Supporters stand behind activist with alleged ties to Mara Salvatrucha gang

Backers believe Alex Sanchez, who is facing racketeering charges, is incapable of betraying the community’s trust.

By Esmeralda Bermudez
July 4, 2009

Shackled and sitting at the front of a courtroom, Alex Sanchez looked on with somber eyes as the judge called him a danger to society and a potential flight risk. The anti-gang worker who could face life in prison if convicted in a federal case was ordered held without bail.

Outside the courthouse, dozens of Sanchez supporters — clergy, professors, lawyers, community organizers and youths from Latino, black and Asian communities — pleaded for his freedom. They hail the Salvadoran immigrant as a reformed gangster turned peacemaker and believe he is incapable of betraying the community’s trust.

Many in the group had never met one another and, in some cases, had never met Sanchez. But they all were inspired by his outreach work through Homies Unidos, the nonprofit anti-gang group he has led since 2006. They mobilized in the days after Sanchez’s June 24 arrest on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges associated with a violent, transnational street gang.

Supporters from across California and as far as Miami and New York launched a letter-writing campaign; created a website; organized a phone bank, a town hall and an art sale; and collected more than $1.2 million in guarantees to post bail. One former senator offered his home as collateral.

“If they wanted my house, they could have it,” said former state Sen. Tom Hayden at a news conference after Tuesday’s bail hearing.

The outpouring contrasted with the image painted by prosecutors, who described Sanchez in court as a criminal mastermind who hid behind his nonprofit organization while maintaining his position as a “shot-caller” in Mara Salvatrucha, an infamously dangerous gang with links across the United States, Mexico and Central America. They said he was involved with the gang’s Normandie clique.

The community is well-intentioned, said federal prosecutor Elizabeth Carpenter, acknowledging more than 100 letters of support submitted to the judge. But “they have been duped by his public face,” she said.

Although other anti-gang workers caught in gang-related crimes in recent years have been deserted by supporters, Sanchez’s followers vow to continue fighting for a man they believe has been unfairly targeted.

“Today we experienced disappointment,” said Homies Unidos board member Monica Novoa, stepping up to the microphone with a quivering voice after Judge Alicia G. Rosenberg’s decision to deny Sanchez bail. “But we are not defeated. We know this affects all of us because we are all Alex Sanchez.”

Around her the crowd of about 100 cheered, holding up Sanchez’s image and signs calling for a fair trial.

Sanchez, 37, was among two dozen alleged members or associates of Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, charged in a 66-page indictment unsealed June 24, the day he was arrested in his Bellflower home. In the first racketeering charge brought against the gang in Los Angeles, the indictment alleges that defendants were involved in a variety of crimes over a 15-year period, including murder, extortion and drug trafficking.

Sanchez, who allegedly went by the moniker Rebelde, is accused of drug conspiracy and of conspiring with fellow gang members to kill a rival in El Salvador in 2006.

Defense attorney Kerry Bensinger read from a thick pile of letters supporting Sanchez and asked the judge to release him on bail. He called the prosecution’s allegations “weak” and “laughable.”

“I’ve never seen support like I’ve seen for this man in 20 years,” he told the judge.

Prosecutors said that in wiretaps from May 2006, Sanchez and others are heard plotting to kill a man considered a threat to Sanchez. Carpenter said Sanchez is heard saying in the recording, “We go to war.”

A week later, she said, a man identified in the recordings as Walter Lacinos, or “Camaron,” was killed in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Carpenter said in court that Sanchez has numerous connections in the criminal and legal world and listed his criminal past, charges that included grand theft auto, dissuading a witness through threat or force, and possession of a firearm. She also noted that he still bears a Mara Salvatrucha tattoo across his chest.

Bensinger argued that those charges date back to the early 1990s when Sanchez was still a Mara Salvatrucha member and that his client has not been charged with a felony for 15 years. He said Sanchez’s connections are part of his daily work as an anti-gang worker. As for the tattoo, Bensinger said that Sanchez has had other MS-13 tattoos removed, but the removal process is too painful for the chest marking.

Sanchez had long been regarded as a story of redemption that rose out of Los Angeles’ gang landscape. The former gang member gained national attention during the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart corruption scandal a decade ago. Officers were accused of attempting to deport Sanchez, who planned to testify on behalf of a teenager who said he was wrongly accused of murder.

Sanchez was eventually granted political asylum and began to work with Homies Unidos, a gang-intervention program with offices in Los Angeles and El Salvador. His work and charisma were praised nationwide. Community organizations, politicians and professors partnered with him to help curb gang violence.

When word of his arrest spread, many supporters were shocked and angered by allegations they say are completely out of character with the selfless man they have known for years. Some believe Sanchez has been set up by a disgruntled gang member or by police seeking revenge after the Rampart scandal.

“They don’t believe in redemption. They don’t believe it’s valid or viable,” said civil rights lawyer Jorge Gonzalez, standing beside other supporters outside the courthouse.

Not far away, Sanchez’s wife, Delia, and the rest of his family gathered quietly under a tree. Like her husband’s supporters, she promised to stand by Sanchez.

“We’re gonna be strong and we’re going to fight,” she said. “That’s what he taught us to do.”

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