I was as shocked as anyone to learn that Alex Sanchez, former-gangster-turned-outreach-worker and head of Homies Unidos, was indicted this summer in a federal RICO case for allegedly still calling shots with MS-13 gang members.
I was even more shocked to read Tom Hayden’s unbridled defense of Sanchez in several articles for The Nation, and his comparison of the case to the Sleepy Lagoon murder scandal that set the sour tone for LAPD-Latino relations for decades to come.
I was mainly shocked because Hayden wrote the pieces before he even read the wiretap transcripts used to indict Sanchez.
Surely he’s read them by now? No comment?
Not that I know for sure one way or another whether Sanchez is guilty or not of plotting the murder of some guy called Camarón in El Salvador. But I did read the prosecutors’ translated transcripts of Sanchez’s phone conversations with his homies.
Yep, there’s enough fudge room in the translation of street-slang Spanish to raise doubts about whether Sanchez and friends were seriously trying to have the guy killed. And there’s also enough there to see it the feds’ way: Sanchez definitely had some hard-core problems with this dude and was not seeking the path of peace.
So to read Hayden’s critique of the feds’ view of the conversations before he had all the facts was surprising. But it shouldn’t be. Hayden and I once clashed, and the topic was gangs.
We were on a panel in Los Angeles, where Hayden and the beloved Father Greg Boyle both “ganged up” on me, if you will. I was trying to explain the family-oriented nature of our rural Norteño gangs when they accused me of being a typical reporter by sensationalizing the “anomoly” of a boy who was raised to be a Norteño.
Well, I of course adore Father Greg (didn’t care either way about Hayden) and so left not only broken-hearted but bewildered and angry. The entire panel revolved around LA’s interpretation of what street gangs are and how they work — while our little Northern Cali backwoods gangsters didn’t even rate a place at the gang-discussion table.
In fact, we, the supposed grown-ups, were acting just like gang kids. Defending our turf. Or maybe we were more like the mothers and fathers of gang members, the parents all of us in this field meet every day. You know, the ones in complete denial. My son a gang member? Never!
Denial is how this Alex Sanchez thing smells to me, an automatic defense of turf before the facts are in. Granted, I am a few hundred miles away. Some people I really respect really respect him. I want him to be innocent. I’d surely jump to the defense of one of my colleagues if he were indicted by the feds, especially if it was someone I truly believed had changed.
I also know more than a few people who paradoxically do good work to keep kids away from gangs but still keep a toe in the mix themselves — so it’s not at all far-fetched that Sanchez could be doing the same.
I wish I had enough faith in our federal courts to believe the truth will come out in trial. But that’s not how RICO cases work. In gang conspiracy trials, “vague” is too often the name of the game. I also believe (and have amassed some evidence for a future story) that the FBI has consistently over-hyped the threat posed by MS-13 to near hysteria levels.
And so we may never know whether Sanchez wanted to have Camarón killed.
I do know enough from reading his vindictive words that I probably wouldn’t want him to mentor a troubled kid I care about. He may or may not be guilty of conspiring to commit murder, but we should all acknowledge that — at least in those conversations he thought private — he spewed hate and vengeance and was no peacemaker. It’s hard not to sense he was disingenuous at best.
I hope in the big picture that I’m wrong, that this was a momentary lapse of judgment in otherwise radiant turnaround. If I am, I’ll send Hayden a bunch of flowers. Hell, an olive branch.
PS. The language police want Hayden and The Nation’s copy desk to note that the dead guy’s street name is Camarón (Spanish for shrimp) and not “Cameron.”