A federal judge last week abruptly postponed ruling on whether it was proper for prosecutors seeking wiretap permission to conceal their use of top members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang as informants, as reported in The Nation August 27.
Meanwhile the recent shooting death of a Guatemalan day laborer, Manuel Jaminez, by a Los Angeles police officer has reignited a controversy over police reform that is at the root of the current courtroom drama.
Alex Sanchez, who was granted political asylum in 2002 after Los Angeles police sought to have him deported, went on to be a foremost community leader defending immigrant rights and a critic of deportation policies. He gained a following around the US in juvenile justice circles, and once testified before a United Nations panel.
Now Sanchez is being tried on gang conspiracy charges with 23 others in a federal court here. He was indicted June 2009 and granted bail eight months ago after an appeal to a federal appeals court.
On September 16, Sanchez’s court-appointed lawyer, Kerry Bensinger, introduced explosive evidence that the prosecution covered up its use of top MS leaders Nelson Comandari and Jorge Pineda as secret informants.
Prosecutors are obliged to prove the “necessity” of using wiretaps when they are the only feasible way to obtain vital information about criminal behavior.
Bensinger argued that the wiretap permissions were obtained under false pretenses. With Comandari in custody, Bensinger argued, the prosecutors had the so-called “‘CEO of MS,’ the brass ring, the one the government wanted to capture, the hub to everyone’s spoke.” Comandari provided information on the gang’s internal structure, leadership and ongoing criminal activities, including murders.
In response, the prosecution tried to argue that their right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. There was “no mechanism in place,” they said, by which one Justice Department official applying for wiretap permission could know that another branch of the Department had Comandari and Pineda in custody as informants.
But Bensinger pointed out that the Department “is charged with knowing” has a special national task force on MS 13, and has used the two informants since 2000 and 2006.
After listening to the arguments, Judge Manuel Real postponed his decision until November 29. It was a rare moment in a day during which the judge had briskly denied 28 other defense motions seeking documents or objecting to wiretap procedures.
Bensinger’s motion, if granted, could undermine much the prosecution’s case, lead to disclosure of hundreds of pages of debriefings of Comandari and Pineda, and reveal secrets of the government’s hidden links to the Comandari family in El Salvador. The right-wing Comandari family included an interior minister during the civil war period and a key informant in the Reagan administration’s COINTEL program against solidarity activists in the US.
Outside the courtroom, the immigrant Pico Union neighborhood was swirling with the first major police controversy since the Rampart consent decree was lifted last year. Pico Union is the base for Homies Unidos and where Alex Sanchez was arrested on deportation charges ten years ago. The LAPD officer assigned to the current prosecution, Detective Frank Flores, was a longtime gang officer in the area also.