By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
For more than a year, the street cops of the Rampart CRASH anti-gang unit have waged a quiet but determined campaign against a gang-peace project called Homies Unidos. Apparently believing the project was a ruse, Rampart officers harassed Homies members on the street and in their homes, and even pursued them into a church where they held weekly self-help workshops.
Last month the cops scored what could prove a crippling blow to the organization, arresting Alex Sanchez, the Los Angeles director of Homies, and delivering him to the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation to his native El Salvador. But although Sanchez remains in INS custody, he also remains in the U.S. while supporters appeal to federal authorities for leniency.
Those supporters, including state Senator Tom Hayden, contend that Sanchez is just the sort of person the community needs -- a reformed gang member who turned his life around and has dedicated himself to leading a new generation of street-wise youth away from gang violence.
A separate argument against deportation was lodged by Jorge Gonzalez, a criminal-defense attorney representing a member of Homies Unidos facing murder charges stemming from a drive-by shooting. According to Gonzalez, Sanchez is a key alibi witness in the case, whose testimony would help show that the police are seeking to frame his client.
The chorus of appeals for leniency toward Sanchez has already had an impact. The consulate of El Salvador agreed last week not to accept Sanchez if he is deported, meaning that even if the order is issued, Sanchez will remain in the U.S. -- albeit in federal custody. Immigration officials are considering granting Sanchez special status that would allow him to stay here indefinitely. And, according to an attorney who was present, U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas agreed at a meeting last week to consider arguments that he not file criminal charges against Sanchez for returning here after he was deported in August 1994. (The INS requested such prosecution.)
Whatever course federal authorities choose, the vocal support for Sanchez represents an equally vocal indictment of the Rampart CRASH unit, already under fire as a hotbed of corruption and misconduct. In a statement released last week, the LAPD denied any effort to target Homies Unidos. Still, in the war on gangs Sanchez and the police are clearly at opposite poles, with Sanchez, the former gangbanger, preaching compassion and understanding, and the CRASH cops pushing a much tougher line.
These conflicting approaches to gangs and violence crossed paths on a stage almost too apt for such a morality play -- the stately Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard. The ensuing clash took place against a vivid inner-city backdrop that included a drive-by killing, an alleged frame-up and an appearance by a committee of the state Senate. And, as seems inescapable these days, it’s the cops who wear the black hats.
Alex Sanchez was born in El Salvador in 1973 and emigrated to Los Angeles with his parents in 1979. During an interview with the Weekly last fall, when his conflict with the LAPD was escalating, he recalled his entry into the gang life: “My parents both worked, and they were raising three kids. I was trying to find some kind of freedom, and I found it on the streets.”
Sanchez found that freedom, and a gritty brotherhood, in Mara Salvatrucha, a Salvadoran street gang that has battled for years with local chapters of the Mexican-dominated 18th Street gang. Their turf wars contributed to the Rampart District‘s reputation as a killing ground: Though among the smallest of the LAPD’s 18 divisions, during the 1980s Rampart several times led the city in homicides.
Sanchez‘s deepening involvement in Mara Salvatrucha was reflected in his rap sheet: a 1990 conviction for grand theft auto, and a 1992 conviction for felony possession of a firearm. His short, broad frame bears the scars of four bullet wounds from three different gang-related shootings. On August 31, 1994, Sanchez was deported to El Salvador.
It was his homeland, but for Sanchez the capital city of San Salvador was a foreign destination, fraught with the same gang warfare he’d left behind -- scores of deported gang members had simply resumed their old rivalries -- and patrolled at night by death squads that sought to eradicate the new street gangs by summary execution.
As the pace of the killing quickened, Sanchez joined with a crew of disaffected gang members to work against the street violence. Around the same time, he learned he had become a father.
In November 1996, Sanchez crossed the border illegally and returned to Los Angeles; he applied for a California driver‘s license, moved in with his mother and helped to look after his young son. That same month, back in El Salvador, Homies Unidos was founded.
Sanchez joined with Homies two years later by starting an L.A. chapter, lending it distinction as the first transnational gang-peace project. In Homies, Sanchez said last fall, he’d found his mission: “Nobody can do it except somebody who‘s been there. All the kids who looked up to me because of the bad things that I was doing, now they’re looking for a change in the neighborhood.”