A former gang member and anti-gang crusader in Los Angeles faces serious charges, including conspiracy to commit murder.
Federal prosecutors say that while Alex Sanchez was working to prevent gang violence, he allegedly also ordered the killing of a rival in his role as a leader of an infamous street gang with ties to El Salvador.
Sanchez's supporters find the charges difficult to believe.
Sanchez was known as one of L.A.'s top gang interventionists, the leader of Homies Unidos, a transnational organization to prevent gang violence.
This summer, federal authorities arrested Sanchez and accused him of leading a deadly double life. Assistant U.S. Attorney George Cardona announced that the gang interventionist was an alleged "shot caller" for the Normandie clique of the MS-13 gang.
Gang Member Turned Clean
A few years ago, Sanchez met with NPR in L.A.'s Pico Union, the Salvadoran immigrant neighborhood where, as a teen, Sanchez joined the now infamous MS-13, the Mara Salvatrucha street gang.
"As soon as I heard the guys talking with the Salvadoran slang, and were not afraid to speak out, I was like man, this is my culture," he said at the time, adding, "We learned violence in the communities of Los Angeles."
Sanchez talked to NPR about how his parents had left him behind in El Salvador when they fled that country's bloody civil war in the 1980s. He was just 3 and did not see them again for five years, when they brought him to L.A. But the war had a big impact on him and others like him.
"You know, we saw dead bodies on the way to school," he said of his time in El Salvador. "Then we came here to this city [L.A.], and we approached that psychological trauma that we had lived through, we addressed it in the way that many traumatized kids in this community addressed it — through violence and gangs."
All that changed when his son was born, Sanchez said. He quit the gangster life and dedicated himself to trying to steer others away, too, through the anti-gang group he started, Homies Unidos. Over the years, he has won praise from gang members, as well as from L.A. police officers and city officials, for his anti-violence strategies.
When immigration officials tried to deport him in the early 1990s, he had support from people like activist Tom Hayden, who wrote about Sanchez in his book Street Wars: Gangs and the Future of Violence.
But then came the shocking allegations. Sanchez was arrested in a sweep, along with two dozen reputed leaders of the MS-13.
Federal prosecutors filed translated transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations in which Sanchez — reportedly also known as "Rebelde" or Rebel — allegedly gave orders to commit murder. As further evidence, prosecutors cite a photograph of Sanchez with a Mara Salvatrucha tattoo on his chest.
'I Don't For One Second Think He's Guilty'
At a clinic in L.A.'s Rampart neighborhood, homeboys go through the painful process of having gang tattoos removed from their faces, necks and arms with lasers. Many of them, like Hector Garcia, say they were referred by Sanchez.
"There's people out there that changed their lives," says Garcia, whose MS tattoos were erased from his face. He includes himself among those whom Sanchez mentored. "I mean, they became really squares, got a job, a family and a nice car because of Alex. Know what I mean?"
Garcia says he is still an active member of the Mara Salvatrucha, but Sanchez is not. In fact, he says Sanchez didn't just help guys from his former gang — he helped Garcia's "worst enemies."
"He was dealing with 18th Streeters; he was working with Crazy Riders; he was working with guys from Playboys — every single gang," Garcia says.
Garcia says the idea of Sanchez being a shot caller for the gang is ridiculous; he says the gang would never take orders from someone cooperating with police.
"Once he's working on that side, on the good side, he can't be coming to the bad side and try to double play two games at the same time. He can't do that. It's against our policies," Garcia says. "So what I think is this is just a set up. They just got the wrong person."
Federal authorities say they can't talk to the media as the case heads to trial. But it's clear they're counting on those wiretaps to help put Sanchez away. Meanwhile, Sanchez has supporters from around the world rallying for him.
"I don't for a moment think, 'Wow, there must have been a moment of weakness for him,'" says Father Greg Boyle, another gang interventionist who runs Homeboy Industries. "I don't for one second think he's guilty of even a part of this. Not for one second."
Boyle defends Sanchez as a heroic peacemaker who had to stay in contact with the gangs to do his job. But he says many authorities misinterpret the work.
"There's this presumption that, 'Will these folks ever really change? Don't they always keep if not one foot, then a big toe in?'" Boyle says. "But it's not different from recovery. Is it hard? Yeah. Do people do it? Sure. Do people relapse? Sure. But that's more the gang member who broke up with his lady, and now suddenly, he's back kicking it with his homies again. Not Alex Sanchez. That wasn't a temptation for him: 'Gee, I'll go back to gang-banging.' Are you serious?"
Waiting For A Trial
Long before Sanchez faced any charges, he told NPR that he knew many cops didn't see him as one of the good guys.
Speaking in his old Pico Union neighborhood two years ago, Sanchez said that he had been accused of trying to unite disparate gangs to create a "super gang." "In reality, that's totally unfounded," Sanchez said.
He said some critics like to promote the idea that gang members can't be rehabilitated — "that the only way you can help them is incarcerating them like animals."
Sanchez goes to court in October to ask for bail. Until then, he remains behind bars, waiting for a trial date.