This article originally appeared in The Nation on July 14, 2010.
Federal prosecutors soon will be forced to admit that their star witness in the gang conspiracy case against Alex Sanchez is a fugitive still on a crime spree somewhere in Central America.
According to prosecutors, the government's cooperating witness, Juan Bonilla, a k a Zombie, gave statements to FBI and LAPD investigators in El Salvador implicating Alex Sanchez in the May 2006 shooting of Walter Lacinos, a k a Cameron, in that gang-ridden country. The prosecution claims that Bonilla/Zombie participated in an incriminating wiretapped phone call with Sanchez and others one week before the shooting. The Sanchez defense has strongly argued that the government has the "wrong Zombie," that it was another Juan Bonilla who took part in the phone call.
The case of the mistaken Zombie aside, now the Salvadoran papers El Mundo and El Diario de Hoy are reporting that the real Zombie is not only a fugitive but has lied to Salvadoran prosecutors about the killings in 2006.
" 'Zombie' is on the loose," El Mundo reported on May 11. The detailed article describes how Zombie offered himself as a witness to the police in the murder of Cameron and others, including a well-known gang intervention worker known as Smoky, who was written up sympathetically by National Public Radio reporter Mandolit del Barco. Smoky, a former MS leader turned peacemaker, law student and father, was killed May 13, 2006. Cameron himself may have been implicated in the killing of Smoky, which would make Cameron's own death two days later an act of retaliation.
According to the El Mundo account, Zombie told prosecutors that Cameron traveled from Los Angeles to El Salvador to assassinate Smoky. "The latter had come out of anonymity and had achieved fame after appearing in a documentary about gangs, and he belong to an organization to rehabilitate mara [gang] members."
Zombie was finally arrested in 2006 after committing some twenty home robberies. In June 2008, he received special privileges for cooperating with Salvadoran and US authorities. After testifying against MS in exchange for leniency, Zombie escaped in April 2009 when prosecutors became suspicious of his tales. He disguised himself as a priest, a postal worker and even a prosecutor, the better to gain entry to the homes of the wealthy and later rob them. He also is blamed for several kidnappings, rapes and sexual batteries.
If the Salvadoran media accounts are accurate, Zombie has been a fugitive since before the June 2009 indictment of Alex Sanchez. Government prosecutors have never provided the court with the fact that their witness is missing.
Now, with Zombie's credibility shattered, it is not clear if the prosecution wants to find him.
Where does this leave the prosecution? They could recognize their mistake and drop the case against Sanchez. But with so much invested in their claim that Sanchez is a "shot caller" leading a "double life," a responsible retreat from their flawed case is unlikely.
But going forward with the prosecution contains seeds of embarrassment for the government as well. First, they will have to prosecute Sanchez with their central witness a discredited fugitive, and with strong evidence that the Zombie on the wiretaps is not the Zombie the government claims. Second, the other accusation against Sanchez is strikingly similar in its emptiness. He is charged in a gang racketeering conspiracy that took place over a fourteen-year period beginning when he left the gang in the '90s and concluding in May of last year. Though the government indictment alleges over 150 specific overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy against twenty-four defendants, the majority for selling drugs to government informants, there are no overt acts attributed to Sanchez beyond the disputed wiretaps.
This conspiracy case, then, is about RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a 1970 law that makes prosecution possible on the basis of guilt-by-association. The acronym RICO derives from Edward G. Robinson's gangster hero, Little Caesar, in the 1930 movie of the same name. In the most famous scene, Robinson goes down after shouting, "Caesar Enrico Bandello, this is Rico speaking. Rico! R-I-C-O! Little Caesar, that's who! Listen, you crummy flat-footed copper, I'll show you whether I've lost my nerve and my brains!" Released during the 1950s McCarthy period after decades of suppression, the film became a favorite of prosecutors and gang-bangers alike.
The RICO law makes it a crime to "associate" with any "enterprise" through a "pattern" of racketeering activity. The assumption is that street gangs like MS are identical to vertically organized crime structures. There is a presumed board of directors, known as "shot callers," who are an organized conspiracy responsible for every specific crime committed anywhere by any of the gang's individual members.
Alex Sanchez left the gang life behind at approximately the time that the present investigation began fifteen years ago. Subsequently, he founded Homies Unidos in Los Angeles, a gang intervention agency that works with young people, including gang members, to prevent violence and open up alternative opportunities. As an intervention worker, his task involves numerous conversations and phone calls with members of street gangs. In 1999, he helped expose the LAPD's Rampart scandal in which hundreds of young people were subjected to false charges, beaten, jailed and deported, violations that led to federal intervention. Since becoming an intervention worker, Sanchez also has testified as an expert witness in at least eleven federal and state gang conspiracy cases, in which six defendants were found not guilty. One of the government experts he has testified against is LAPD officer Frank Flores, a former Rampart beat detective who, nearly fifteen years later, is the prosecutor's expert witness against Sanchez in court today. It is fair to say that Sanchez poses a challenge to the prosecution mentality driving the war on gangs.
It is helpful to Sanchez that the prosecution lacks any specific evidence against him, a fact which led to his release on bail six months ago. But under RICO law, often referred to as an Alice in Wonderland statue by defense attorneys, that is beside the point. Prosecutors will try to prove that Sanchez, against all present evidence, is a secret shot caller leading a double life. As their case crumbles, they can be expected to compile a new one.