With welling tears and a faltering voice, Estela Rodriguez took the podium at Immanuel Presbyterian Church Thursday night and gave thanks. ”That‘s the hardest thing for a mother, not to be able to be with her son. Now I have him back with me.“
The reunion was made possible last week when the witness to an August 1999 drive-by shooting failed to pick Jose Dimas Rodriguez out of a police lineup. Rodriguez, 14 at the time of the fatal shooting, proclaimed his innocence and presented investigators with an alibi, but was jailed nonetheless and spent the next seven months at Juvenile Hall.
His release provided an emotional high point for last week’s gathering, a fund-raiser and rally for the gang-diversion project Homies Unidos. It also marked a turning point for the group in what appears to be a running feud with the Rampart CRASH unit.
”This clearly calls into question the character of the police enforcement against these guys,“ said attorney Jorge Gonzalez, who asserts that the police sought to frame Rodriguez.
According to the police report, Rodriguez told police the night he was arrested that he‘d been at a Homies meeting at the hour Moises Hernandez was shot and killed. The officers ignored corroborating statements from several others at the meeting and charged Rodriguez on the basis of an id made from a gang-book photo by a second victim who was wounded in the shooting.
When Gonzalez finally prevailed on the District Attorney’s Office to bring Rodriguez before a live lineup, the same witness could not identify Rodriguez. While the charge against Rodriguez remains outstanding, he was released on his own recognizance after a Superior Court hearing last week.
Gonzalez said afterward the prosecution of Rodriguez was directed against the gang-intervention group he attended. ”They‘ve been using their badge to go out there and conduct activities more akin to persecution than actual law enforcement.“
Homies Unidos became a target, Gonzalez said, in part because of its nature — it’s a project created by former gang members to help foster nonviolence among street youth. In addition, said Gonzalez, ”It‘s partly because Homies has become a political force. They’ve linked up with Senator [Tom] Hayden‘s office, they’ve participated in hearings where they talked about police conduct. A lot of the officers have a personal grudge against Homies.“
Rampart Station Captain Robert Hansohn denies that his officers are targeting Homies, but points out that Homies‘ meetings are attended by members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang. ”It’s our job when gang members get together to gather intelligence,“ he said in a telephone interview.
To some observers, however, repeated arrests of Homies participants represent more than simple police work. Said Frank Alton, the reverend at Immanuel Presbyterian, where Homies holds its workshops, ”There‘ve been too many coincidences.“
The case against Jose Rodriguez is one of three arrests by Rampart CRASH Officer Jesus Amezcua that critics say stem from a campaign to harass Homies and drive the organization out of business.
The most recent is the February 10 arrest of Marvin Rodriguez, 24, a Salvadoran immigrant and member of Mara Salvatrucha (no relation to Jose). Rodriguez was flagged by police moments after he had picked up a friend from a Homies meeting. Fearing he would be deported, Rodriguez sped away rather than consent to a traffic stop, then struck another vehicle and fled on foot. Amezcua gave chase and quickly caught up with him, striking him several times with a nightstick before taking him into custody.
Amezcua’s partner said in the arrest report that Amezcua struck Rodriguez in self-defense because Rodriguez had turned on the pursuing officer. Rodriguez attorney Jorge Gonzalez dismisses that scenario as ludicrous. Rodriguez remains in jail on charges of felony hit-and-run.
The most direct police challenge to Homies Unidos came January 21 with Amezcua‘s arrest of Alex Sanchez, the group’s Los Angeles director. Sanchez, a native of El Salvador who was deported there in 1994, was not charged with any criminal acts, but was turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for deportation.
Sanchez‘s supporters immediately denounced the arrest as a violation of Special Order 40, the department rule that bars officers from making a stop solely to enforce federal immigration laws. The LAPD specifically denies such a violation, asserting that ”in this case the INS provided information . . . that they were actively looking for Mr. Sanchez and requested the department’s help with his apprehension.“ Asked if that were the case, INS L.A. district director Tom Schiltgen said, ”We don‘t ask anyone to go out and pick up individuals based on their being illegally in the U.S.“ He added, however, that the agency’s top priority is ”to identify and deport criminal aliens,“ and that the INS routinely works with other law enforcement agencies. ”We pass information back and forth,“ Schiltgen said.
Separately, attorney Jorge Gonzalez protested that Sanchez was a witness in the Rodriguez case — specifically, Sanchez could testify that Rampart officers had staked out the Homies meeting the night of the slaying — and that Sanchez‘s arrest was an attempt to deny Rodriguez his alibi.
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.“