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Others believe Sanchez was singled out simply because he is active with Homies Unidos. A longtime member of Mara Salvatrucha, Sanchez grew disillusioned with the street violence he encountered in El Salvador, and became active in Homies there. Upon returning to Los Angeles, Sanchez earned a solid reputation as a peace worker seeking to reform the street gangs from the inside.
It’s a strategy the Rampart police are skeptical of. ”I‘ve been on the job for 29 years,“ Rampart Captain Hansohn said, ”and I’ve never seen one of those things succeed.“
To backers of Homies Unidos, that reasoning says as much about the police as about Homies. ”The CRASH mandate is to end gang violence, and Homies are dedicated to the same purpose,“ said Jim Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, at the Homies gathering last week. ”You‘d think [police Chief Bernard] Parks would be pinning ribbons on the chest of people like Alex Sanchez, not throwing them in jail.“
As with Jose Rodriguez, however, the case against Sanchez has proven difficult to prosecute. First, officials at the Salvadoran consulate in L.A. met with Sanchez’s supporters and agreed that their government would not accept Sanchez, which limits the ability of federal authorities to arrange for speedy deportation. Soon after, U.S. Attorney Alejandro Majorkas agreed not to file criminal charges against Sanchez.
Last week, the INS held a ”reasonable fear“ hearing on Sanchez‘s case to determine whether his deportation to El Salvador would expose him to danger in his home country. As Sanchez immigration attorney Allen Diamante described it, ”Outspoken individuals in El Salvador tend to be persecuted,“ either by the government there or by the death squads that still operate after dark in the capital city of San Salvador.
Diamante explained that Sanchez faces an uphill battle in seeking to stay his deportation. ”They don’t want every gang member coming in and seeking asylum,“ he said. But Sanchez has distinguished himself by his work as a peace activist. One sign of high-level interest: The case is being handled out of Washington, D.C., and not the regional office in L.A., Diamante said.
However the INS rules on Sanchez, his case is already working to galvanize support for Homies Unidos, and to focus criticism of the LAPD. The story of Sanchez and Homies Unidos has been featured in Time magazine and on network television in the U.S., and on the BBC in Britain.
In the Rampart District itself, where resentment of street gangs remains strong, Homies has emerged as one of the few local forums to demand police reform. More than 60 people turned out to Immanuel Presbyterian for last week‘s fund-raiser, where speakers split their time between support for Sanchez and denouncing the LAPD. Appearances included the Reverend Alton, Lafferty, Homies founder Magdaleno Rose-Avila, Hayden staff chief Rocky Rushing, and Oscar Sanchez, Alex’s younger brother.
Sanchez told the audience that his brother had spent his early years deeply involved in the gang life, and that he‘d expected to find him ”killed on the street, jailed for life or addicted to drugs,“ but that Alex ”changed completely“ after the birth of his son five years ago.
Sanchez then read from a letter Alex wrote from his bunk at the INS detention facility on Terminal Island. ”Gangs are youth crying out for help. Our responsibility is to guide them,“ Sanchez wrote. ”All we ask from the police is the chance to make these streets safer. All we ask is to let us try.“
Rose-Avila spoke more broadly to the question of what went wrong at Rampart. The hard-charging CRASH unit had been emboldened, Rose-Avila said, by a culture that demonized Latino youth and declared open season on gangs.
The Reverend Alton, whose parish lies primarily in the Rampart District, acknowledged in an interview that the gangs ”can make life pretty rough for people in this part of the city.“ But he contends that targeting gang members for harassment and jail time only makes the problem more intractable.
”It’s not just the police. Unfortunately, to the larger part of our society, these gang members are considered monsters. The idea is that they can‘t change, they’re just a problem to be handled.“
To Alton and others, the example of Alex Sanchez and Homies Unidos challenges that two-dimensional approach to street violence. ”Here is a way that these gang members might have something different happen in their lives,“ Alton said. ”We are suggesting [to the police] that they allow that space to exist.“