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Ex-gangbanger tries to rescue members from gangs

world Updated: Mar 12, 2009 12:42 IST

AP
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Far from his son and surrounded in jail by gang members with no future, Alex Sanchez decided to change his life.

At 23 and serving his third sentence, he decided to turn his back on the gang life that he had led since he was 14, which had only brought him misery.

With a past of crime and violence behind him, he is now executive director of Homies Unidos, a nonprofit organization that works to rescue kids from gangs in Los Angeles and his native El Salvador. Sanchez, 37, has helped form a truce between rival gangs, has testified as an expert in legal cases, lobbies for better intervention and prevention programs and talks to youths about the somber future gangs offer.

From his Homies Unidos office in the largely Hispanic Pico-Union neighborhood, Sanchez also provides services such as assistance to immigrants under deportation orders, job training and educational programs. Homies celebrated its 10-year anniversary in November. "Alex is filling a void in the community because there are few people working with youth and even fewer with gang members," said Raul Anorve, executive director of the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California.

Sanchez, who lives with his wife Delia and three children in Artesia, southeast of Los Angeles, is a role model for many, in spite of the fact that he has been jailed and deported. "Alex was influential in getting me to leave the gangs," said Eliseo Figueroa, a 25-year-old Mexican. "He showed me what the street offered me and the street didn't offer me anything." Like Sanchez, Figueroa joined gangs when he was still in school. The two met in the street about 10 years ago and Sanchez offered the drug-addicted gang member guidance.

Figueroa's mother followed Sanchez' advice when he told her to send her son to Oaxaca, the state where he was born in Mexico. "Behind my back, he was talking to my mom, telling her how to handle me," said Figueroa, who returned four years ago from Mexico and now works as a busboy. "He told my mom that if she didn't send me there, I wasn't going to change."

Moving back to Mexico worked. Figueroa turned over a new leaf. He returned to Los Angeles and sought out Sanchez to help him find work. He also offered to help Sanchez in whatever he could do. Sanchez's own story began south of the border, in a poor neighborhood in El Salvador. He arrived in Los Angeles at age 7 and four years later was flirting with gangs, hanging out with members and dressing and talking like them. In 1985, when he was 14, he joined the Mara Salvatrucha, the gang founded by Salvadorans in Pico-Union.

He was jailed three times for minor offenses and was deported to El Salvador in 1994. In his home country, he had to live on the streets, fleeing death squads and gangs who threatened to kill him because they believed him a rival.

"Many gangbangers or people deported to El Salvador don't have anyone when they arrive and they have three options: go to shelters, churches or the street, where the gangs and death squads are," Sanchez said.

To take care of his son, who had been abandoned by his drug-addict mother when he was four months old, and out of fear of being killed, Sanchez returned illegally to Los Angeles in 1995. He returned to his neighborhood with a new mentality, he said. He got a job in a sweat shop and when he realized that a year had gone by without getting into trouble, he knew he could make it. "I had to start to get to know myself and ask myself why I ended up in prison and why I joined the gang. I started to question everything I had done," he said. "My biggest struggle was to show my son that I was a good man. I didn't want my son to remember me as an ex-gangbanger."

In 1996, Homies Unidos was founded in El Salvador and the following year, Sanchez helped establish the Los Angeles office, which has helped remove tattoos from more than 240 gang members. Sanchez was arrested in 2000 by Los Angeles police and turned over for deportation. He said officers picked him up at an arcade because they knew he was an illegal immigrant who had testified against officers in a police corruption scandal.

Thanks to a community campaign in his favor, he was freed nine months later and in July 2002 received political asylum because his life would be in danger if he returned to El Salvador. Sanchez knows better than most about why kids join gangs and he suggests they find other alternatives.

"Many see gangs as the way to make themselves men," Sanchez said. "They don't have anything to live for, but something to die for."