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.”
Sanchez said he started by serving as a courier and liaison between gang members in El Salvador and their estranged families back home in Los Angeles. Then, around this time last year, he recruited Arts Expand, a privately funded creative-arts program devoted to working with troubled teens, to run a weekly workshop that would encourage creative expression among gang members hardened by life on the streets. The workshops were conducted by Thom Vernon and Rana Raugen, both aspiring actors. They were held in a basement room at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, in the heart of the high-crime Rampart District.
Church leaders saw hosting the workshop as an important commitment. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we get outside this beautiful building and become more engaged in the community?’” said outreach worker Werner Morraquin. Working with street gangs was an obvious answer. “It‘s not because I glamorize gangs,” Morraquin said. “It’s because we need safe streets.
”Do we let this problem grow, put our heads underground — or do we engage?“
Rampart‘s officers noticed early on that a small clutch of gang members had begun gathering on Thursday nights at Immanuel Presbyterian, but they were apparently unimpressed with this alternative approach to street gangs. ”They try to stay on you,“ as Sanchez put it. ”They get you off the street, or they lock you up.“
Rampart Captain Bob Hansohn endorsed that strategy in an interview Tuesday. ”There’s not going to be any hands-off policy for any gang members in Rampart,“ Hansohn said. ”It‘s our job, when gang members get together, to gather intelligence. And if we see them on the street and have probable cause, we’re going to search them.“
At Immanuel Presbyterian, the CRASH unit employed its usual tactics. According to several workshop participants, the cops would stake out the meetings and harass people as they arrived — frisking them, taking names, and issuing citations for curfew violations or other infractions.
Sanchez responded with a strategy that would keep the kids out of reach. Arts Expand instructors picked up their charges at remote locations — a restaurant, an arcade — and drove them to the church. The cops continued to stake out the workshop.
On August 12 of last year, the stalemate finally broke. At 8:20 that evening Moses Hernandez, an 18th Street gang member, was walking with a friend on 1st Street near Kenmore Avenue when two members of Mara Salvatrucha slowly drove by. From the passenger seat one of the gang members called out to the pair on the sidewalk. Both were approaching the car when shots rang out. Hernandez was struck in the face and died at the scene; his friend was hit in the leg.
A patrol car and a CRASH unit arrived at the site of the shooting. While the patrol officers handled the crime scene, CRASH officer Jesus Amezcua and his partner showed 60 photos of known gang members to a bystander, who selected 13 as possible shooters. The officers then switched roles: The CRASH officers departed to search the area where the vehicle identified as the assault car had been spotted, while the patrol unit headed to the hospital to show pictures of the unlucky 13 to Hernandez‘s companion. That victim selected Jose Rodriguez, a 14-year-old member of Mara Salvatrucha, as the perpetrator.
Curiously, Rodriguez was already in custody. He’d been arrested by Amezcua and his partner. The investigation seemed to be moving quickly to a close until Rod-riguez claimed an alibi: He‘d been at the Homies Unidos workshop at the time of the shooting. Alex Sanchez could vouch for him, as could instructors Vernon and Raugen.
All three are adamant that Rodriguez was with them that night. ”I specifically looked at the clock,“ Raugen said, pointing out that the workshops started with a pizza feed at 7:30 and continued until nearly 11. ”I don’t condone violence but if they‘re sticking to that time [for the shooting], then I know he didn’t do it.“
Sanchez provides another challenge to the official story. A second CRASH unit staked out Immanuel Presbyterian that night to keep an eye on the Homies Unidos workshop. Officer Janine Manji reported that she and her partner watched the front door of the church from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., and that they observed ”no gang members“ and left the scene.
Jorge Gonzalez, the attorney for accused shooter Rodriguez, said in an interview that Sanchez contradicts the police report — specifically Manji‘s report that she saw no gang members there. Sanchez ”spoke to those officers that night,“ Gonzalez said. ”They always operate like this,“ he said of the police. ”But this time, we’ve got witnesses.“
The Rampart police scandal broke just weeks after the Moses Hernandez murder, when former Rampart CRASH officer Rafael Perez accused his fellow officers of wide-ranging misconduct, including routinely framing gang members. Yet in the weeks that followed, according to Sanchez and others, CRASH officers continued to pressure Homies Unidos.
”The cops started pickin‘ up on everyone,“ said Arlene ”Angel“ Alvarado, a Homies regular. ”They said, ’What do you think, just because you‘re in that program things are going to be different?’“
Harassing the gang members and watching from across the street apparently was no longer enough, however. On the week of September 20, the officers approached Victor Cosme, the church custodian, seeking to set up a listening post. ”They asked me to let them in. They asked if they could hide someplace where they could listen,“ Cosme said in a recent interview.
”I said, ‘No, I’m not the one to make those decisions.‘ That’s a serious thing, if they want to spy.“
On September 30, state Senator Hayden convened a hearing of the state Task Force on Gang Violence to take testimony from gang-intervention workers on systematic harassment by police. The site was Immanuel Presbyterian.
The latest Rampart revelations had sent a shockwave through the city, and in his opening remarks, Hayden delivered yet another critique of the LAPD. ”Peace workers have been subjected to harassment and arrest in such a manner as would seem to indicate that police are opposed to these efforts,“ Hayden said. Noting that deported gang members often encounter violence in their new ”homeland,“ he continued, ”This is a life-and-death issue as well as one of public policy.“
As the hearings got under way, Amezcua and three other officers slipped into the church to confront the gang members; one pair dropped in on the hearing itself. ”It was so bizarre,“ Raugen recalled later. ”Here‘s this meeting about police brutality against peace workers, and these two officers came and stood in the back, just glaring at everyone.“
The same night, Amezcua confronted one gang member in the church bathroom. According to several people who were there for the hearing, Amezcua shoved him out of the bathroom, out of the church and into an alley. ”They told him they didn’t want to see him there any more,“ one gang member said. ”They said they‘d be back and they’d take us all in. And they said they were looking for big Al.“ As in Alex Sanchez.
Amezcua caught up with Sanchez soon after nightfall on Friday, January 21, outside his home near the corner of 8th Street and Normandie Avenue. According to police, Amezcua made the stop because CRASH had recently ”received information“ from the INS that Sanchez was illegally residing in Los Angeles. As the LAPD acknowledged in a statement, department policy ”forbids officers from initiating police action“ where the only offense relates to immigration status. ”However, in this case the INS provided information to the LAPD that they were actively looking for Mr. Sanchez.“
Critics of the arrest point out, however, that the INS first issued a warrant in October 1998 charging Sanchez with illegal reentry into the U.S., and that the matter had lain dormant since then. According to an affidavit filed in support of that warrant, INS Special Agent Hung Nguyen discovered Sanchez‘s illegal status while conducting a routine review of DMV records. Nguyen is a member of a federal task force deployed to identify and deport violent gang members.
Sanchez told friends that when Amezcua arrested him, he said, ”I’ve got you now,“ and added, ”Homies has got six months to live.“ But if the LAPD has Sanchez where it wants him, the department has also garnered a fistful of new enemies at a time when it can ill afford the excess animosity. Some of them, like Hayden, are longstanding critics. But some, like Frank Alton, the pastor at Immanuel, have been friends of the police.
”This church has had a good relationship with the Rampart police in the past,“ Alton said in an interview. That may be changing, however. In a formal complaint to the Rampart brass on October 14, Alton said, ”I understand the difficult task the police department has in keeping this area safe. But I do not believe that having the police behave illegally will help this community.“
For his part, Captain Hansohn said he‘s planning to meet with Alton and representatives from Homies later this week. ”I’ll accept anyone‘s support in trying to limit gang activity,“ Hansohn said