Caught in the LAPD cross-fire

Does the Los Angeles Police Department's war on gangs target even those who are trying to end the violence?

Published February 4, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

On Jan. 21, Alex Sanchez walked along the streets of Los Angeles' mid-Wilshire area, as he had many times on his way home. But that night as Sanchez, a stocky 27-year-old with closely cropped hair and a smattering of tattoos, moved toward his car, he was stopped suddenly by a Los Angeles police officer and handcuffed.

Sanchez, a former gang member, was arrested on a 2-year-old warrant from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He faces federal criminal charges stemming from his reentry into the U.S. after having been deported in the early 1990s. He could be deported to his native El Salvador. His arrest has sparked protest from gang peace organizations in Los Angeles and added to the controversy over the LAPD's Rampart division, which has been facing one of the most widespread and highly publicized police corruption investigations in U.S. history.

Once a member of one of the city's most violent gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, Sanchez had transformed his life. In recent years he has split his time between work, family and heading up Homies Unidos, a bi-national gang peace organization with roots in Los Angeles and San Salvador. As the lead organizer of Homies, Sanchez's work had captured the attention of some of the city's most noted gang peace advocates, as well as California state Sen. Tom Hayden, who believed Sanchez was helping to bring peace in a war that has claimed thousands of lives.

Why would a police officer seek to arrest a man who works successfully to stop gang violence? As it turns out, Sanchez and arresting officer Jesus Amezcua had met several times before -- at hearings in which Sanchez spoke out against police harassment of former gang members like himself. Sanchez also happens to be a witness in a murder case that pits Amezcua's credibility against the word of a teenage gangbanger.

Amezcua, a veteran of the force, picked up Sanchez on what by many accounts is a stale immigration warrant. Some claim Amezcua is guilty of violating Special Order 40, a decade-old city ordinance that forbids police from stopping someone to ask about their immigration status. The ordinance was put in place after police and activists agreed that allowing police officers to act as immigration officers would inhibit the city's large population of undocumented immigrants from cooperating with police or reporting crimes, for fear of being deported.

The arrest raises questions about whether the LAPD is able to clean up its act in the wake of a scandal that began in September, when allegations first surfaced that Rafael Perez, a Rampart officer, was caught stealing eight pounds of cocaine from an LAPD evidence room.

Perez agreed to cooperate with investigators in the hopes of getting a lighter sentence. His testimony includes admissions that he and other officers routinely planted drugs and weapons on people and even shot Javier Francisco Ovando, an unarmed gang member, and planted a gun on him. Ovando was left paralyzed and sent to prison. He was released in September after serving three years of a 23-year sentence.

A Los Angeles Times report estimates approximately 20 officers are under investigation in connection to the case. Police Chief Bernard Parks announced Jan. 26 that the corruption probe had extended into Latin America. Investigators traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala in an effort to locate some of the victims framed by former officers. Those victims had been deported after their arrests.

Sanchez's arrest by Amezcua -- as well as the department's reaction -- has ignited allegations that little has changed at Rampart and that some police officers are still targeting innocent people for retaliation.

The LAPD has denied wrongdoing, offering its own version of the events leading to the arrest. "To try and create a nexus between this case and the Rampart investigation is a bit of a stretch," says Cmdr. Robert Kalish, a spokesman for the LAPD. "We have not violated Special Order 40 because he had committed a crime. He reentered the country illegally."

But the LAPD's explanation of why Sanchez was arrested has changed several times. First, a spokesperson said Sanchez was stopped after a traffic violation that revealed he had an outstanding INS warrant. A few days later, officials said Amezcua saw him and knew he had an outstanding warrant. On Monday, yet another version was offered that revealed some Rampart division officers had been in contact with the INS and discussed Sanchez's case. "The officers knew he was wanted because they had had conversations with INS agents," said Rampart Capt. Robert B. Hansohn. "They routinely talk to the INS," he said.

For their part, police are fighting back. During a recent press conference outside the Rampart division where 15 police officers stood guard as protesters filed a complaint, one officer accused Hayden, one of Sanchez's strongest supporters, of trying to further his political career.

If Sanchez's past raised questions, so have Amezcua's tactics over the past year. A member of the Rampart division's anti-gang unit, known as CRASH, he had stopped Sanchez and other members of Homies on several occasions. Amezcua was also on hand when Sanchez testified before a state Senate subcommittee on gang violence and police abuse.

Hayden, who chaired the hearing at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in the mid-Wilshire, described Amezcua's conduct at that event. "He came into the room like he was tailing Alex and the guys from Homies. No one had asked him to come to the meeting. He was very intimidating," Hayden added, "and for a moment it seemed like they" -- Amezcua and other officers -- "were going to break up the meeting."

But it wasn't just Amezcua's presence that night that has led Hayden and others to allege that the officer is retaliating against the former gang member.

On Aug. 12, Amezcua arrested Jose Dimas Rodriguez, another Homies Unidos member. Rodriguez, 14, was booked for the murder of a rival gang member who had been killed that night. Rodriguez insisted he was innocent and even offered an alibi. He told investigators he was at a Homies Unidos meeting at the time of the murder.

Sanchez, along with a handful of others at the meeting, vouched for Rodriguez. "I was with him that night," says Thom Vernon, a coordinator with Arts Expand, a citywide program that works with Homies Unidos. "A bunch of us including Alex were with him. We didn't get out of here until well after 9:30 p.m. This is absurd," Vernon said of the charges against Rodriguez, "but it doesn't surprise me because the police have been harassing Homies for a long time."

Since Sanchez is in jail and could be deported, he may never get a chance to testify in Rodriguez's case. "Alex is at the center of a lot of stuff," says Jorge Gonzalez, Rodriguez's attorney. Gonzalez is among a handful of Latino attorneys in Los Angeles who routinely handle police abuse cases. "He's a material witness in a murder case and he is out there talking about police abuse against gang members."

There are also serious concerns about Sanchez's safety in El Salvador should he be deported. At least two former Homies leaders who returned to San Salvador have been murdered. Rival gangs as well as paramilitary groups are suspected in the killings.

"You could say Alex's life is in danger in El Salvador," Hayden says, "and it appears to be here as well." Hayden argued in a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece that Sanchez is just the latest victim of LAPD's brutal war on gangs that now targets even those working to end the violence.

Beyond the issue of police conflict with the Homies, the case is also raising serious concerns over LAPD's routine violation of Special Order 40.

Groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund have received complaints over the years that police routinely question immigrants about their status. "We went through this stuff with Rampart during the [1992] riots," says MALDEF attorney Vibiana Andrade. "There were complaints that Rampart officers were picking people up and dropping them off at INS."

While prosecution of immigration cases is not unusual, issuing a warrant in this case was very unusual, immigration attorneys say. Dan Keseselbrenner, director of the Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild in New York, said the circumstances of Sanchez's arrest were peculiar. "This is very suspect to arrest someone on a stale warrant of this nature. Normally a warrant is issued when somebody is already in hand, when they've been caught at the border reentering or if they have been picked up for some other crime and it turns up they are here illegally."

He adds that police have little time to pursue passive crimes. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles confirmed that most cases involving illegal reentry are prosecuted after someone is detained for another offense or caught at the border.

Last week, a U.S. magistrate released Sanchez on $50,000 bail, and Sanchez now sits in an INS detention center awaiting word on whether the agency will begin deportation proceedings or review his case.

By Sandra Hernandez

Sandra Hernandez is a freelance journalist who regularly writes about immigration and Latino issues in Los Angeles. She is a former staff reporter with the Associated Press and the LA Weekly and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times.

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