.

The church’s roots go back to the 1920s in Mexico and adheres to “nontrinitarianism”, rejecting a mainstream Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It says it adheres to the earliest doctrines of the Christian church teachings.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta, additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

U.S. seizes record $1.3 billion meth haul bound for Australia

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer extracts methamphetamine concealed in a loud speaker found in a shipment at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport bound for Australia, in this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 9, 2019. CBP/Handout via REUTERS

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – Authorities in California have seized a record 1.9 tons of methamphetamine worth some $1.3 billion along with heroin and cocaine, all bound for Australia.

The seizure followed an operation by U.S. border officials and Australian law enforcement and took place on Jan. 11 at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport, authorities said on Thursday. The drugs were “artfully” hidden in a shipment of loud speakers.

Authorities in California seize methamphetamine concealed in a shipment of loud speakers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport bound for Australia, in this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 9, 2019. CBP/Handout via REUTERS

Authorities in California seize methamphetamine concealed in a shipment of loud speakers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach seaport bound for Australia, in this photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 9, 2019. CBP/Handout via REUTERS

Four Australians and two U.S. citizens were arrested on Wednesday by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on suspicion of involvement in the trafficking, authorities said.

“There’s no question that the criminal organization behind this scheme has been dealt a significant blow,” Joseph Macias, special agent-in-charge for Homeland Security Investigations Los Angeles, said in a statement.

The two containers of drugs, hidden inside metal boxes labeled “Single Loud Speakers,” contained 3,810 pounds (1,730 kg) of methamphetamine, about 56 pounds (25 kg) of cocaine and 11.5 (5.3 kg) pounds of heroin, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said.

It was the biggest seizure of methamphetamine in the United States and amounted to about 17 million doses, authorities said, adding that if it had reached Australia it would have been worth approximately $1.3 billion.

“Someone’s in TONNES of trouble!,” AFP officials said in a statement posted on Facebook with video footage of the suspects’ arrest. “Luckily we worked with our US buddies and were able to stop the shipment before it reached our shores.”

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

‘El Chapo’ paid former Mexican president $100 million bribe: trial witness

Defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman (L) cross examines Alex Cifuentes (C), a close associate of the accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (R) in this courtroom sketch in Brooklyn federal court in New York, U.S., January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) – Accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman once paid a $100 million bribe to former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, a former associate testified on Tuesday that he previously told U.S. authorities.

Alex Cifuentes, who has described himself as Guzman’s onetime right-hand man, discussed the alleged bribe under cross-examination by one of Guzman’s lawyers in Brooklyn federal court. Asked if he told authorities in 2016 that Guzman arranged the bribe, he answered, “That’s right.”

Cifuentes testified that he had told U.S. prosecutors Pena Nieto reached out to Guzman first, asking for $250 million. Cifuentes told the prosecutors that the bribe was paid in October 2012, when Pena Nieto was president-elect, he testified.

Cifuentes said he told prosecutors at a later meeting, last year, that he was no longer sure of the exact amounts of the bribes, but did not elaborate.

Cifuentes also said testified that Guzman once told him that he had received a message from Pena Nieto saying that he did not have to live in hiding anymore.

Pena Nieto has previously denied taking bribes from drug traffickers.

Reuters could not immediately reach Pena Nieto for comment. His former spokesman and other former officials did not immediately respond to messages requesting comment.

Pena Nieto was president of Mexico from December 2012 until November 2018. He previously served as governor of the State of Mexico.

Guzman, 61, has been on trial since November. He was extradited to the United States in 2017 to face charges of trafficking cocaine, heroin and other drugs into the country as leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Captured by Pena Nieto’s government in February 2014, Guzman broke out of prison for a second time some 17 months later, escaping through a mile-long tunnel dug right into in his cell.

The jailbreak humiliated the government and battered the president’s already damaged credibility, though Pena Nieto personally announced news of the kingpin’s third capture when he was again arrested in northwestern Mexico in January 2016.

Colombian-born Cifuentes is one of about a dozen witnesses who have so far testified against Guzman after striking deals with U.S. prosecutors, in a trial that has provided a window into the secretive world of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the world’s most powerful drug trafficking organization.

Other witnesses at the trial have also made accusations of high-level corruption.

Jesus Zambada, another cartel member, testified in November he paid a multimillion dollar bribe to an aide of current Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in 2005. The aide was not named but later Gabriel Regino, an official in Mexico City when Lopez Obrador was mayor, wrote on Twitter that an accusation of bribery had emerged against him in the trial but was false.

Cifuentes earlier on Tuesday had also testified that Guzman asked an associate to pay a $10 million bribe to a general. The witness said the bribe was never paid and Guzman subsequently ordered the associate killed, though the hit was never carried out.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York and David Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Tom Brown and Lisa Shumaker)

U.S. senators want probe of drug trafficking tied to Venezuela government

Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela November 17, 2017.

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two U.S. senators called on the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday to investigate allegations of drug trafficking by senior officials in the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, as the country struggles with economic crisis.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seen by Reuters, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democrat Robert Menendez said they were concerned about possible connections between Maduro’s government and drug trafficking organizations and wanted an investigation “in order to better understand the nexus between criminal actors and members of Maduro’s inner circle.”

Despite being a major oil producing country, Venezuela is undergoing a severe economic and social crisis, with millions suffering food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation and growing insecurity.

Rubio is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s western hemisphere subcommittee, and Menendez is its ranking Democrat. Both lawmakers are vocal critics of the Venezuelan government.

In their letter, they raised concerns that the situation in Venezuela could destabilize the region.

The Venezuelan Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In the past, Maduro has dismissed accusations about drug trafficking links as a smear campaign by Washington, adding that the United States is to blame for the drug trade because it is such a large market for illegal narcotics.

On Aug. 1, 2016, a U.S. District Court announced the indictment of Nestor Reverol, who is now Venezuela’s interior minister, on charges of participating in an international cocaine trafficking conspiracy. In February 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck el-Aissami for drug trafficking and other related crimes.

And in December 2017, two nephews of Maduro’s wife, Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, were convicted in U.S. federal court for drug smuggling.

The European Union announced new sanctions on several senior Venezuelan officials, including Reverol, on Monday, saying this was an expression of the bloc’s concern with the political crisis under Maduro.

Rubio and Menendez also asked Sessions to support efforts by the Organization of American States to address human rights concerns in Venezuela.

A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter, which was sent on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; editing by Susan Thomas)

Chicago police say Facebook ‘secret groups’ traffic in guns and drugs

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson speaks about the latest police districts to start wearing body cameras, during a news conference at the 20th District Chicago Police Department in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. October 30, 2017.

By Bernie Woodall

(Reuters) – Police in Chicago said on Thursday they have arrested 50 people suspected of using “secret groups” on Facebook to deal in guns and drugs, and have teamed up with the world’s largest social media network to crack down on criminal trafficking online.

Announcing the arrests at a news conference, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson initially criticized Facebook as being unhelpful during a 10-month investigation by his department.

“Quite frankly, they haven’t been very friendly to law enforcement to prevent these things,” he told reporters.

However, police later said the department and the California-based company agreed to work collaboratively “to target any illegal activity on the platform.”

Police did not detail charges facing the 50 men and women arrested through Thursday, but said there were “dozens and dozens” of private Facebook groups being used for illegal drug and weapons transactions. Arrest warrants for 18 more suspects have been signed, and most have prior criminal histories, police said.

Among the illicit sites monitored by police was one offering a “Thanksgiving special” on cocaine baggies discounted to $40 from a normal street price of $60.

In an emailed statement on Thursday, Facebook Inc, which boasts 2 billion users worldwide, said it had only just been alerted to the arrests in Chicago.

“We do not allow the sale of guns or drugs on our platform. We routinely work with law enforcement and outline how officials may submit a request on our site,” Facebook added.

Among those arrested was an elementary school teacher taken into custody at his Chicago school in possession of scales often used for weighing drugs, according to Anthony Riccio, chief of the police department’s organized crime unit.

Since a confidential informant alerted investigators about alleged criminal trade on Facebook in February, police detectives working undercover arranged for the purchase of 17 different types of drugs and 18 different illegal firearms, Riccio said.

Riccio said investigators created covert identities on Facebook and were invited into private groups, which are closed unless the user-administrator allows someone to join. Police then monitored messages and contacted those in the group via Facebook to make buys.

Chicago has been singled out by President Donald Trump as one of the most violent U.S. cities. In 2016, the number of murders there exceeded 760.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Editing by Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)

Smugglers made over $5 billion off migrants in 2015

A Turkish Gendarme officer detains a man believed to be a smuggler as Syrian refugees who are prevented from sailing off for the Greek island of Lesbos by dinghies wait in the background near a beach in the western Turkish coastal town of Dikili, Turkey, March 5, 2016.

GENEVA (Reuters) – People smugglers made over $5 billion from the wave of migration into southern Europe last year, a report by international crime-fighting agencies Interpol and Europol said on Tuesday.

Nine out of 10 migrants and refugees entering the European Union in 2015 relied on “facilitation services”, mainly loose networks of criminals along the routes, and the proportion was likely to be even higher this year, the report said.

About 1 million migrants entered the EU in 2015. Most paid 3,000-6,000 euros ($3,400-$6,800), so the average turnover was likely between $5 billion and $6 billion, the report said.

To launder the money and integrate it into the legitimate economy, couriers carried large amounts of cash over borders, and smugglers ran their proceeds through car dealerships, grocery stores, restaurants or transport companies.

The main organizers came from the same countries as the migrants, but often had EU residence permits or passports.

“The basic structure of migrant smuggling networks includes leaders who coordinate activities along a given route, organizers who manage activities locally through personal contacts, and opportunistic low-level facilitators who mostly assist organizers and may assist in recruitment activities,” the report said.

Corrupt officials may let vehicles through border checks or release ships for bribes, as there was so much money in the trafficking trade. About 250 smuggling “hotspots”, often at railway stations, airports or coach stations, had been identified along the routes – 170 inside the EU and 80 outside.

The report’s authors found no evidence of fighting between criminal groups, but larger criminal networks slowly took over smaller opportunistic ones, leading to an oligopoly.

In 2015, the vast majority of migrants made risky boat trips in boats across the Mediterranean from Turkey or Libya, and then traveled on by road. Around 800,000 were still in Libya waiting to travel to the EU, the report said.

But increasing border controls mean air travel is likely to become more attractive, with fraudulent documents rented out to migrants and then taken back by an accompanying facilitator, the report said.

Migrant smuggling routes could be used to smuggle drugs or guns, and there was growing concern that radicalized foreign fighters could also use them to enter the EU, it said.

But there was no concrete data yet to suggest militant groups consistently relied on or cooperated with organized crime groups, it added.

($1 = 0.8837 euros)

(Reporting by Tom Miles)