A version of this article originally appeared in The Nation on September 23, 2010.
A federal judge last week abruptly postponed ruling on whether it was proper for prosecutors seeking wiretap permission to conceal their use of top members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang as informants,as reported in The Nation on August 27.
Meanwhile the recent shooting death of a Guatemalan day laborer, Manuel Jaminez, by a Los Angeles police officer has reignited a controversy over police reform that is at the root of the current courtroom drama.
Alex Sanchez, who was granted political asylum in 2002 after Los Angeles police sought to have him deported, went on to be a foremost community leader defending immigrant rights and a critic of deportation policies. He gained a following around the US in juvenile justice circles, and once testified before a United Nations panel.
Now Sanchez is being tried on gang conspiracy charges with 23 others in a federal court here. He was indicted June 2009 and granted bail eight months ago after an appeal to a federal appeals court.
On September 16, Sanchez’s court-appointed lawyer, Kerry Bensinger, introduced explosive evidence that the prosecution covered up its use of top MS leaders Nelson Comandari and Jorge Pineda as secret informants.
Prosecutors are obliged to prove the “necessity” of using wiretaps when they are the only feasible way to obtain vital information about criminal behavior.
Bensinger argued that the wiretap permissions were obtained under false pretenses. With Comandari in custody, Bensinger argued, the prosecutors had the so-called “‘CEO of MS,’ the brass ring, the one the government wanted to capture, the hub to everyone’s spoke.” Comandari provided information on the gang’s internal structure, leadership and ongoing criminal activities, including murders.
In response, the prosecution tried to argue that their right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. There was “no mechanism in place,” they said, by which one Justice Department official applying for wiretap permission could know that another branch of the Department had Comandari and Pineda in custody as informants.
But Bensinger pointed out that the Department “is charged with knowing” has a special national task force on MS-13, and has used the two informants since 2000 and 2006.
After listening to the arguments, Judge Manuel Real postponed his decision until November 29. It was a rare moment in a day during which the judge had briskly denied 28 other defense motions seeking documents or objecting to wiretap procedures.
Bensinger’s motion, if granted, could undermine much of the prosecution’s case, lead to disclosure of hundreds of pages of debriefings of Comandari and Pineda, and reveal secrets of the government’s hidden links to the Comandari family in El Salvador. The right-wing Comandari family included an interior minister during the civil war period and a key informant in the Reagan administration’s COINTEL program against solidarity activists in the US.
Outside the courtroom, the immigrant Pico Union neighborhood was swirling with the first major police controversy since the Rampart consent decree was lifted last year. Pico Union is the base for Homies Unidos and where Alex Sanchez was arrested on deportation charges ten years ago. The LAPD officer assigned to the current prosecution, Detective Frank Flores, was a longtime gang officer in the area.
The shooting at the Sixth and Union corner was an embarrassing development for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Chief Charlie Beck, since the Rampart division was showcased as the center of police reforms which were used to justify ending the federal consent decree that was imposed after the Rampart scandal. The decree, agreed to as an alternative to a jury trial, bound the LAPD to a long list of specific reforms to end its patterns and practices of police misconduct.
According to “Rampart Reconsidered,” a city-financed $900,000 2006 report by attorney Connie Rice, there was a “notable recovery” in policing at Rampart, where “innovative officers built on prior recovery efforts to transform Rampart division from dysfunction into a showcase of clean, effective, collaborative crime fighting.” Still, Rice notes, “the mistakes, tactics and outlooks that were hallmarks of the crisis still occur and, in several instances concerning use of force, are the accepted norm." Rice also warned that "the new Rampart leadership and crime-fighting model is unlikely to last." As a result of the improvements, a federal judge lifted the consent decree on July 17, 2009, despite objections from the ACLU, one month after Alex Sanchez was indicted in the current case.
Nicole Bershon, newly-appointed LAPD inspector general, remained optimistic about the reforms now in place. “Our active involvement in use-of-force incidents has been codified, we were one of the first teams out there at the site [of the killing],” she told The Nation. LAPD spokesmen declined comment for this article. But the new IG faces major hurdles in winning the trust of immigrant communities, especially since the highly confidential investigation of Jaminez’s shooting may take a year to officially resolve.
Less than half of LA’s Hispanic population believe the LAPD treats all ethnic groups fairly, according to a May 2009 Harvard study of LA policing. Of 2,368 civilian complaints of discourtesy from 2008, only 1.6 percent were upheld by police investigators. As a 2008 Los Angeles Times headline reported, “320 Complaints of Racial Profiling and Not One Had Merit, LAPD Says.” The Harvard survey also found that 85 percent of LAPD officers believed that civilian complaints are frivolous. Based on Harvard’s examination of 447 use-of-force incidents between 2005 and 2008, “the Inspector General almost always agrees” with the Department.
Like the case against Alex Sanchez, the recent shooting of Jaminez leaves many Pico-Union residents incredulous. They ask why police protocols authorize aiming at the chest or head to stop a stumbling man waiving a small knife (if he held a knife at all). They wonder why the police didn’t use a Taser instead. They are concerned, even angry, over data showing over 700 use-of-force measures overall by police against Latinos each year since 2006. In 256 use-of-force incidents during the first six months of 2008, only three were found by LAPD investigators to be “out of policy.”
The Department’s thirty-year war on gangs has done little to interrupt the globalization of gangs from Los Angeles to Central America. Now it appears that the LAPD’s celebrated reform has failed to avert the killing of an immigrant in broad daylight. And in the Sanchez case, the federal prosecutors and LAPD are targeting a visible gang peacemaker who is a foremost voice for reform.