Gato and Alex–No Safe Place

Gato and Alex–No Safe Place

This is the story of Gato and Alex, two Salvadorans who as children became refugees from America’s war in their homeland only to become rivals in America’s gang war on the streets of Los Angeles.


This is the story of Gato and Alex, two Salvadorans who as children became refugees from America’s war in their homeland only to become rivals in America’s gang war on the streets of Los Angeles. When these two homeboys finally turned their lives toward peace, there was no safe place for them. They were among the New Untouchables, the supposedly incorrigible “superpredators,” whose specter justified the war on gangs that has become the worst police scandal in Los Angeles history.

As a little boy, Gato (“the cat”), who got his eventual street name because of his feline eyes and agility, saw his father shot in the head by a death squad in his front yard in the San Salvador barrio of Modelo. The shooters came in a car with tinted windows and left no explanation. Gato kept a chain of Our Lady given him by his father, which became his only link to his boyhood, because the war made refugees of his mother, his brother and himself. Along with tens of thousands of Salvadorans in the eighties, Gato landed in the Pico-Union immigrant barrio under the corporate towers of LA, now one of the densest urban neighborhoods in America.

As a schoolboy in LA, Gato had an initial distaste for the cholos, the gangbangers and dropouts hanging on the corner. He wanted to get a job and fulfill the traditional immigrant aspiration. It was not to be. Someone from a nearby gang called him a chuntero–an untranslatable putdown of immigrants–and ripped off the chain of Our Lady. Gato wanted to retrieve his father’s chain on his own, but his new friends convinced him he required protection–that he needed to belong to a “neighborhood” with “homies” of his own, who would back him up in his quest for the chain. So he was “jumped into” (hazed and initiated into) the 18th Street Gang, then mainly composed of Mexican immigrants. To assert his own identity, Gato tattooed “El Salvador” in big block letters on his chest, larger than the 18th Street symbols. His Mexican homies objected at first, but 18th Street had started to incorporate large numbers of Salvadorans. The new immigrants claimed turf and identity in a hostile new world, escaping from one war zone in El Salvador to another one in America.

It may be impossible to explain the ensuing phase of Gato’s life to anyone safely distant from the cycles of urban violence. The superpredator theory is popular; it attributes violence to the genes, for which there is no cure but the superior violence of the state. To locate gang violence in underlying social factors has been discredited by both Republicans and New Democrats. But neither stern punishment nor exhortations to personal responsibility have prevented the violence.

A better way to look at gang violence is through the mirror, as an underclass mimicry of institutional violence, including state, corporate and entertainment violence. Nation-states, including our own, frequently inflict savage punishment to project power and preserve reputation. Not to do so is thought to invite aggression. We engage in arms races and compete to control resources like oil, while gangs assemble weapons to control the drug underground. We fight over flags. They fight over colors. They are entranced by films about Italian, Jewish and Irish gangsters, and the new gangs emulate those movies in the belief that it is the American way. So there is a certain logic to the madness that Gato began to display.

With his new friends Gato found the homeboy who ripped off the chain of Our Lady. “Remember the chuntero?” he asked him, then wounded him with a knife. It was first blood. Not long after, another gang, known as the Crazy Riders, drove into Gato’s neighborhood and shot and killed one of his homeboys. Gato shot back, hitting the Crazy Riders in their car. Acting on a human impulse, he pulled the wounded assailants from the vehicle, said they should call 911 and took off running. He was stopped by unsuspecting police and told them to go help the injured. But Gato was identified by a neighborhood resident who had witnessed the shootout and was arrested when he returned to the Pico-Union community weeks later. Convicted of attempted murder, he was sentenced to one of California’s toughest prisons, where life was just as dangerous as the street. There his honor was assaulted again. One day Gato found a cellmate masturbating to a photo of Gato’s girlfriend, an insult that could not go unpunished. To do nothing would reveal weakness, which would lead to sexual assault or worse. So Gato stabbed him.

Rather than face more time in California’s penal colony, Gato took the option of “voluntary departure” and in 1997 was deported to El Salvador. Thus the violence completed its cycle, from Gato’s birth in Modelo to his father’s execution, forced exodus to LA, the violent defense of his honor by the code of the street, the brutalizing time in California’s prison gulag and the deportation back to his original chumpa (shanty).

During the early nineties, Alex Sanchez was also living in Pico-Union. He too was a war refugee from a San Salvador barrio. Unlike Gato, who was fair-skinned and lithe, Alex was dark and powerfully stocky. Alex joined the mara salvatrucha (Salvadoran neighborhood) gang, known as MS, the archrival to 18th Street. Alex was the wild, stray child in a family that included a sister, a brother and two parents, all of them naturalized citizens, who anguished over him. If violence is in the blood, as some believe, why was Alex the antithesis of his brother? For whatever reason, he was the angry one, and his gangbanging got him arrested for carjacking and weapons possession. The truth, according to court records, is that Alex had jumped in a convertible with the key in the ignition but jumped out and fled when the owner appeared. Alex’s court-appointed attorney pleaded him to carjacking, a felony, which insured that his next offense would be treated as a felony as well. Had Alex been a white teenager, his offense would have been malicious mischief and the punishment a scolding by his parent. Instead he went to state prison, then took Gato’s path of voluntary deportation. Eventually he returned illegally, pulled by a longing to be with his tiny newborn son, Alejito. Alex surprised his family by settling down, staying out of sight, working at odd jobs.

In 1996 and 1997, stories in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times sounded the alarm about the rise of Salvadoran gangs. In coverage reminiscent of the anti-zoot suit hysteria of the forties, both papers published graphic photos of tattooed Salvadorans accompanied by vivid stories of their incorrigible violence. Politicians led by Governor Pete Wilson and Mayor Richard Riordan called for $18 million in state support for the war against gangs. State laws were passed making it a crime to “associate” with gangs, as defined by tattoos, hand signs, the word of paid informants or undercover police. The LAPD antigang units, known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), operated with secret budgets, no civilian oversight and broad public support. As revelations in the Rampart Division scandal would show, they often planted evidence, framed people, gave beatings and even shot suspected gang members without cause. More routinely, they “worked up felonies” by issuing tickets for jaywalking, loitering, riding a bicycle through a stop sign and other petty citations that were punishable by fines the homies couldn’t afford. From there it was a simple process of arresting them for outstanding citations and warrants, and sending them to jail.

The targets of this dirty war were the inner-city youths born in the wake of the civil rights movement, deindustrialization and the US-bankrolled repression in Central America. They got little sympathy from white liberals. Their nihilistic anger was vocalized only by rap musicians. Their violence was internalized against one another. Only a few farsighted people like Father Gregory Boyle and Luis Rodriguez, both from East LA, envisioned the need to transform this self-destructive energy, but they were isolated.

The lives of Gato and Alex were about to change. There came a new consciousness that the homies themselves had to stop the madness. Too much self-hate and self-destruction began to generate a desire for inner and outer peace. A small group in El Salvador formed a new organization called Homies Unidos, similar in purpose to gang cease-fire efforts in the early nineties by the Crips and Bloods. Working out of an open garage in Gato’s barrio of Modelo, Homies Unidos promoted an attitude of calmado (calming) on the street, fostered dialogues between 18th Street and MS and started subsistence businesses making organizational buttons, T-shirts and glassware. Most were Salvadorans deported from LA. They spoke a weird LA brand of Spanglish and had LA tattoos and tough-guy reps from the mythology of the LA streets. In reality, they were trapped between worlds–a living provocation for entrenched gangs and easy targets for revived right-wing death squads.

The center of gravity in Homies Unidos was Magdaleno Rose-Ávila, a massive Mexican-American with a big heart enlarged in the farmworker and Chicano movements in the United States. Magdaleno was living in San Salvador with his wife, Carolina, an international children’s advocate, when he started encountering these lost homeboys from LA. Using his community organizing skills and fundraising contacts, Magdaleno made his living room the birthplace of Homies Unidos. “The key to organizing,” he said, was that “we listened to them, to their pain. We offered ‘comprehension.’ It was dangerous for them, because once they became involved in Homies, as opposed to their old gangs, they became open targets with no one to turn to for safety. But the alternative was more dying.”

Gato’s mother, who returned to El Salvador in 1993, brought him around to the Homies’ little garage, where Magdaleno ran nonviolence workshops, which Gato attended. “It was like therapy sessions for torture victims, like I did for Amnesty International,” Magdaleno recalled. “The ability to talk was healing, freeing them from their monsters. Also to talk about your dead homeboy is to honor him, so it was like a ceremony.”

I first heard of these homies through an article in The Nation by Luis Rodriguez [see “Throwaway Kids,” November 21, 1994], whom I looked up in Chicago at the 1996 Democratic convention. By then, achieving peace on the streets of America seemed as urgent an issue as stopping the Vietnam War was in the sixties. If our government was promoting peace processes in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, I wondered if it was possible in South Central and East LA. In 1997 I organized a delegation composed of former LA gang members, church workers and community organizers that traveled to El Salvador to explore ways to end the globalized cycle of gang violence. There I first met Gato and heard his life story. He told it calmly, in Spanglish, as he leaned against a wall overlooking a creek that neighborhood women filled with plastic garbage bags. He spoke first of the suffocating cycle of violence that passed as life. “In El Salvador,” he said, “the people were terrorized by war, then there was peace, now there is 18th Street and MS killing each other. You never know when you’re going to be dead.”

One day Gato’s comment almost came true. While riding a bus to our meeting place, he was stabbed by a rival MS member. He seemed strangely composed when he showed up in bandages. “I told the guy, ‘Man, I don’t bang no more. You don’t know why you’re into that.’ And then he told me, ‘Fuck you, puta,’ and claimed his MS ‘hood.” I couldn’t understand Gato’s new willingness to accept insult and stabbing. “It’s hard to forgive somebody when they do bad to you” was all he said when I asked him.

But his defiant spirit had not disappeared. Within the next year, Gato moved with his girlfriend, a younger homegirl known as Spanky, and their new baby, into his old house in Modelo. By now, however, Modelo was claimed as MS territory. Not only was Gato still covered with 18th Street tattoos but, even worse, Spanky was an MS homegirl. This was a homie version of Romeo and Juliet, or like an interracial couple moving into a segregationist neighborhood in the early sixties. But Gato wasn’t going anywhere. He was home, assuming his responsibility as a father. “A lot of the MS homeboys don’t like me because I’m with my lady,” he reflected, “but I don’t think anyone should choose for me the woman I’m going to be with for the rest of my life. It would be the same thing for me if I saw a homegirl from 18th Street with a guy from MS.”

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.

The Rampart scandal, which is really a CRASH scandal, cannot be understood as simply another case of police brutality against innocent citizens, or even an example of racism in uniform. It is more. It is a case study in what happens when any means are justified in a shadowy war against society’s scapegoats. None of the historic commissions on Los Angeles police misconduct, including the 1991 Christopher Commission, addressed the underlying constitutional issues of this dirty war. Now, in response to public and media furor, the LAPD has renamed CRASH as a “special enforcement unit” without the belligerent label, just as it previously changed its original acronym from TRASH (Total Resources Against Street Hoodlums). That the abuses uncovered in the scandal were not the isolated actions of rogue cops is suggested by LA Times stories revealing the direct involvement of the FBI and INS with CRASH. Thus the very immigration officials to whom Alex appealed for asylum have themselves been implicated in covert operations with CRASH.

So it was not surprising when, on January 20 of this year, Alex was arrested by CRASH officers using a year-old immigration warrant, despite a city policy against police collusion with INS sweeps. “You’re all going down, Homies is going down,” Alex recalls the CRASH officers jeering at him.

The US Attorney for the Los Angeles District, Alejandro Majorkas, proved to be unusually courageous in declining to prosecute Alex for illegal re-entry. But that left Alex in the custody of an INS eager to deport him to El Salvador, where, according to an affidavit by the San Salvador police chief, Alex is in danger of being murdered. He has initiated an asylum hearing, and in June a team of civil rights lawyers filed a federal suit on behalf of Alex and Homies Unidos against the LAPD.

Meanwhile, Alex is confined to Terminal Island with hundreds of other immigrants. He has been portrayed sympathetically by the LA Times, CNN and Geraldo Rivera. Federal officials like the INS’s Meissner, who has the power to free Alex, allow the hostile INS officers in LA to control his fate. Under such conditions, will he grow stronger as a peacemaker? What if another inmate attacks him? What of the gang peace process on the streets? Who will come forward now, seeing the treatment of someone like Alex Sanchez at the hands of police?

These are questions that should concern us all. But do they? The Times has been more critical of the Rampart behavior than any local official or candidate for office, including African-Americans, Latinos and white liberals. Scapegoating the underclass seems to be a staple of politics these days. This is shortsighted, because the politics of law and order diverts billions from programs that will prevent gang violence more than the police ever will.

Perhaps the chief contribution of individuals like Gato and Alex is that they are living proof, even in death or prison, that so-called incorrigibles can change, that homies are human beings. That should rally Americans to their cause of peace at home. As Gato put it in a last interview, “I hope, you know, someday in the future I see guys from MS and my homeboys really forgiving the past. We are humans, and we are killing each other for nothing.”

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy