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CeaseFire ‘violence interrupter’ among dozens charged after gang probe

Francisco Sanchez, a violence interrupter. | Joshua Lott / The Trace file photo provided to the Sun-Times

A man who works for the anti-violence group CeaseFire is among a group of alleged gang members rounded up Thursday as part of a two-year investigation by Chicago Police and federal authorities.

Federal prosecutors announced Friday that Francisco “Smokey” Sanchez has been charged with illegal possession of a firearm by a felon. Sanchez is a “violence interrupter” for CeaseFire and is part of the Gangster Two-Six Nation street gang, according to law-enforcement sources.

Sanchez, 50, is among 48 alleged gang members facing federal or state charges, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced.

The Cure Violence organization, which is based at the University of Illinois at Chicago and oversees CeaseFire, defended the program while seeming to acknowledge the charge against Sanchez as a “relapse.”

“Although relapses may occur, we need to see the bigger picture of the amazing work and great successes and contributions of interrupters in Chicago and around the country,” Cure Violence said in a statement.

The complaint against Sanchez describes how police and federal agents obtained a search warrant Wednesday and went to Sanchez’s Brighton Park home at 6 a.m. Thursday. While searching his bedroom, they found a Colt .45-caliber handgun inside a metal container designed to look like a book. The lid of the container was not fully closed, the complaint noted, and the butt of the pistol could be seen through the opening.

Of the 21 facing federal charges, most were arrested Thursday, authorities said. They are accused of dealing drugs and guns on the South Side and surrounding suburbs.

Acting U.S. Attorney Joel Levin announces charges from “Operation Bunny Trap” on Friday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Acting U.S. Attorney Joel Levin announces charges from “Operation Bunny Trap” on Friday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“Most of the transactions that have been charged in this case occurred in areas of Chicago that have been plagued by violence,” Acting U.S. Attorney Joel Levin said in announcing the charges Friday at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

“As we head into the Memorial Day weekend, (police are) sending a clear message to those driving violence: We will come at you with everything that we have to make our communities safe,” said Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, who joined Levin.

During the joint federal-state investigation, dubbed “Operation Bunny Trap,” authorities seized 118 firearms — including several assault rifles and shotguns — as well as more than 800 grams of cocaine, more than 250 grams of fentanyl and more than 280 grams of crystal methamphetamine.

Prosecutors also described how investigators uncovered two illegal gun deals in a grocery store parking lot in the South Loop. Eduardo Castro, 30, of Chicago, is accused of selling three handguns to a confidential source. Castro was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon and dealing firearms without a license.

Gun and drug transactions were also uncovered inside a Brighton Park neighborhood pizza parlor, prosecutors said. Anthony Lopez, 34, of Chicago, allegedly sold cocaine and a handgun in the pizza parlor’s bathroom in January and February 2015 to a confidential source who was working with law enforcement. Lopez has been charged with possession of a firearm by a felon.

The investigation uncovered illegal gun sales in several other South Side neighborhoods, including Chicago Lawn, Clearing, Chatham and Englewood, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. Illegal transactions were also uncovered in the suburbs of Berwyn, Homewood and Alsip.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), whose ward includes some of the Chicago neighborhoods touched by the investigation, praised the arrests. “I applaud the efforts of the Chicago Police Department and its partners to aggressively and strategically remove those elements from our communities that seek to terrorize our neighborhoods,” he said.

In February, The Trace, a nonprofit media organization that covers gun violence, highlighted Sanchez’s work in trying to stop the shootings in Little Village as a CeaseFire supervisor.

The story, which was published in the Chicago Sun-Times, reported that CeaseFire’s interrupter staff shrank from about 55 workers in 2014 to eight workers in early 2017 because state funding to the group was eliminated amid Illinois government budget cuts. The organization, which once had a $4.5 million budget and was the subject of an award-winning documentary, continues to limp along on private donations.

The story noted that Sanchez grew up in Little Village and was a gang chief by the time he was a teenager.

In 1986, according to the complaint filed Thursday against Sanchez, he was convicted of murder.

In the 2006 edition of The Gang Book published by the Chicago Crime Commission, Sanchez is listed as the “nation leader” of the Two-Six gang. The 2012 edition also lists him as a leader.

Sanchez is among about almost a dozen CeaseFire workers who have been charged with serious crimes while working for the organization over the past decade. They’ve been accused of everything from stealing jewelry to domestic battery to drug offenses.

In its statement, Cure Violence said, “To stop violence, we must engage with individuals most likely to commit violence by hiring people who have access and credibility with the population — a standard practice in health outreach programs including AIDS/HIV and substance abuse. Hundreds of interrupters in dozens of health departments and communities are helping to make our communities safer.”

Contributing: Stefano Esposito, Jacob Wittich

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