A nationally known anti-gang activist was arrested Wednesday on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges stemming from his alleged involvement in one of the most violent street gangs in the United States.
Alex Sanchez, executive director of Homies Unidos, a gang-intervention nonprofit with offices in Los Angeles and El Salvador, was among two dozen alleged members or associates of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13, charged in a 66-page indictment that was unsealed Wednesday.
The defendants, with monikers such as Creeper, Grinch, Pain and Tears, were involved in a variety of crimes, including murder, conspiracy to commit murder, extortion and drug trafficking, over a 15-year period, the indictment alleges. Among the alleged crimes was a plot to kill a Los Angeles Police Department detective who specialized in investigating the gang, authorities said. Gang members had gone so far as choosing a handgun with which to kill Det. Frank Flores, authorities allege, but police thwarted the plot.
Sanchez's arrest comes as officials seek to train former gang members to work with at-risk youths. He is at least the fourth anti-gang worker to be charged with gang-related crimes in the last several years.
Identified in court papers by the gang name Rebelde, or rebel, Sanchez was allegedly a gang leader, known as a "shot caller." He is accused of conspiring with fellow gang members to kill a man in El Salvador in 2006 and other crimes.
Daniel McMullen, a top FBI official in Los Angeles, called Sanchez a gang member "who used the guise of a reformist to deceive the public and to play both sides by accepting funds from well-intentioned donors . . . while allegedly committing crimes on behalf of the gang."
Sanchez, 37, was arrested at his home in Bellflower. He broke into tears at a U.S. District Court hearing at which he was read the charges. He is expected to enter a plea next week. The board of directors of Homies Unidos issued a statement Wednesday evening expressing "full support" for Sanchez and saying that its members were "confident in Alex's innocence."
Homies Unidos received about $1.6 million in tax-deductible donations from 2002 through 2007, according to tax returns available on Guidestar, an online database of nonprofits. Some of the money came from celebrities, according to law enforcement sources who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak about the matter. It was not immediately clear how much money came from government sources, but at least $10,000 came from Los Angeles, according to the city controller's office.
Before his arrest, Sanchez had been winning accolades from politicians and others for years for his work with Homies Unidos. Based in an office near MacArthur Park, the organization performed tattoo removal for former gangsters who wanted a fresh start and offered life-skills courses for those leaving the gang life.
"For 10 years Homies Unidos has been a catalyst for change, working to end violence and promote peace in our communities," Sanchez wrote on the group's website. "In fact we are living proof that prevention works and that peace is possible."
Sanchez, a former Mara Salvatrucha gang member in the early 1990s, first came to public attention during the LAPD Rampart corruption scandal a decade ago. Allegedly reformed and working at Homies Unidos, he was planning to testify on behalf of a teenager who contended that he had been falsely implicated in a killing.
But before Sanchez could do so, he was arrested by the LAPD and turned over to immigration authorities, who began deportation proceedings for the illegal immigrant who had reentered the United States after having been deported following a car-theft conviction.
Sanchez applied for political asylum, arguing that he might be killed if he was returned to El Salvador because of his former involvement with the Mara Salvatrucha and his outspoken stance against police corruption.
His case became something of a cause celebre when police critics cited it as an example of how officers in the Rampart Division tried to neutralize potentially problematic witnesses by having them deported.
Among his chief supporters at the time was then-state Sen. Tom Hayden, who accused LAPD officers of improperly targeting Sanchez for arrest. Hayden supported Sanchez's bid for asylum, which was approved in 2002.
Hayden said Wednesday that it was too soon to assess the merit of the case against Sanchez, but that he does not believe the allegations negated his past achievements.
"He's one of the most sensitive, knowledgeable and effective anti-violence practitioners I've met," Hayden said in a telephone interview. "The violence he has averted in Los Angeles and El Salvador is hard to quantify, but there's no doubt he's done it."
L.A. City Councilman Ed Reyes, who said he gave $5,000 in public funds to Homies Unidos for a children's soccer program two years ago, said he was "totally shocked" by the charges.
Though prosecutors have filed racketeering charges against 18th Street and other gangs, the charges announced Wednesday mark the first time such a case has been brought against Mara Salvatrucha. According to authorities, the gang was formed in Los Angeles in the early 1980s by immigrants who fled war-torn El Salvador. Officials estimate the gang has several thousand members across the United States, as well as in Mexico and Central America. Federal authorities said the gang was one of the most violent in the nation.
The case against Mara Salvatrucha is the third major gang filing by the U.S. attorney's office in recent weeks.
Authorities filed what they called the largest gang case in the nation last month against the Barrio Hawaiian Gardens gang, which became a priority for law enforcement after a member killed an L.A. County Sheriff's deputy in 2005.
Last week, federal authorities issued a new round of charges in a pending case against the 18th Street gang, including allegations that a local defense attorney was serving as a liaison between the gang and the Mexican Mafia.
Mike "Cubano" Garcia, 64, a former Boyle Heights gang member who runs a gang program at White Memorial Medical Center, said the charges against Sanchez erode confidence in programs such as his.
"People start wondering, 'Man, are all these guys crooked?' " Garcia said.
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.
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Here are some other recent cases of anti-gang workers accused of misdeeds:
A year ago, Corona, once a top official with the Communities in Schools group, which helped former gang members secure jobs, was sentenced to 32 months in prison for drug violations after his arrest by Los Angeles police for possession of a pound of methamphetamine.
HECTOR 'BIG WEASEL' MARROQUIN
Marroquin, the director of the anti-gang organization No Guns, pleaded guilty last year to illegally selling assault weapons to federal undercover officers and was sentenced to eight years in state prison.
MARLO 'BOW WOW' JONES
In January, Jones, a well-known gang intervention worker in South Los Angeles, was arrested on charges of robbing and beating a member of the rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony at the Universal City Hilton hotel. Jones, a former member of the Grape Street Crips, helped prevent retaliatory shootings and had worked on a gang reduction effort with USC football Coach Pete Carroll.
-- Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times