LOS ANGELES – A man who left a ruthless street gang in Central America and won political asylum in the U.S. after starting the Los Angeles branch of an agency that rescues kids from gang life was arrested Wednesday as part of a federal gang crackdown.

Alex Sanchez, 37, who heads Homies Unidos, was taken into custody at his Bellflower home on federal racketeering charges, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said. Eight other people were arrested.

The indictment names 24 leaders, members and associates of MS-13, part of the Mara Salvatrucha gang affiliated with the Mexican Mafia prison gang.

It alleges crimes that include several murders, conspiracies to commit murder and narcotics offenses, Eimiller said. Several of those named were already in custody.

Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney George Cardona said at a news conference that Sanchez was involved in a murder conspiracy in May 2006 while Homies Unidos was doing anti-gang work.

MS-13 is estimated to have several thousand members across the U.S. as well as throughout Central America and Mexico, and is known for its brutality.

An FBI news release said five of the defendants, not including Sanchez, allegedly conspired to murder a veteran detective with the Los Angeles Police Department's gang unit.

The indictment also alleges members of the gang were responsible for seven murders and eight conspiracies to commit murder since 1995.

A well-known and respected anti-gang worker, Sanchez has testified as an expert in legal cases, lobbied for better intervention and prevention programs, and spoken to youths about the depressing consequences of gang life.

Luis Enrique Guzman, a community organizer at the Los Angeles Homies Unidos office, said the group was just learning of the situation and would have no immediate comment.

Luis Romero, director of the Homies Unidos office in El Salvador, said the organization did not accept the allegations against Sanchez.

"We know that Homies Unidos U.S.A. is doing great work in the reinsertion and rehabilitation of young people," Romero said.

He said he had no details on the charges.

Asked what he thought prompted the allegations, he said, "these are the famous smoke screens, things that they use, things that they have not been able to solve and they take action without previously investigating."

Sanchez arrived in Los Angeles at age 7 from El Salvador and joined Mara Salvatrucha when he was 14. The gang was founded by Salvadorans in Los Angeles' Pico-Union district.

Sanchez was jailed three times for minor offenses and was deported to El Salvador in 1994.

He told The Associated Press in an interview in March that 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.

He returned illegally to Los Angeles in 1995 and in July 2002 received political asylum because his life would be in danger if he returned to El Salvador.

Homies Unidos was founded in 1996 in El Salvador. Sanchez helped establish the Los Angeles office the following year.

The office has helped remove tattoos from more than 240 gang members.

Eimiller said everyone named on the indictment could face up to 25 years to life in prison. No one else from Homies Unidos was believed to be named in the indictment, she said.