As a state legislator Hayden was a leading proponent of gang peace efforts, including Homies Unidos, and testified for asylum in the Alex Sanchez case.

The indictment of Alex Sanchez, a revered gangbanger-turned-peacemaker, raises new doubts about whether the Los Angeles police department has reformed sufficiently to be released from a federal court order.

It also brings back strong memories in Los Angeles barrios of the Sleepy Lagoon case during war hysteria in 1942, when the LAPD and media helped railroad three young Mexican men into long murder sentences. The verdicts were later overturned and twelve defendants freed from prison. At the time, the lawyer and future Nation editor Carey McWilliams wrote that the case was a “ceremonial lynching.”

In more immediate terms, the Sanchez case repeats the history of a decade ago, when the same charges were hurled by the LAPD and a federal antigang task force, that Sanchez’s community-based violence prevention work was only a “front” for ties to Mara Salvatrucha, the feared immigrant street gang that arose after the 1970s Central American wars.

The Rampart scandal, named after a police precinct in the immigrant Pico-Union neighborhood, erupted in the late 1990s when a corrupt police officer, Rafael Pérez, began testifying to widespread police criminality after being caught selling cocaine out of his locker room. The US Justice Department charged a pattern and practice of constitutional violations, including shootings, brutality and planting of evidence. Sanchez was targeted for deportation by the LAPD and INS in January 2000, months after testifying publicly about police harassment of community peace workers. As the scandal mounted, federal prosecutors chose not to prosecute him for illegal entry to the US, where his 2-year old son and family lived, but turned the case over to an INS court. On July 10, 2002, the INS judge granted him political asylum, the first such verdict in history.

Since those days, Sanchez has built Homies Unidos, a transnational gang peace organization from the US to El Salvador. Its hazardous work centers on trying to prevent gang violence and open alternative paths for young people, including art therapy, spiritual exercises, education, rehabilitation, training and job development. Alex became a beloved figure in the community, making endless presentations before wider audiences around the country. His activity spawned enemies in the gang world, and never satisfied the LAPD and federal war-on-gangs units’ desire to retaliate against one who caused them unprecedented embarrassment.

The escalating war against Mara Salvatrucha provided prosecutors the opportunity. The use of federal racketeering and conspiracy laws is the favored prosecution tool in this war, charging large numbers of alleged MS members with operating a large top-down enterprise with a board of directors and finding them guilty of conspiracy instead of trying them on individual counts of drug-dealing or violence. Alex Sanchez is named in the indictment as one of four “shot-callers” in the Normandie neighborhood in Pico-Union. He therefore is held accountable for the crimes of anyone who can be connected with the organization. The indictment includes 153 overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy to violate the racketeering laws.

Fifty-six of the overt acts consist of street-corner drug sales to undercover FBI informants. The serious counts include eight murders and one murder plot, five of them occurring between 2001 and 2003. Instead of bringing murder charges in individual cases, where evidence might be difficult to accumulate, the defendants need only to be “associated” with the conspiracy to be found guilt.

Alex Sanchez is accused of being heard on wiretapped phone calls on May 6 and 7, 2006, in which several members of MS “conspired” to kill Walter Lacinos, whose street name was Cameron. On May 15, an alleged MS member killed Cameron in La Libertad, El Salvador.

To illustrate the nature of the charge, imagine that the following conversation took place: First party: That dude should be shot. Second party: No question.

In an ordinary criminal trial, it would be difficult to connect these words to an actual deed one week later. There would be evidence, for example, that all kinds of people wanted Cameron dead. He was deported to El Salvador after serving at least fifteen years in California state prisons as a high-ranking gang member. He had enemies as well as friends. But in the conspiracy model, it is easier for the prosecution to “prove” that the wiretapped voices are people who “conspired” in his death.

This example is purely hypothetical. The government has not released the actual content of the tapes, nor a list of its witnesses, nor any of the documents it will be compelled to hand over to the defense at trial.

Alex Sanchez denies the charges.

Most gang researchers and defense attorneys are critical of RICO and state laws like California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act. Malcolm Klein, considered the dean of gang research at the University of Southern California, thinks the notion of vertically organized cartels with an Al Capone at the top makes no sense.

“These [federal] agencies know and understand organized crime. They do not know street gangs. They often assume the two are similar, when in fact they are not…. Calling each kind of group a gang leads to the application of cartel thinking to street gangs” (Klein,The American Street Gang, Oxford, 1995, p. 167).

Even more dismissive is Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit who works directly with street gang members in Homeboy Industries, the most well-known organization of its kind in the country, from whose June 28 e-mail I quote here:

This is all heartbreaking, I’ve sent a letter for the granting of bail…. A New York Times reporter called me and what they think they have is a “gang interventionist gone bad” story. I’ve told two reporters here’s your story: law enforcement is unable to interpret what they have.

There is a gulf between what they have [wiretap evidence, witnesses] and what they think they have. The FBI could multiply their tools and resources and this still would not issue in actual knowledge of how gangs think or operate.

I spoke to two MS members who I trust and who would tell me the unvarnished truth about Alex. They actually hadn’t heard the news. I said, “They claim that Alex is the shot caller for the Normandie clique of MS.” They laughed and deemed the whole thing ridiculous. They would have told me otherwise if it was true. I didn’t need affirmation in this but it just underscores my point. Law enforcement will never have access or knowledge of this issue. But they see through a glass darkly and so Alex gets caught up in their ignorance.

Just yesterday, a homie who works for me, gets stopped by Hollenbeck cops, who tell him, “I know for a fact that Fr. Greg is affliated with the Mexican Mafia.” A month ago, a cop tells another homie that the Mexican Mafia holds meetings at Homegirl Cafe (Chief Bratton has his Tues. morning meeting at the Homegirl Cafe every week–but I don’t know when the EME has their meetings at my place.)

They aren’t just trying to discredit me–I think they believe this stuff–because they know very little about gangs, and so have to interpret what they see from a place of real ignorance. Yet every jury and judge in the land think law enforcement (and of course, the FBI,) know what they’re talking about. But no one who lives in any of the 12 hot-zones in LA think cops know very much about this. Anyway–it’s complex. The cops must force the square peg into the round hole. It’s not a conspiracy to get Alex, it’s what happens when you only possess half the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle and feel forced to assert that they have all the pieces.

Later I received a follow up e-mail from the priest:

You know me–I’m not much of a conspiracy buff–it requires so much sophistication. Cops don’t possess this. All of this is cultural–a bias and predisposition, a by-product of wholesale demonizing. Which is to say, it’s worse than a conspiracy.

Had mass at the Chino YTS last night–again, illuminating to speak to MS guys. They were very clear about Alex’s role in the community and how he was, in fact, the opposite of “shot caller” for MS. If he is the shot caller, why do all his troops not know it?

All this raises severe questions about whether–and how–the LAPD has been reformed, almost a decade after agreeing to terminate its patterns and practices about rampant constitutional violations at Ramparts.