US prosecutors have threatened to revoke Homies Unidos leader Alex Sanchez’ bail and return him to prison for his part in supporting a truce between imprisoned gang members in El Salvador. The prosecutors are seeking to prevent Sanchez from appearing in San Francisco this weekend at the opening of a play, Placas, based loosely on Sanchez’s long journey from gang-banger to peacemaker.
The heavy-handed government reaction comes as the New York Times has published a front-page article favorable to the Salvadoran truce, which cites Sanchez’s positive role.
The government move is also a potential blow to the Salvadoran peace process, which has lasted 160 days, has saved hundreds of lives, and is supported by the Catholic Church and numerous immigrant rights and social justice groups.
Whether the government position is saber rattling or based on misunderstandings may be determined in federal court as early as this afternoon.
The issues will be discussed at an interim hearing this week before federal judge Dale Fischer in Los Angeles federal court. US attorney Andre Birotte represents the Justice Department in the case. Community groups like CARACEN and leaders including Fr. Gregory Boyle and former Los Angeles FBI regional director Thomas Parker have rallied to Sanchez’s defense.
Sanchez, a former leader of MS-13 and founder of the gang intervention organization known as Homies Unidos, was contacted months ago for support and counsel by an incarcerated 18th Street gang member in El Salvador. Barred as a condition of bail from contact with MS members, Sanchez helped form a transnational support group for the Salvadoran peace process, which included links to truce leaders in Salvadoran prisons. The process has included visits by US human rights groups and a flurry of global press coverage.
On August 9, federal pre-trial services officer Devona Gardner found no objection to Sanchez’s formal request to attend a performance of Placas in San Francisco this week. Written by Paul Flores and led by Ric Salinas of Culture Clash, the play is being performed at the San Francisco International Arts Festival in a 500-seat theater before going on national tour.
Sanchez, who was extensively interviewed by the play’s authors, was invited to attend Friday, September 7. The festival is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and family foundations including Irvine and Haas.
In a front-page August 27 New York Times story, Sanchez was credited for advancing the peace process, and was quoted as saying:
“This is a historic moment in El Salvador,” said Alex Sanchez, a former Salvadoran gang member who directs Homies Unidos, an antiviolence program in Los Angeles. “If we lose this moment, we lose the moment of a lifetime.”
The irony is that Sanchez still faces 2009 charges of “conspiracy” in gang wars in Los Angeles, a decade after he left MS to found the gang intervention organization.
“Gang intervention” is a precarious process involving former gang members in direct engagement with active “homies” to steer them away from violence. Years after he left the gang, Sanchez was invited into 2006 long-distance phone arguments in an effort to prevent a violent vendetta going back a decade earlier.
The phone calls between gang members in LA and El Salvador were among tens of thousands wiretapped by the FBI and LAPD. The transcripts reveal Sanchez as a gang interventionist at work; in one tape, a Salvadoran gang member demands that Sanchez get off the phone call because “you aren’t active anymore... you are with that Homies Unidos.” Sanchez replies that he is on the call to mediate an old grievance, and complains that he has been accused of being an FBI informant.
Sanchez was granted bail in January 2010 over the objections of the federal prosecutors. The bail decision came after a new hearing was ordered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the hearing before federal Judge Manuel Real, the chamber was closed to the public and the record sealed. But it is known that the prosecutors offered no evidence when asked if Sanchez had acted in any way in the previous decade to suggest that he was a flight risk or danger to his community.