RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Alex Sanchez once belonged to one of the most notorious street gangs in Los Angeles, then he turned his life around and helped scores of young people do the same. Now, federal authorities claim, he is really a murderous con man who never actually left the gang.
As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, the police are hoping to lock him up for a very long time.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: He was known as one of L.A.'s top gang interventionists, the leader of Homies Unidos, an international organization to prevent gang violence.
Mr. ALEX SANCHEZ (Homies Unidos, Former Member, MS-13): My name's Alex Sanchez and we're over here in the Pico Union.
DEL BARCO: This is from a conversation I had with Sanchez a few years ago. I met up with him in the Salvadoran immigrant neighborhood where, as a teen, he joined the now-infamous MS-13, the Mara Salvatrucha street gang.
Mr. SANCHEZ: 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. We learned violence in the communities of Los Angeles.
DEL BARCO: Sanchez talked about how his parents had left him behind in El Salvador when they fled that country's bloody civil war.
Mr. SANCHEZ: You know, we saw dead bodies on the way to school. It just has a big impact, you know. We came here to this city 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.
DEL BARCO: All that changed when his son was born. Sanchez says 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's won praise from gang members, as well as from L.A. police.
But then came a shocking allegation. Federal authorities arrested Sanchez and accused him of leading a deadly double life. Here's Assistant U.S. Attorney George Cardona.
Mr. GEORGE CARDONA (Assistant U.S. Attorney): He is alleged to be a shot caller for the Normandie Clique of the MS-13 gang. That is alleged in the indictment.
DEL BARCO: Sanchez was busted in a sweep along with two dozen reputed leaders of the MS-13. Federal prosecutors accused Sanchez of ordering the hit of a former rival, a charge they backed up with wiretapped phone conversations. As further evidence, prosecutors have a photograph of Alex with a Mara Salvatrucha tattoo on his chest.
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 here by Alex Sanchez.
Mr. HECTOR GARCIA: There's people out there that changed their life. I mean, they became really squares now. They work, they have a job, they got a family, they got a nice car - because of Alex. You know what I mean? I'm from MS, you know what I mean? He wasn't working just for us. He was working with worst enemies. He was dealing with 18th Streeters; he was working with Crazy Riders; he was working with guys from Playboys — every single gang.
DEL BARCO: Garcia says he's still active in the MS-13 gang and he laughs at the notion of Sanchez being called a shot caller. Garcia says they would never take orders from someone cooperating with police.
Mr. GARCIA: Once he's working on that side, on the good side, he can't be coming over here to the bad side and trying to double play two games at the same time.
DEL BARCO: He can't do that?
Mr. GARCIA: He can't do that. It's against our policies. You know, so what I think is this is just a set up. They just got the wrong person.
DEL BARCO: Federal authorities aren't talking as the case heads to trial. But it's clear they're counting on those wiretaps to help put Sanchez away. Meanwhile, another well known gang interventionist isn't buying it.
Father GREG BOYLE (Gang Interventionist, Homeboy Industries): I don't for a moment think, wow, there must have been a moment of weakness for him, or something. I don't think for one second that he's guilty of even any part of this. Not for a second.
DEL BARCO: Father Greg Boyle runs Homeboy Industries. He defends Sanchez as a peacemaker who had to stay in contact with the gangs to do his job. Boyle says many authorities misinterpret that.
Fr. BOYLE: There's this presumption, you know, that will these folks ever really change? Don't they always keep - if not one foot in - maybe a big toe in? But not Alex Sanchez. Now, that's the truth. That wasn't a temptation for him: gee, I think I'm going to go back to gang-banging. Are you serious?
DEL BARCO: During our conversation, long before Sanchez faced any charges, he knew many cops didn't see him as one of the good guys.
Mr. SANCHEZ: You know, I've been called that I'm trying unite all these gangs to create a super gang. That's totally unfounded. And I think that there's always this other issue of really trying to create this sense that gang members are not rehabilitatible(ph) and that the only way that you can help them is incarcerating them like animals.
DEL BARCO: Alex Sanchez goes to court in October to ask for bail. Until then, he remains behind bars, waiting for a trial date.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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