Gato and Alex--No Safe Place
Thousands of miles north, a similar transformation was occurring with Alex. The double miracle of his own survival and the birth of his son had altered him. When he heard of Homies Unidos he was drawn to the idea of giving something back to the community he had damaged, so he volunteered. In becoming a public organizer, Alex was placing himself in harm's way. But he felt a calling, and soon he learned he had a gift for influencing young people to change their lives. For example, he gradually talked a pregnant, drug-addicted 16-year-old young woman into joining the Homies program. On her birthday, Alex gave her a big party with a cake. But it was raided by the CRASH unit, whose policy was to prevent all "association" among gang members. Alex was shoved against the wall, thrown on the floor, handcuffed. The officers knew Alex was undocumented and enjoyed telling him he could be deported at any time.
Our fledgling peace-process network actively sought to provide safe space for groups like Homies Unidos. In San Salvador we met with the US ambassador, the mayor and the police chief in the capital; in the United States with Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Commander Dan Koenig, of LAPD CRASH. We asked that INS provide a special visa for people like Alex to organize without fear of deportation. After all, law enforcement protected informants and undercover agents who were undocumented, so why not a peacemaker? We asked CRASH to stop harassing Homies Unidos members in LA. Because this was an international problem--fifty Salvadoran gang members are deported weekly from California--we asked them to give us an office at San Salvador International Airport to counsel deportees as they landed and to provide a halfway house, microloans for subsistence businesses and security for Homies in El Salvador. Though the US officials we met in El Salvador and Washington expressed great interest in the project, in the end none were eager to take a risk for peace. They were afraid of being considered soft on gangs.
Last November, Gato was shot six times and killed in front of his house in Modelo, before the eyes of his wife, Spanky, and small son, Vladimir. The shooters were presumably homeboys from MS, but who knows? He was the third member of Homies Unidos to be killed in El Salvador last year. What made Gato take a stand that caused his death? Was it that old code of honor, now displayed nonviolently? Was it the homeboy view of fate itself, "Laugh today, cry tomorrow"? Was it the cycle that began with his father's death before his eyes playing itself out because no one knew how to stop it? For mainstream society it was just another incorrigible superpredator finally dead.
After Gato's murder, Alex kept going. He organized small poetry-writing classes and put on plays, therapeutic channels for Homies Unidos members to wrestle with their inner demons. He traveled to Sacramento to lobby state legislators, prison officials, even the top aides to conservative Democrat Governor Gray Davis. They told him to "think about appealing to the voters in Van Nuys," presumably a tougher version of soccer moms, and to "not seem like a victim." Alex wore a white shirt and tie, and began to describe his mission as reforming lives. Modest gains were achieved, like $3 million in annual funding for neighborhood-based violence-prevention work, but the main impact was that the tattooed homies like Alex were coming in from the cold. Space in the political process was opening to them, when before the only space was the state's prison cells.
But for CRASH officers, the FBI and La Migra (INS), Alex remained the criminal enemy. Once an MS member, they figured, always an MS member. The Rampart CRASH unit singled him out, one day taking him for a three-hour ride in the backseat of a police car. They showed him they knew where his mother lived, drove through enemy gang neighborhoods, told him they could have him deported anytime, then dropped him in the street like a cat drops a mouse. Unfazed, Alex testified at a State Senate hearing in a Pico-Union church, called to investigate police harassment of gang peace efforts. In the church were Rampart CRASH officers threatening young homies who were there to listen or testify. The press was just beginning to explore the Rampart scandal to come.