Last week's arrest of Alex Sanchez on gang conspiracy charges raises fundamental questions about whether the Los Angeles Police Department has reformed itself, or whether extralegal tactics are still being employed on the streets of the underclass.
The question is extremely pertinent as a federal judge, Gary Feess, ponders lifting the consent decree imposed on the LAPD in 2000 in the wake of the Rampart scandal. Chief William Bratton, the Los Angeles Times and many city leaders are proclaiming the department reformed, and campaigning for an end to the federal oversight.
A compromise being floated would be to transfer oversight authority from the current court-appointed monitor back to the LAPD's own inspector general, a watchdog which is considerably weaker than the federal monitor. As a blue-ribbon commission concluded in its 2007 Rampart Reconsidered report, "the federal court is the only entity with the independence, power and sustained focus capable of ensuring that the City and LAPD maintain current reform efforts." The LAPD inspector general, they concluded, needs greater independence from the department.
The LAPD has managed to fight off an effective independent watchdog since the Watts riots of 1965. Despite subsequent scandals, riots and blue-ribbon commissions, the department has yielded only gradual reforms, and never any real power.
But the arrest of Sanchez, carried out by antigang units of the FBI and LAPD at dawn on June 24 after a secret three-year investigation, reopens the question of whether reform has been successful. The case revives the very controversies that lay at the root of the 1999-2002 Rampart scandal, and that exposed patterns of extreme misconduct ranging from planting evidence to beating and shooting innocent people. As a result, 100 criminal cases were dismissed as corrupted by police misconduct, and $90 million in taxpayer funds were spent to settle civilian lawsuits. The Justice Department intervened, and the city and LAPD finally agreed to court-monitored reforms to avoid a jury trial.
Back in 1999 the LAPD antigang units argued, as they do today, that Alex Sanchez was a secret leader of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) while posing as a peacemaker in the streets. The argument failed to persuade US Attorney Alejandro Mayorkis, Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler or immigration Judge Rose Peters. A national movement demanded that Sanchez be freed on bail. Eventually Sanchez was cleared of all charges and was granted political asylum, the first time an ex-gang member was ever awarded such protection.
Sanchez readily admitted he was a former member of MS-13 with tattoos to prove it, and plunged into building Homies Unidos, a network struggling to prevent gang violence and to turn young lives around. His work necessarily meant direct dialogue with MS members and rivals in the 18th Street gang, both of which had exploded in Los Angeles among refugees from Central America's civil wars.
Since the peace work was extremely hazardous, efforts were made to provide Sanchez and other urban peacemakers with a license to operate from both police and gangs themselves, steps which bloomed into a movement to recognize, professionalize and subsidize the ranks of so-called gang intervention workers in Los Angeles. Such efforts paid off in increased political support, grudging acceptance from the LAPD, over $20 million in city funding and the hiring of over 100 former gang members by the office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Alex himself became a revered symbol of hope among thousands of young people. He developed his own "epiphany" project, a self-help transformation program that convinced young people to remove their tattoos, get an education and a job. He stepped in to quash rumors on the street, testified in trials as an expert witness, was interviewed repeatedly and spoke on college campuses and before United Nations panels. At age 27, he was defined as the improbable hero who beat the system. He was a thorn in the side of the LAPD, however, with many in law enforcement remaining skeptical that former gangbangers could be part of the solution. Among them were elements of the LAPD who sought retaliation, a function "so integral to the LAPD culture that judicial notice of its role is in order," according to the voluminous, million-dollar Rampart Reconsidered report.
In the past decade, the officially designated US wars on gangs and drugs exploded across borders. A 2005 Foreign Affairs article was headlined "How the Street Gangs Took Central America," as if Mara Salvatrucha ran the region. El Salvador, according to the analyst, had 10,000 "core" members and 20,000 "associates," though in reality there were no such organizational categories. In January 2005, the FBI "quietly" created an MS-13 task force; the following year they commenced the three-year surveillance project that led to the dragnet indictment of Alex Sanchez and twenty-three others. In addition, the task force began informing Central American police of the identities of new deportees. The Foreign Affairs article, citing the LAPD as its recommended model, advised that police "should focus heavily on hard-core gang members who refuse to give up their criminal lives," while also endorsing the idea that "unconvicted" gang members should be included in a nationwide database. Echoing the run-up to the Iraq War, the article reported the sighting of an Al Qaeda operative in Honduras and cited "rumors" of meetings between Al Qaeda and Central American gang members. Terrorists might soon be smuggled into the United States by gang members, according to the article.
The charges against Sanchez reflect a complete throwback to the pre-Rampart mentality--despite LAPD reforms and a new administration in the White House. In order to prove Alex Sanchez's secret status as an MS-13 shot-caller, the federal prosecutors have introduced a photo showing gang tattoos on his chest, a poem by Sanchez found during a raid of someone's house, a 1990 photo of a smiling Sanchez throwing gang signs during a Barrios Unidos conference in San Francisco, and a recent field investigation (FI) card filled out on Sanchez for hanging at night on a street corner (there was no warrant or arrest). Sanchez's appointed attorney, Kerry Bensinger, called these charges laughable and weak.
During the same bail hearing, the prosecutors also introduced an LAPD detective, Frank Flores, to testify that multiple federal wiretaps in 2006 included the voice of Sanchez saying "It's gonna be a war" as proof that he conspired to kill a hostile gang member in El Salvador in May 2006. Prosecutors supplied no copies of the tapes or transcripts as required under normal discovery procedures. There was no context or link provided between the recorded statement and the subsequent murder.
From a legal viewpoint, that evidence is thinner than someone on a Pritikin diet. Yet criminal charges of conspiring to violate federal racketeering laws remain on Sanchez, and bail was denied. He now sits in an isolation chamber in federal prison twenty-three hours a day. Such high-security cells have been denounced as cruel, inhuman and psychologically destabilizing by many human rights groups.
The Sanchez case recalls the statement by disgraced LAPD officer Rafael Perez that "I would say that 90 percent of officers that work CRASH, and not just Rampart CRASH, falsify a lot of information, they put cases on people." It also recalls the "thin blue line" policing denounced by the Rampart Reconsidered report and by other blue ribbon commissions going back two decades:
In low crime neighborhoods, the public enjoys relative safety and the absence of brutality. In the high crime hotspots of LA's underclass, the public receives crime suppression and violent containment:...persistent pretextual stops of residents, sweeping dragnets, repeated roundups, put down and prone out stops, random searches, constant questioning, entering names into the gang data base, photographing tattoos, ordering people off their porches...