A Tribute to Homies Unidos


This historic, unique and important organization was organized on Nov. 6th, 1996 in El Salvador by 11 members of La Mara Salvatrucha and members of 18th Street under the leadership of Magdaleno Leno Rose-Avila. 

But …. there always seems to be a but in history…and here it is:  

There was this photojournalist Donna Decesare who had reported on the massacre of El Mozote and the killing of the Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter.  This history led Donna into an MS-13 barrio in Los Angeles to track a story of the gang members who were being deported to El Salvador, some that were ill with HIV-Aids. She eventually began reporting on deported gang members, learning that they had arrived in LA as children and infants with their families who had fled the violence and poverty of the U.S. supported civil war in El Salvador in the early 1980’s.   She explained how the poverty and violence of LA moved the Salvadoran youth to form their own community organization MS-13 which later became known as a gang. In order to do her story, she had to convince a prominent gang leader who we now know as Alex Sanchez, Director of Homies Unidos. Alex opened the door to the neighborhood for Donna to develop her story which became most important to giving context to the story of El Salvador and its youth.

By 1996 Donna was convincing Carolyn Rose-Avila then LAC Regional Director of Save the Children to be one of the funders and organizers of a conference in San Salvador focused on violence that included non-profits, government agencies, religious groups, police and gang members. Those speaking at the conference included Donna and our good friend and hero in the gang culture, Luis Rodriquez. A week after the conference I arrived in El Salvador and Carolyn asked me to represent Save the Children at follow up meetings. This is where I met my first deported gang members and Donna.

Soon I was in the barrios with both MS-13 and 18th Street learning the stories of these deported youth. Donna helped me build trust with gang members she knew. With Carolyn advocating for us to access funding from Save the Children US and SC Sweden, we soon raised money to do the first of its kind demographic studies on gangs which was designed with the help of the Jesuit University, UCA and gang members from both MS and 18th St. It was a gang member led study, where rival gang members interviewed 1025 gang members, helped analyze the data and later do public presentations for the public.  We became close doing this work together and enjoyed learning that they had frequented the same taco and hamburger places and knew the streets and points of interest in LA as I did. They were Salvadoran by birth but shaped by the streets LA-the streets their parents had fled to thinking they would escape the violence back home. 

This culminated in our founding of Homies Unidos originally named Home Boys Unidos.  The first office of Homies Unidos in El Salvador was an extra room in our home in a middleclass neighborhood in San Salvador.  We decided to change the name when gang woman in LA wouldn’t join unless we had a more gender-neutral name.

The next year, Homies Unidos and I made our first trip to LA with Hector and Claudia, two of our board members.  We were accompanied by Monseratt Payan who worked at the Salvadoran Ministry of Education and Donna Decesare. Hector and Donna introduced me to a number of gang members including this tough guy Alex Sanchez. During our visit we convinced Alex and other gang members to join us at a National Peace Conference hosted by Barrios Unidos under the leadership of our sacred brother Nane Alejandrez. It is there that Alex saw gang members of different neighborhoods from around the country coming together to work on ending violence and giving hope a chance. At this conference Alex and other youth were asked to share some of their leadership. Nane took Alex under his wing becoming a good friend and mentor 

Ann Cusack, an actor who was introduced to me by Patti Pelton also an actor, was directing a program called Arts Expand that then worked with us on how to use art in developing our dreams, unity and voices.

Over the next year, I returned to LA connecting up with Alex when I visited the families of our Homies Unidos’ deported gang members from ES.  While I thought I was the mentor, in fact it was Alex who was tutoring me on Barrio survival. 

To sustain Homies Unidos in the first years, I spent my $70,000 retirement fund and put another $30,000 on my credit cards. Often people ask me if it was worth it? You can’t put a price on saving a life.  Homies Unidos has saved a lot of lives including my own… they gave me a reason to do more and do it better…

As we frequented LA we soon developed a chapter of Homies stateside while meeting such wonderful individuals such as Tracy Rice, Mike Farrell, Patti Wagonhurst, Blaze,Theresa Bonpane, Elana Zilberg, Barbara Grover and many others. Tom Hayden, who we met through his Salvadoran staff member, Silvia Beltran, and who already had gang members working in his Senate office, soon bonded with Alex.   Tom would later be a key influencer defending Alex along with so many others as the US government tried twice to deport him including via the LA Ramparts Police Division scandal.  The authorities became intimidated by Alex’ new-found passion to diminish violence and seek peace on the streets. 

During one of the government’s attempt to deport Alex another young gang leader, Gerardo Lopez, aka Cleaver, took on the leadership of Homies Unidos and today has long since established Homies Unidos in Denver, Colorado, doing transformational work with the police and gangs.

Tom Hayden, and his son with Jane Fonda, Troy Garity, became a part of the Homies Unidos’ family.  Both Tom, a state senator, and Troy visited Homies in El Salvador.  The US Ambassador to El Salvador held a reception to recognize Tom as a state senator from California.  Upon Tom’s insistence, 22 gang members of Homies Unidos attended and Tom and I did the welcoming speeches.  It is the only time that a U.S. Embassy has had active gang members enjoy an official reception.  Later, Troy convinced Jane and his siblings to fund Homies though the Fonda Family Foundation.  Our love and appreciation for Tom, Troy and Jane should be recognized by all.

When I left Homies go to work for the US Peace Corps in Paraguay, Silvia took on the helm and kept Homies alive in LA. Alex, who had been doing incredible work with Homies, finally took over the leadership and brought a stronger and more complete vision to the organization 

Over the years there have been so many who have played an important role in the development of Homies and we need to gather their names and contributions. The violence has increased in El Salvador and throughout Central America leading to the death of over five key members of Homies in El Salvador including the death threats I received. As a result of the spiraling violence the ES office had to close.

Many own a piece of the history along the timeline of HOMIES UNIDOS, whether in ES or LA, because we all believed in our brothers and sisters and their commitment to transform lives and empower the next generation. It is important to recognize that one of the key figures that has helped Homies survive and flourish has been Alex’s wife, Delia.  She has weathered the twists and turns along this difficult journey and played her part in keeping the Homies dream alive.

But … here is yet another but …despite all the police and governmental attacks, Alex has developed into a very special warrior for Peace and has taken Homies much further than I could have ever imagined…

I am honored to have played a role in the founding of Homies Unidos; to be supporting Alex’ exemplary leadership; to being an ally with all the Central American communities fighting for a life of dignity and respect, and; to provide recognition to all those who work for Immigrant Rights, Peace and Environmental Justice.



Magdaleno Leno Rose-Avila