Potomac News Online | Witnesses recount MS-13 victim’s tale

ALEXANDRIA – Brenda Paz’s 13-month journey from respected gang member to prized government informant to murder victim was detailed Tuesday for a jury weighing the fate of the men charged with plotting and carrying out her killing.

During the first full day of testimony in the federal trial of four members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang charged with killing Paz in order to silence her, Paz was described as a bright but conflicted 17-year-old, eager to leave her gang life behind but unable to resist the pull of a no-rules life on the street.

She brazenly flouted the rules set by the government keepers charged with protecting her. Paz partied with fellow MS-13 members in an apartment rented by the FBI in Maryland, became pregnant while in the federal witness-protection program in Philadelphia and three times left the program to return to the gang.

 Mara Salvatrucha

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. 

About four weeks after she left the program for the final time, she was dead. Her brutally stabbed, tattoo-covered body was found in the Shenandoah River on July 17, 2003.

Now, four MS-13 members are on 

trial in connection her death. If convicted, the men – former boyfriend Denis Rivera, 21; Oscar Antonio Grande, 21; Ismael Juarez Cisneros, 25; and Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana, 31 – could get the death penalty.

They are charged with conspiring to kill her to prevent her from testifying against Rivera in a 2003 murder case. He was tried anyway, convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Paz’s story has emerged as one of a young woman prized by law enforcement for her willingness to share her broad knowledge of MS-13, described as the country’s fastest-growing and most violent criminal gang.

Her cooperation with police earned her numerous enemies around the country. While she knew her life was in danger – once telling her lawyer that “half of MS-13” wanted her dead – she was unable to resist the gang life.

Gregory T. Hunter testified that he first encountered Paz in June 2002 when he she was picked up as a runaway in Arlington County and he was named her court-appointed guardian.

Paz, who had joined MS-13 while growing up near Los Angeles, had already had several run-ins with the law. Among other things, she was named as a suspect in a murder in Texas. Not long after being detained in Arlington, she was signaling a willingness to share what she knew about that case and many others, and she met with police more than 100 times before she died.

Knowing that MS-13 often enforced its code of silence with murder, Hunter and police scrambled for a way to protect her. As a juvenile, she was too young for witness protection. So a plan was hatched.

Hunter testified that Fairfax County police charged her in July 2002 with aiding a gang-related malicious wounding. The charge was “cooked up,” Hunter said. In reality, it was a way authorities could keep her in custody.

Hunter then filed court petitions to have Paz legally declared an adult. When a judge approved, the last hurdle preventing her from entering witness protection was cleared. In late November 2002, with the help of the FBI, she was placed in a “safe house,” actually an apartment in Silver Spring, Md. The FBI paid her rent, bought her food and gave her a cell phone.

The problems began just a couple of weeks later. Hunter ran into her in the Arlington County courthouse, where she was attending a trial of a MS-13 member. She had violated the FBI dictate that she have no contact with gang members, Hunter said.

Things escalated from there. On Feb. 8, 2003, police came to her Maryland apartment to investigate the reported rape of a friend of Paz. The next day, police were back at the apartment, breaking up a party and arresting 10 MS-13 members. The day after that, Paz left the beer-can-strewn apartment for good.

Hunter said he shared none of this with the U.S. Marshal’s Service, which runs the witness-protection program, for fear she would be kicked out.

In March 2003, Hunter tracked Paz down. FBI agent Lawrence R. Alexander turned her over to witness protection on March 10, and she was moved to Philadelphia.

There, she became romantically involved with a MS-13 member and became pregnant.

Like Hunter, Alexander did not share what he knew about her erratic behavior with federal marshals. “My responsibility with Miss Paz was to provide her with a safe place to live and food and sustenance,” he said. “The burden of personal safety falls upon the witness.”

Soon after becoming pregnant, Paz was relocated to Kansas City, Mo. She was given a new name, Alicia Gonzales. But with no friends and no job, she soon became restless. Twice she left Kansas City, once to travel to Philadelphia, the other to go to Northern Virginia. Both times she contacted Hunter, who paid for plane tickets back to Kansas City. Again, he told federal marshals nothing.

“I decided to let sleeping dogs lie,” he said. “It was an agonizing decision.”

In May 2003, marshals moved her again, this time to St. Paul, Minn. Again she became restless and lonely. She asked MS-13 friends from Northern Virginia to visit, and in June they did.

When the time came for her friends to go home, she packed her bags and went along. Hunter looked for her unsuccessfully. On July 9, 2003, she called Hunter, who failed to persuade her to go back into witness protection. She would take her chances on the street. Within a few days time, she was dead.

Testimony in the case is to continue today.

Paul Bradley is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.


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