Crime & Justice

Prominent gang worker indicted

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A federal indictment unsealed Wednesday says a well-known gang intervention worker in Los Angeles is a leader in the Mara Salvatruch gang that operates west of downtown. Federal prosecutors accuse 37-year-old Alex Sanchez of conspiring to kill a rival, even as he served as executive director of a non-profit. Sanchez is one of 24 people named in the indictment, which says gang members planned to kill an LAPD detective that was giving them trouble. KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has more.

Frank Stoltze: Alex Sanchez is a nationally known gang intervention worker. Just three months ago, he moderated a UCLA forum called Global Perspectives on Youth and Violence.

Alex Sanchez: Myself, I cannot ever imagine myself being here as a moderator after my own experiences when it comes to all the issues that we’re going to be talking about.

Stoltze: More than two decades ago, Sanchez came to Los Angeles from El Salvador as a teenager. He joined the Mara Salvatrucha gang – or MS-13. That gang held a grip on the MacArthur Park area just west of downtown.

In the mid-1990s, Sanchez left the gang and eventually became executive director of the city-funded gang intervention group Homies Unidos. During his appearance at UCLA, he acknowledged the violence of MS-13, but also criticized the criminal justice system.

Sanchez: There are so many policies now that are being created to target those Central American youth and that gang specifically – demonizing and continuing the demonizing of our youth.

Stoltze: A decade ago, the federal government sought to deport Sanchez. He became a cause celebre among progressives including former State Senator Tom Hayden, who argued Sanchez did important work turning kids around. Sanchez won his immigration case.

Attorney Alan Diamante represented Sanchez and calls him a friend. Sanchez, he says, believed in his gang intervention work.

Alan Diamante: He saw that as somebody who lived that lifestyle, he was most equipped to gear them on a different path – a path of productivity.

Stoltze: The media, including National Public Radio, regularly turned to Sanchez for his expertise on gangs. He’d won numerous awards for his work. The L.A. City Council passed a resolution honoring him.

Diamante: For the people that know him, the people that worked with him, I think everybody is just shocked. And the way I could describe it is everybody still has their jaws wide open not believing that he was arrested of this.

Stoltze: Not everybody is surprised by Sanchez’s arrest on murder conspiracy charges connected to his old gang. Civil rights attorney Connie Rice has long been involved in gang intervention work. Rice, who’s a KPCC board member, said she’d heard there were signals Sanchez may be slipping in his gang intervention work.

Connie Rice: He was not willing to help gang intervention workers who were getting targeted by gangs that he had relationships with. That’s always a sign that they are backing away from the intervention role.

Stoltze: Rice said she has no hard evidence that Sanchez was again involved in gang activity.

Federal prosecutors released few detail of their case against him.