ALEXANDRIA — The gang leader accused of masterminding a plot to murder Brenda Paz boasted in a jailhouse interview that he had followers on the outside who would kill someone on his orders, a jury was told yesterday.
In a March 2003 interview with Arlington County police, Denis Rivera said he commanded the kind of respect among fellow gang members that would lead them to carry out such a directive.
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A federal jury weighing whether the 21-year-old Rivera and three other members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang are guilty of killing Paz because she was a “snitch” — cooperating with law enforcement — heard a tape of the interview yesterday.
Also on trial are Oscar Antonio Grande, 25; Ismael Juarez Cisneros, 26; and Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana, 31. Each has pleaded not guilty, and each could get the death penalty if convicted.
Police had turned to Rivera for help in finding Paz. Days before Rivera talked to police, the 17-year-old Paz had vanished from an FBI safe house in Maryland, where she was staying while awaiting placement in the federal witness-protection program. Paz later turned herself in but eventually left the witness-protection program voluntarily.
She had been cooperating with authorities on numerous gang-related investigations, and Rivera told detectives several gang members wanted her dead, including gang leaders from Texas and California.
But, he added, he doubted whether the out-of-towners enjoyed the kind of esteem among local gang rank-and-file that they would follow an order to kill.
“Not everyone is going to do you a favor,” Rivera was heard saying on the tape, adding: “I got some people who would do this.”
Rivera was in jail awaiting trial on another gang-related killing, and Paz was set to be a principal witness against him. About four months after the jailhouse interview, Paz was dead, stabbed more than a dozen times, her body dumped on a bank of the Shenandoah River. Her absence from the trial did not save Rivera, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Much of yesterday’s testimony focused on the deadly consequences of “ratting” on Mara Salvatrucha, also called MS-13, which is considered the nation’s largest and most violent gang, with a growing presence in Virginia.
Sergio Villatoro, a 27-year-old former MS-13 member now in prison, told the jury the gang has a “code. We call it a green-light. It’s an order to kill you.”
Villatoro testified against Rivera in his first trial. In return, authorities cut in half a six-year prison term on an attempted-carjacking conviction. In this trial, Villatoro said authorities have promised to protect him in prison and help him avoid being deported once he completes his term.
While in the Alexandria jail in early 2003, Villatoro said, he received three letters from Rivera. In the letters, Rivera said he wanted fellow gang member Angel Barrera “green-lighted,” Villatoro testified. At the time, Barrera was making a deal with the FBI in return for testifying at Rivera’s first trial.
“He asked me when I got out to put a zipper in his belly button, to stab him and go all the way up to the throat,” Villatoro said. Barrera is now in prison.
Stephanie Schwab, 19, another former gang member who joined MS-13 about five years ago after running away from home, said gang members were consumed with ferreting out informants. She said she fully understood what happened to gang members who cooperated with police.
“You die,” she said. “You don’t snitch.”
In another development, a hotel desk clerk testified he saw defendants Grande and Cisneros on July 12, 2003, in the Fairfax County hotel where he works. Prosecutors allege the men were part of an MS-13 meeting at which it was agreed Paz would be killed. She died the next day.
The trial, now in its second week, will continue in U.S. District Court today.
Contact Paul Bradley at (703) 548-8758 or [email protected]