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We Need Peacemakers Like Alex Sanchez

State Sen. Tom Hayden is a Democrat representing parts of West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley

At the heart of the Rampart Division police scandal is the nature of the war on gangs being executed by the Los Angeles Police Department. Virtually any means are justified to achieve the anti-gang CRASH unit objective of “total suppression.” Officers have admitted to lying under oath to obtain injunctions, as well as shooting and planting drugs on an innocent undocumented immigrant.

Now it appears that the anti-gang war is directed even against former gang members working for peace on the streets.

Last Friday, Rampart CRASH officers arrested Alex Sanchez, 27, as he was getting into his car in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles. Sanchez is a respected leader of Homies Unidos, an anti-violence organization formed in L.A. and El Salvador by former gang members who have turned their lives around.

CRASH officers arrested Sanchez on a federal immigration warrant because he is undocumented and seeking special status. It is contrary to LAPD policy to serve as an arm of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service because immigrant communities will not trust police if they believe that names are being passed along to the INS. In Sanchez’s case, CRASH broke that policy, and Sanchez now sits in a detention center in San Pedro.

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Sanchez was born in a San Salvador barrio. Like most in Homies Unidos, he was introduced to violence through the U.S.-supported war in El Salvador. Sanchez followed other immigrant war refugees to Los Angeles, where he joined Salvadoran youths in a gang. He broke the law, was arrested and deported, came back illegally to find his young son, got a job and changed his life.

Why should we care? Because the long war against gangs is an expensive, bloody treadmill. There are 160,000 alleged gang members incarcerated in California. Those like Sanchez who change their lives are precious role models for their younger brothers and sisters.

One night several years ago, I watched the anti-gang war from the CRASH perspective with an LAPD undercover anti-drug task force as they watched and made arrests of immigrant gang members selling drugs on a street corner. What struck me was how young these gang members were--well under 20--and how their creative potential had been misdirected. They did their bookkeeping with chalk on the street, made their transactions in seconds, kept lookouts posted and usually could intuit an undercover officer trying to bait them. I felt sad at their wasted lives and at the futility of sending 30 officers to spend the night rounding up teenage street dealers who were otherwise just jobless strangers in a strange land.

So I was deeply encouraged when Homies Unidos started to form around individuals like Sanchez. A main emphasis of Homies was the rap sessions that helped sort out and rechannel anger and remorse. Sanchez was involved with a poetry and theater workshop and with “peace process” meetings.

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Recently, Sanchez and others went to Sacramento to testify on violence prevention, where they met with legislators, law enforcement officials and representatives of Gov. Gray Davis. In El Salvador, members of Homies worked with gang members deported back from L.A., organizing workshops, a halfway house and subsistence businesses.

Yet from the CRASH perspective, once a gang member, always a gang member. The concept of Homies Unidos organizing for peace was rejected out of hand. CRASH officers even asked the minister of the Emanuel Presbyterian Church, where peace meetings were held, if they could hide in the church to eavesdrop on the meetings. The minister rejected the idea as contrary to the church’s goal of gaining the trust of Homies’ members.

One night last September in the same church, I chaired a state Senate panel, including 15 civil rights experts, taking evidence of police harassment of former gang members working for peace in their neighborhoods. Sanchez, who was a witness, testified that he once was picked up by CRASH officers who drove him around for two hours threatening him with deportation and worse. They dropped him in the street, he said, like a cat drops a mouse. As he testified, the same CRASH officer who eventually would arrest Sanchez was roaming uninvited around the church corridors and bathrooms, threatening Homies’ members with arrest later. A couple of them were picked up leaving the church that night, though Sanchez eluded the officer.

It is difficult for some to understand why an individual illegally in the United States deserves our sympathy and even protection. For me, it’s a question of values and priorities. The U.S. government already pays for illegal aliens to stay in the country when they are undercover informants of use to law enforcement. Why not grant the same to a peacemaker in the hope of reducing gang violence?

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Over the past two years, I have raised this very question with the head of INS in Washington, members of Congress, the U.S. ambassador in El Salvador, the police chief in San Salvador and even with the former head of the CRASH unit in Los Angeles, Dan Koenig. I told each that I believed in Sanchez as a peacemaker. I told them that I believed he would be deported, perhaps even killed, unless he was granted this immunity. All agreed it might be worth a try. Yet no one wanted to take responsibility for allowing a deported gang member to remain in the U.S., even if other lives might be saved.

In the past year, three Homies Unidos’ members who have been deported back to El Salvador have been killed by gang members there. In a Homies rap song, they call themselves “fruits of the war” that began in El Salvador and spilled onto L.A.'s streets. While a peace of sorts ended the conflict in their homeland, there is no peace agreement for them here.

Alex Sanchez, peacemaker, will be deported back to El Salvador unless the INS has the courage to make an exception. Everyone remaining in Homies Unidos feels, with justification, that they are targeted for arrest as well. If you are tattooed and wanted, it is easier to blend into a gang than to attend peace meetings and hand out leaflets. They want to change their lives, but who will help them?


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