Image courtesy of We Are Alex
Illustration of Alex Sanchez.
Since he became the first former gang member granted political asylum in the United States, many have followed the activism and work of gang interventionist and Homies Unidos founder Alex Sanchez. But for the last three years, many have followed him for a different reason-his implication in a complicated, high-profile criminal case. From the Fronteras Desk, Erin Siegal has more.
On June 24, 2009, Sanchez was arrested. The U.S. government accused Sanchez, a former member of the notorious street gang Mara Salvatrucha, of leading a covert double life in Los Angeles.
"As soon as I open up the door I see all these M-16s pointing at me," Sanchez recalled. "And I said, 'look, let me finish getting dressed.' And they were like, 'Come out! Come out! Come out!'"
Sanchez, then 39, had experienced trouble with law enforcement years before. But this time was different: he was now a prominent activist in Los Angeles, mediating gang disputes and coaxing youth to leave their gang affiliations behind.
"When I saw the officer outside my home, Frank Flores, I realized that I was being set up," Sanchez said.
Flores is an experienced detective, and one of the Los Angeles Police Department's experts on gangs. He regularly testifies in court during gang prosecutions.
So does Sanchez. He's a gang interventionist who has been out of gang life for more than a decade. He said he recently butted heads with Flores in court, testifying against him as an opposing witness in an unrelated case.
Soon after Sanchez's arrest, the U.S. government announced he was being charged alongside two dozen other alleged MS-13 members.
The crimes ranged from murder to extortion to drug trafficking.
The government alleged Sanchez wasn't really a peacemaker — that he was secretly still an active "shot-caller" in MS-13.
Prosecutors used the RICO Act against Sanchez, which added federal racketeering and conspiracy charges.
The LAPD refused to talk about the case for this story, and the Los Angeles Office of the Attorney General refused multiple requests for comment.
Special Agent Darrell Foxworth of the FBI's San Diego office isn't connected to the Sanchez case, but he's familiar with gang investigations in Southern California.
He said RICO charges are be a powerful tool against gangs — and also lead to longer sentences.
"Now, this has been something that the FBI has used very, very successfully over the years," Foxworth said. "It started with the LCN, the Mafia, the Cosa Nostra. We utilized this investigative strategy, this particular law, to disrupt and dismantle organized crime here in the United States. We've taken this same template and we've applied it to violent street gangs."
Sanchez faced life in prison, and news of his arrest came as a shock to many. His bail was set at $2 million. Friends and family made donations, and four people reportedly put their houses up as collateral.
Over the next three and a half years, the government's case dragged on.
Finally, last month, Sanchez's public defender Amy Jacks filed a motion to dismiss the case. She charged that government prosecutors had "presented false evidence," and "lied to the grand jury."
Apparently, the prosecution made mistakes.
On Jan. 16, 2013, without admitting wrongdoing, the prosecution admitted their case against Sanchez was "flawed." Sanchez said some wiretap evidence had been omitted, and there was confusion over the identity of certain wiretap participants.
All criminal charges against Sanchez were dropped, without prejudice.
Former California lawmaker and civil rights activist Tom Hayden knows Sanchez personally, and has written extensively about him.
"Without prejudice, the government could bring charges again, but they would have to be new charges with new evidence," Hayden said. "And the government would have to explain why the new charges and the new evidence are better than the charges that they brought in 2006 that fell apart."
"He’s either secretly a very bad person and has fooled the judge and tricked his way into having the charges dropped, or he’s the victim of constant mistaken prosecutorial and police enforcement policies," he said.
Judge Dale Fischer, who presided over the dismissal, told prosecutors they had to move quickly if they planned to file new charges. The U.S. Attorney's office said if there are new charges, they'll be brought forward by March 30, 2013.
So for Sanchez, the wait continues.
"Every morning I wake up and think about, 'Am I going to remember this day, if I'm doing life in prison?'" Sanchez said. "Right now, since the case was dismissed, all I'm thinking about is, are they going to come at night, like they did the last time? It's traumatizing."