The Catholic Church has engaged in a battle of words with La Luz del Mundo, accusing it of seeking political power, especially through its close relationship with the PRI. That relationship has resulted in La Luz del Mundo neighborhoods getting preferential treatment in receiving such services as running water and electricity, De la Torre said. Luz members in Guadalajara have solidly voted for the PRI, at the urging of church leaders, members say.
However, the critic most despised by La Luz del Mundo is an evangelical Protestant. He is Jorge Erdely, the former pastor of a small church and head of an anti-cult group that has single-mindedly attacked La Luz del Mundo. Luz officials accuse Erdely, who wrote a popular book about abusive ministers, of trying to make money by attacking small churches. He denies the charge.
Erdely and another little-known group are asking the government to strip La Luz del Mundo of its legal recognition, which would bar it from owning land or operating schools or hospitals. They cite Mexican laws barring religious groups from harming members or supporting political parties.
The Interior Ministry, which is studying the case, did not respond to several requests for information.
The controversy appears to be causing a quiet exodus of La Luz del Mundo members, according to Catholic Church officials, academics and former members.
But in Hermosa Provincia, it's difficult to detect any flagging of the deep reverence for Joaquin. In the central plaza, hawkers do a brisk business in posters of the beaming, dark-haired leader.
Members' homes are decorated with photos of Joaquin wearing a flowing white overcoat or sitting in a gilt-trimmed chair. The hymnal in the cathedral features 19 songs about Joaquin.
For the leader's 61st birthday last month, thousands flocked to a party in a hangar in Guadalajara. Singers and folk dancers performed for Joaquin and his family. Church members were clearly thrilled at seeing the leader, who reportedly spends much of his time visiting his far-flung congregations.
"There's a need [of church members] to be seen by Samuel. It's like his gaze gives them ecstasy," De la Torre said.
Alba Lopez, 50, a cleaning woman who lives in Hermosa Provincia, agreed. "It's something supernatural. You feel great happiness seeing him," she said.
But some say the reverence has produced intolerance. Former members say that after criticizing the church, they have been taunted, followed by Luz members and even beaten.
The most serious attacks have been against Moises Padilla, 33, a former member who has accused Joaquin of forcing him to have sex when he was a teenager.
Last month, gunmen kidnapped Padilla from outside his home in a working-class neighborhood of Guadalajara--an abduction corroborated by a neighbor who said he saw the attack.
The gunmen handcuffed Padilla and drove him to the deserted outskirts of the city, Padilla said. There, they tore off his clothes and attacked him with a dagger, he said.
"Now you're not going to talk, idiot!" one yelled, according to Padilla. After the gunmen left, Padilla recalled, he stumbled to a nearby road for help. He filed a criminal complaint to the state prosecutor's office a few days later.
57 Slashes From a Dagger
In his hospital bed, Padilla showed a reporter 57 matchstick-size slashes covering his neck and back. The doctor who treated Padilla said he could have died from loss of blood.
Padilla blames Joaquin for the stabbing and for a previous attack in which he says he was beaten by men warning him against criticizing the "servant of God."
"He [Joaquin] wants to shut us up," Padilla declared. Because of the accusations of abuse, "he's having trouble with his business, the sect, which has given him millions of dollars."
Silva, the Luz spokesman, denied that Joaquin or the church had anything to do with the attack. He accused Padilla of orchestrating the assault to give credence to his previous charges.
Authorities are investigating the attack and several others that have been reported. But judicial authorities say the victims haven't been fully cooperative.
For their part, the former members are suspicious of the legal system, complaining that it favors the politically influential church.
Political authorities appear reluctant to become involved. Guadalajara's mayor, Francisco Ramirez of the pro-Catholic National Action Party, or PAN, says La Luz del Mundo hasn't caused problems for the city.
"We need the legal truth to be established," he said, referring to the controversy surrounding the church. "Until then, everyone is innocent until proven guilty."
But former church members say they're determined to seek an investigation. They recently banded together in an association that claims about 40 members. While Padilla says he might go into hiding, others say they will continue to speak out about Joaquin.
"This is our objective: that people know who he really is," Aguilar said.
Times staff writer Tom Gorman in Riverside contributed to this report. Sheridan was recently on assignment in Guadalajara.