Some weeks after Alex Sanchez was arrested on federal charges of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder, his younger brother Oscar went to a library in South Central Los Angeles to recruit support for a court appearance. He found many takers.
Alex Sanchez is the executive director of Homies Unidos and a revered former gangbanger turned peacemaker. He negotiated truces between rival gang factions, offered tattoo-removal services for people looking to renounce the gang lifestyle, lobbied for jobs programs, provided family counseling and life-skills training.
But the FBI believes Sanchez led a double life — allegedly ordering the execution of a rival gang member in 2006 and conspiring to distribute drugs. Thanks to Oscar Sanchez’s efforts, 100 or so supporters gathered for a bail-appeal hearing last week at a park across from the courthouse. They wore photocopied pictures of Sanchez’s face as masks. The Youth Justice Coalition made a giant papier-mâché bear in handcuffs. Signs around it read, “We can’t bear this anymore.” The bear, Oscar figured, represents his brother, to whom it bore a resemblance.
“It’s to show cuddliness and innocence,” he said. “The Band-Aid on its face is to show injury. Alex has been a comforting figure in a lot of people’s dark and violent lives.”
Oscar is a shorter, slighter, more compact version of his brother, with the same round face, the same soulful eyes. He hoped that Sanchez would be allowed to post bail and spend the time preparing for trial at home. He wouldn’t flee, Oscar said, arguing that his brother has no other place to go. The U.S. granted him asylum in 2002 because back in El Salvador, he was going to be tortured, then assassinated.
In court, Sanchez’s friends and admirers listened to moving, impassioned speeches. “We are united by the core values of Alex: peace, justice, unity and truth,” one woman said. “This is going to be a long fight.”
“People have different comfort levels, but we all can agree on justice,” Homies Unidos board member Monica Novoa said. “A just trial begins with bail.”
A Native American tribe elder lit sage and wafted it around with feathers.
“I’m Alex Sanchez. You’re Alex Sanchez. We are all Alex Sanchez,” the crowd chanted.
Packed into the courtroom, they gasped as Judge Manuel Real refused to let gang interventionist Father Greg Boyle take the stand: “Father Boyle proffered his opinion that Mr. Sanchez is innocent. That’s not what we’re here for. That’s for a jury to determine.” The issue on this day was simply whether Sanchez was a flight risk if granted bail.
The FBI’s case hinges on four wiretapped phone calls and on LAPD Detective Frank Flores’ interpretation of those conversations. The feds believe Sanchez is a secret “shot-caller” in MS-13, the violent Mara Salvatrucha gang, a leader who, they say, green-lighted the execution of a rival gang member who conspired to distribute drugs, and who otherwise led a double life.
Do shot-callers have wives and children? Sanchez’s lawyer, Kerry Bensinger countered. Do they attend City Council meetings, as Sanchez has? Do they have high visibility?
The prosecution argued that Sanchez is in a unique position to flee because he once was an illegal alien, has the ability to reach out to criminals and has enormous support from well-meaning people in the community.
Bensinger responded that “people support him because they believe he will make his court appearances.”
Judge Real did not see it that way. “They believe he’s innocent. That’s a different question.” Real said the 120 letters written on Sanchez’s behalf were not on point because none addressed the issue of flight risk. “His detention will continue,” said Real, in a subdued voice. Bail denied.
Oscar embraced a friend, crying. He staggered to the elevator.
“They need to make a motion to get rid of that judge. He’s a wacko,” said one guy.
“No letters addressing flight risk?” Oscar said. “We raised $2.5 million. People put up their houses for him. What does that say? It means trust.”
One of those who offered his house was former state Senator Tom Hayden. Outside at the park after the proceedings, Hayden said the hearing couldn’t possibly have gone worse. The government’s response to the outpouring of support, he pointed out, was to conclude that it makes Sanchez a greater flight risk because supporters would form an underground railroad to help him escape.