ALEXANDRIA – One of four gang members charged with planning and carrying out the murder of a young woman in retaliation for her cooperation with police has admitted the crime, the man’s lawyer told jurors Monday.
Lawyer James C. Clark said his client, Ismael Juarez Cisneros, gave investigators two long, detailed statements describing how he and fellow members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, also called MS-13, killed 17-year-old Brenda Paz.
“Mr. Cisneros completely openly and willingly unburdened himself of his involvement in the killing of Brenda Paz,” Clark said.
The Latino street gang Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, took root during the 1980s in Los Angeles as Salvadorans fled their country’s brutal civil war.
It is considered the fastest-growing and most dangerous gang in the country, with a presence in more than 30 states.
The name is Salvadoran slang: “mara” for posse and “salvatrucha” for street-tough Salvadoran.
His remarks came during the opening day of the trial of Cisneros and his three co-defendants in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Each man is named in a five-count indictment charging them with killing a witness who was aiding a federal investigation. If convicted, they could get the death penalty.
Paz’s tattoo-covered body was found by a fisherman and his son in the North Fork of the Shenandoah River on July 17, 2003, just four weeks after she had voluntarily left the federal witness-protection program. A longtime member of the MS-13 gang herself, she had been helping authorities in gang-related investigations in at least six states. She was 17 weeks pregnant at the time of her death.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald L. Walutes Jr. said Paz was killed because she violated a ruthlessly enforced rule of the MS-13 gang: Members found to be cooperating with police must die.
Masterminding the plot, Walutes said, was 21-year-old Denis Rivera, Paz’s former boyfriend and the leader of an MS-13 clique based in Alexandria. Using phone calls and letters, he ordered the murder of Paz from his jail cell, where he was awaiting trial in a 2001 gang-related killing, Walutes said.
“Together, they formed a killing team for Denis Rivera as he awaited trial in this courtroom,” Walutes said. “It was through this killing they enforced their code of silence.”
Rivera’s trial proceeded without Paz. He and two other men were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
One of Rivera’s lawyers, Jerome P. Aquino, admitted that his client was a member of MS-13 and a close confidant of Paz. But he said Rivera did not order her killing. Rather, he said, it was someone else, one of the many enemies Paz made by cooperating with police.
“People other than Denis Rivera had a problem with Miss Paz,” he said. “Many people had a problem with Miss Paz.” He said the FBI, in a report before she was placed in witness protection, compiled a list of 13 people who posed a threat to her safety. Rivera’s name was among those listed.
Jurors were told they will be asked to decide the relative culpability of each of the four defendants: Cisneros, Rivera, 21-year-old Oscar Antonio Grande and 31-year-old Oscar Garcia-Orellena.
It promises to be a long and difficult task. The trial is expected to take up to eight weeks, and the well of the court is crowded with the four defendants, eight defense lawyers, three prosecutors, four translators, several U.S. marshals and various other court personnel.
The trial will provide a rare glimpse into the inner workings of MS-13, considered the nation’s largest and most violent street gang. Police in Northern Virginia have been fighting the fast-growing gang for more than a decade, blaming it for a wave of killings and assaults.
One of Grande’s lawyers, Luis F. Estrepo, implored jurors not to equate membership in MS-13 with criminal activity.
“Understand the difference between being in a crime and being responsible for criminal murder,” he said. “There is a big difference.”
Frank Salvato, one of Garcia-Orelleno’s lawyers, said his client was present when Paz was killed but did not take part in the slaying. He was not present, however, at several MS-13 meetings where Paz was “green-lighted,” Salvato said. Garcia-Orelleno did not know Rivera, Salvato said.
“He did not volunteer to go and kill Brenda Paz,” Salvato said of Garcia-Orelleno. “He didn’t know Paz had a green light on her.”
Clark said jurors will be hard-pressed to reconcile the events that led to Paz’s death.
“This is a story of absolute tragedy, of lost children, of lost souls, and how their lives were tragically mishandled,” he said. “Please don’t expect to make any sense of it.”
Paul Bradley is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.