Published in the Huffington Post Latino Voices, February 10, 2010
When FBI agents knocked on Alex Sánchez’s door in Bellflower on June 24, 2009 in order to arrest him–in front of his wife and children–and charge him with being a covert leader of the Mara Salvatrucha (a Salvadoran gang in Los Angeles)–it was like deja vu all over again.
This called to mind events that occurred following Sanchez’s earlier arrest on January 2, 2000, when a CRASH anti-gang unit in the LAPD’s Rampart Division against Homies Unidos, the organization which works to prevent gang involvement that Alex still leads, which the cops back then–and maybe now–believed was a ruse.
Sánchez was then handed to ICE (formerly the INS) who were ready to deport him back to El Salvador from where he immigrated in 1979 with his parents, at the age of 6.
A defense attorney claimed that Sánchez was about to provide an alibi to a member of Homies Unidos accused of murder, which, he alleged, the LAPD was determined not to happen.
As in 2009 and 2010, the arrest created a strong reaction from inside the community. Protest simply focused on the absurdity of the accusations.
Then as now, ex-state senator Tom Hayden was at the forefront defending Sánchez. “Sánchez 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,” he stated.
The Salvadoran Consulate declared that it would not accept Sánchez if he was deported.
The Rampart CRASH Unit was already implicated in an investigation of its methods, which became known as the Rampart Scandal and that led to the September, 2000 consent decree between the city of LA, the LAPD and the US Department of Justice.
Sánchez was already deported once in 1994, after two convictions in 1990 and 1992. Back in El Salvador he made the decision to turn his life around, and returned to Los Angeles in 1996, moving in with his mother.
Two years later, he created the Los Angeles chapter of a new Salvadoran-American organization, Homies Unidos.
Here he worked to develop programs for youth at risk, working to achieve truces between gangs, build bridges between African-Americans and Latinos, help ex-gang members remove their tattoos, and initiate job training programs.
But that was the past. This time, Sánchez, together with another 23 individuals, was implicated in a criminal sting. He was accused of conspiring to kill a member of the Mara Salvatrucha in El Salvador in 2006, a federal charge, as well as being a “shot caller,” one who collects “taxes” for the mafia and coordinates drug operations.
This time, they thought, they had a better chance to stop Sánchez than a decade earlier.
So far, the effort to connect Alex Sánchez with the public perception as a callous murderer and capo of a drug-dealing and criminal group has failed.
Sánchez’ arrest stunned people all over Los Angeles and beyond, with stories in the most important media outlets like The Washington Post and the New York Times.
The journalist and gang-expert writer Celeste Freemon in her WitnessLA blog condensed many people’s doubts when she wrote:
“Everyone I know who knows this field–including some of those in and around law enforcement–is stunned. Alex is an excellent and great-hearted man who has made a big difference in many lives.”
The main effort to free Sánchez on bail came from his family and supporters of his work in the community. The name of their main website, WEAREALEX.ORG and the masks of Sánchez’s face worn during the protests were designed to convey the idea that this attack is not only against Alex Sanchez, one individual, but, in reality, is against these underserved communities who awaken, arise and struggle.
The day after Sánchez’s arrest, this community felt stunned, incredulous and beaten. The Homies Unidos website was down.
But this state of shock lasted for one day only. On June 28, 2009, the first community meeting was held in Los Angeles, demanding a “Fair Trial for Alex” which galvanized his supporters. In a video posted on the website “We Are Alex,” organizers, activists, family members and many others expressed their love for Alex as a person as well as support for his cause. In Spanish, in English, over and over, they repeated, “You have come from failure to success, and we are all Alex.” Popular pressure began to mount, which was a key element in obtaining bail for Sanchez and freedom.
Maybe the drive to keep Sánchez in jail and deny him bail backfired. The more outrageous the allegations against him were, the more difficult they were to believe. Especially since many remembered a similar attempt a decade prior.
As Roberto Lovato points out, while charges against the other 23 defendants were backed by hard evidence, charges against Sánchez were based on “a series of phone conversations” in which he allegedly participated and discussed the killing of the Mara Salvatrucha member in El Salvador.
The tape of the conversation, which was played in court, is not conclusive and is prone to interpretation.
Those who defend Sánchez believe the legal campaign against him has broad social and political ramifications, and threatens to de-legitimize the social justice approach to the problem of gangs. That perception is widespread. “If they demonize this population – with whom we work around here – then it’s a short hop to demonize the people who work with them,” said Father Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, one of the most successful gang intervention programs in Los Angeles, pointing to himself in an interview. “I think that’s what happened to Alex”.
This case could thus be a wake up call for those ex-gang members who now work in prevention and intervention and, to be effective use the gang’s language, appearance, and set of values (i.e. respect, family, homies). They are, like Sánchez, in many cases, ex-gang members, who now fear that they too will be mistakenly accused of maintaining ties with those still committing crimes.
So, the arrest became a daunting reality for many young Blacks and Latinos in the inner city who for years have struggled to escape the reach of gangs. If Alex Sánchez was still considered a gangbanger after all these years, after all he did, goes the narrative, how will they redeem themselves, be able to escape that environment? Will they be able to make the transition, be allowed to study, work and thrive?
The direct effect of seeing an ex-gang member who has made the transition, Sánchez said, is crucial. “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 seek change and want to do good in the neighborhood”. This example, seeing someone make that all-important transition, is now in jeopardy.
Most of the coverage of the arrest tilted heavily in crediting chief Bratton, the FBI, the US Attorney, the grand jury and others for the charges in the indictment, assuming this was sufficient evidence. It failed to separate the severe accusations against the other defendants and the weaker ones against Sánchez, who is, by far, the most important target of the 3-year-investigation.
In short, this arrest, the accusations, the legal proceedings thus far and most of the coverage in the English-language media were all a lethal attack against helping youth change their ways and avoid further gang involvement, as well as prevention, justifying enforcement as the desired, and only, objective.
Maybe the reactions to Sánchez’s arrest prompted many in law enforcement to rally behind the allegations and insist in the danger Alex supposedly poses to peace.
This alignment was international. Douglas Omar García Funes, the Civil Police Commissioner of El Salvador and chief of its Transnational Anti-Gang Center, said to Jorge Morales, a reporter for La Opinión: “It doesn’t surprise me that he was arrested and that he was in both places, because there are many pandilleros and drug addicts who return to the gangs even though it seems that they extracted themselves from it and created prevention organizations”.
Expressions like this were everywhere. The question became whether Sánchez would be granted bail by Judge Real.
As for Judge Real: the severity of the allegations, his determination not to make decisions based on public pressure and the insistence by law enforcement officers from a wide array of agencies that Sánchez will flee to El Salvador, together with his understanding of the law, pushed him deny bail to Sánchez twice, even though common sense dictated otherwise: Sánchez has nowhere to go, for in El Salvador he would be executed by current gang members. This is why the United States granted him asylum in 2002.
In the end, the sustained effort by law enforcement and others against Sánchez didn’t work.
On January 24th, after six months in prison, Sánchez was freed on a 2 million dollar bail. As he told Cuentame in his only interview since then, he is “working on my strategy” to prepare for his trial, scheduled to start in October. “The next thing, you know, is to focus on my case. This is the start of me being able to develop a strategy along with my lawyer and everybody else who is going to be helping.”
The more determined prosecutors were in painting Sánchez as a devil, the more he looked like an angel to his supporters.
The reaction to Sánchez’ arrest and being twice denied bail created what can be defined as the beginning of a social movement around him.
And support grows for the path which places Sánchez as a national leader for social justice.