Allegations of Misuse of Church Funds in the Mexican Union of Chiapas
In June 2021, a series of open letters to pastors, leaders, and church members in Chiapas, Mexico, was circulated, alleging acts of corruption by Elder Ignacio Navarro, president of Mexican Union of Chiapas (UMCH). Following the letters, say Adventist Today’s sources, UMCH administrators initiated reprisals against pastors and others they accused of spreading the story—going so far as to hire a cyber investigator to trace IP addresses to locate one of the critics.
The UMCH purges affected more than 20 pastors, some union leaders, and Linda Vista Adventist University employees, whom Navarro accused of colluding against him. Intimidation and threats targeted those suspected of being involved. Adventist Today has talked to pastors, laypeople, and some administrators about the events. These sources supplied documents from the Chiapas Civil Registry—the office which records deeds of property sales—that support allegations against the UMCH leaders.
According to General Conference Statistics for 2020, UMCH is the largest Union in the Inter-American Division. Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico, according to Mexico’s Consejo Nacional de Evaluacion de la Politica de Desarrollo Social, or CONEVAL, the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy. In 2020, 75%—5.5 million—were below the poverty line. UMCH reported a net tithe collection of US $15,535,602 and a total of US$21,135,554 tithes and offerings.
Questionable property sales
One of the letters alleges that Elder Ignacio Navarro borrowed money from the UMCH Revolving Fund to purchase a property which, using his influence as president, he then sold back to the church at a profit. A property with deed registry number 80130 in the Public Registry of Property and Commerce of Chiapas shows Ignacio Navarro buying the “San Fernando Farm” for 478,780 Mexican pesos (MXN$), approximately US$32,482. The price for which it was officially sold to Linda Vista Adventist University on June 17, 2020 (during the Covid-19 pandemic), was MXN$593,379. However, the sources at Linda Vista allege that the payment from the university was considerably higher than the official number.
Deed registry (number 117936) shows that Sara Morales Jácome, wife of Elder Ignacio Navarro, acquired a 1,600-square-meter lot without buildings for a value of 200,000 MXN$—about US$9,699. This parcel was subdivided into three parcels, two of which are now owned by the Chiapas Union:
- Parcel 1: 360 square meters (registration no. 298993).
- Parcel 2: 400 square meters (registration no. 298788).
- Parcel 3: 840 square meters (registration no. 298994).
Parcel 3 was transferred to the “Iglesia Adventista del Séptimo Día de Unión Chiapas” on March 9, 2020 (deed registry number 184200), as a donation from Sara Morales and Ignacio Navarro, with an assigned value of US$239,217. The Centro Vida Sana “Dr. Filiberto Verduzco Spa” was built on this property, which was dedicated in December 2021—though the spa is not operating now because it lacks government permits.
Ignacio Navarro and Sara Morales sold parcel 1 (at 360 square meters, 22.5% of the original US$10,000 property), without any construction added, to the Chiapas Union, which transaction appears under registration number 164797. The price was MXN$160,000—approximately US$8,500. Elder Ignacio Navarro signed as both seller and buyer of the property: the notary public noted, “The Adventist Church of the Seventh day Union of Chiapas Religious Association is represented in this action by Mr. Ignacio Pérez.”
The letters allege similar transactions which might have benefited relatives of Pastor Navarro. A senior administrative official familiar with these transactions told Adventist Today that “an impartial audit of the UMCH and a review of the notarial documents of these properties would show these actions to be scandalous.”
The complainants further say that Elder Navarro and Elder Bouchot acquired cars around this time, which are alleged to have been purchased with UMCH funds.
In 2020, while the Covid-19 pandemic was sweeping the world, Navarro was able to purchase a Toyota Tacoma 4×4 pickup truck for MXN$ 814,100, about US$40,000. Adventist Today’s sources showed a bill of sale made out to the “Seventh-day Adventist Church Union of Chiapas” with a serial number of the vehicle. One source claimed that Elder Navarro paid in cash and drove the car out of the dealership. Also in 2020 Elder Bouchot purchased a Honda car, with a value of MXN$ 700,000 (US$ 35,000), which sources also allege was purchased with conference money.
These transactions happened while the finances of the Seventh-day Adventist Church were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Elder Filiberto Verduzco, Inter-American Division (IAD) treasurer, had written a letter requesting that entities of the Inter-American Division take austerity measures to preserve the financial liquidity of the institutions. Some organizations resorted to early retirements and staggered layoffs of employees. There was talk of dipping into the retirement fund to meet operating expenses.
Many poor Adventist members in Chiapas were unemployed in 2020 and 2021. They continued to return their tithes and offerings even as, in local churches, pastors’ salaries were cut and aid to congregations withheld.
But it appears that at the same time some rather large business deals were being conducted in Chiapas, in which Elder Ignacio Navarro is alleged to have benefited.
In an effort to retaliate for the release of the letters, UMCH hired a private detective to trace the IP address from where the letters were sent. Some messages were sent from a cybercafe, whose security cameras were searched for who was using the computers on the date the emails were sent. The detective identified Elder José Enrique Jiménez Blandón, Palenque Mission’s pastor and youth departmental director. Blandón was called in and questioned for eight hours in the Mission president’s office.
A source sent Adventist Today what appears to be Blandón’s public retraction, dated July 02, 2021. Blandón was pressured by UMCH administrators to confess after showing him the video they obtained from the cybercafe security cameras. The letter says the writer is making “a humble and sincere apology in the Name of the Lord for the offense committed a few days ago against the church and its leaders”. In addition, he asks to be punished and thanks the UMCH administrators for “respectful and redemptive treatment.” The confession says that Elder Blandón “wishes to make amends for his mistake” of leaking the information, and asks for “the forgiveness of God, of your church and of you my leaders.” The confession ends by praising the UMCH leaders, as they are “the ones who are there to protect us and not to harm it [the church].”
One person told Adventist Today that the letter was drafted by the president of the Palenque Mission, because they were dissatisfied with the wording of the Elder Blandón’s own confession. After this public retraction, Elder Blandón was removed from his position as youth director, left without salary for a period of four months, and denied access to the local churches.
Blandón was only one of those who sent out these letters, as it appears in his public retraction. Among those fired in retaliation was a UMCH departmental director with more than 30 years of pastoral service, a few years away from retirement. He was expelled from the ministry and is now suing UMCH.
As many as 20 pastors, some church administrators, and Linda Vista Adventist University employees whom Navarro accused of colluding against him were removed or exiled during this time. While it was clearly a period of financial stress because of Covid, it appears that UMCH may have taken advantage of these allegations to instill fear among Adventist pastors and members in Chiapas. Leaders initiated “spiritual meetings” in each conference and mission of the UMCH, where pastors were made to sign vows to remain silent concerning these matters. Ultimately pastors and even senior officials of the UMCH lost their jobs.