Sunday, September 6, 2009

Community Rallies Behind Imprisoned Ex-Gang Leader

Community Rallies Behind Imprisoned Ex-Gang Leader
By Leilani Albano


Jul 22, 2009

A Los Angeles judge has delayed a decision on whether to allow bail for gang intervention leader and peacemaker, Alex Sanchez. Sanchez, a former gang member of the notorious Salvadoran gang “MS-13,” faces federal conspiracy charges for plotting to kill reputed gang leader Walter Lacinos, who was found murdered in El Salvador three years ago.

As part of the indictment, Sanchez –- along with 24 others affiliated with the Mara Salvatrucha — is also accused of multiple murders and drug violations. The indictment also alleges members of the gang were responsible for seven murders and eight conspiracies to commit murder since 1995.

Sanchez was first denied bail on June 30 after the courts ruled that he did not have enough community support. The second bail was held last week but the courts put off making a decision until the next hearing, which is set for August 17.

Homies Unidos Board of Directors Chair Troy Garity says the delays in granting Sanchez bail are hurting his case. “The denial of bail is the denial of Alex’s equal opportunity to defend himself. A fair trial for Alex begins with granting him bail.”

The charges against Sanchez continue to baffle community members. “The allegations are utterly incompatible with not only his reputation not only with the steps he has taken, the programs he has started, the lives he has changed,” said Garity.

Born in El Salvador, Alex later joined the MS-13 but left the gang after settling down with a wife and child in Los Angeles. He then began to help gang members change their lives. As co-founder of the gang intervention center, Homies Unidos, Sanchez led a staff that provides life skills counseling, job placement programs and tattoo removal programs for youth wanting to avoid or leave gangs. The 37-year-old activist has also acted as an advocate for immigrant and youth rights and lobbied for gang intervention programs. “He’s a hero in our community,” said Alex’s brother, Oscar.

In addition, Interim Executive Director for Homies Unidos, Mirna Solarzano, says Sanchez has worked extensively with different groups to forge truces between gangs, including African American and Latino gangs, leading to safer streets.

“That’s one thing that Alex did…the black and brown unity,” she said. “As you can see, most of our black brothers are united in support of Alex and that says a lot.”

Across from the court house, supporters, friends and family members held a prayer circle for Sanchez before last week’s bail hearing. His backers, who range from neighbors, religious leaders to politicians, have so far put up $2.5 million in sureties to secure his release for bail. “The amount of money that was raised says a lot. That people are putting their savings up, because they trust him,” Oscar said.

Sanchez first received national attention after testifying against the Los Angeles Police Department in a murder trial during the Rampart Police Station Scandal, which refers to the period of widespread corruption among the LAPD’s anti-gang unit in the 1990s.

About 70 police officers were implicated in the scandal for framing, beating and killing people, stealing drugs and other offenses. In response, the LAPD tried to deport Sanchez to El Salvador in 2000, but he successfully won political asylum two years later.

Some community members see the link between Rampart and the federal indictment against him, as payback for Sanchez’s testimony against the LAPD. “He was one of the ones targeted by the Rampart police,” said Copwatch LA organizer, Joaquin Cienfuegos. “He was able to testify against the police.”

As one result of the scandal, federal officials imposed a consent decree in 2001 that acted as an oversight committee for the LAPD. On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Gary A. Feess lifted the decree. The decree will be replaced by a transitional committee made up of community members, which will monitor the police department’s actions.

In the federal indictment against Sanchez, prosecutors presented evidence that includes: a chest tattoo, as well as Sanchez’s criminal record (despite the fact that his convictions were struck down), a poem by him that was obtained by police, and a picture of him making gang signs at a gang peace conference nine years ago, according to ex-senator and civil rights leader, Tom Hayden.

Prosecutors also contend that they have wiretapped evidence of Sanchez conspiring to kill Lacinos, a gang leader, about a week before his death on May 15. Hayden wrote in an article he wrote for the magazine, The Nation, disputes the prosecutor’s claims, stating that the wiretap evidence against Sanchez is weak.

Hayden contended that prosecutors based their allegations on an unreleased wiretap in which Sanchez says “we go to war.” About a week after that statement was made, an MS-13 member killed Lacinos, according to the prosecution’s account, he said.

“It is hardly substantive evidence of ordering a gang killing,” said Hayden, who noted the statement was not put into context nor were additional quotes provided by Sanchez. Despite this, not everyone is convinced of his innocence.

Civil Rights Attorney Connie Rice, who heads the Advancement Project, casted doubts about Sanchez’s innocence after she said he missed meetings focusing on violence among MS-13 gang members. Her statements riled Alex’s brother, Oscar, who is asking that she clarify her statements.

“There’s no logic. Because he was missing some meetings, he was committing crimes?” he asked. Rice could not be reached for comment.

If convicted, Sanchez and others named in the indictment could face 25 years to life in prison. Homies Unidos was not named as part of the indictment.

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