Giving Up a New Life for a Gang Death
Valuable Witness Made a Fatal Turn Back to Old Friends
By Jerry Markon and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 10, 2003; Page A01
Violence and gang life were wearing on Brenda Paz, and she was looking for a way out.
As the daughter of a member of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, she knew nothing but the streets. When Arlington police picked her up in a car theft investigation last summer, she saw the opportunity for a new start.
"Smiley," as she was known in the gang for her charm and cheerfulness, soon was telling detectives from Arlington, Fairfax and Alexandria -- and Texas, North Carolina, California, Colorado and Idaho -- about stabbings, shootings and armed robberies. Her information was crucial to more than a half-dozen investigations, including a federal probe that sought her encyclopedic knowledge of Mara Salvatrucha: Structure, nicknames, license plates, she knew it all. In exchange, she was promised a place in the federal Witness Protection Program, all before her 18th birthday.
Brenda Paz had a new name, was taking classes and had the promise of a new beginning.
"For a while," said Greg Hunter, an Arlington lawyer and Paz's court-appointed guardian, "this had a happy ending."
But authorities said the lure of her gang friends and the freedom of following no rules proved too strong. Bored and unhappy, Paz left the Witness Protection Program in June after just a few months. Barely three weeks later, on July 17, a fisherman found her tattoo-covered body on the banks of the Shenandoah River. Paz, 18, had several stab wounds. She was 17 weeks pregnant.
Members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, are suspected in her death.
"She was a mess. She just couldn't be alone," Hunter said of Paz's life in witness protection. "Was it hard for her to stay away from the gang? No. Was it hard for her to stay away from the people? Yes. She'd give the gang up, but not some of the people.
"She never had to follow the rules before. She was MS."
Brenda Paz's story, pieced together from hundreds of pages of court documents and interviews with law enforcement officials and others who knew her, is one of an intelligent, vivacious girl who had no family to rely on besides one of America's most violent street gangs. She was smart enough, even as a teenager, to know it was time to move on, but she never had the grounding to quite go all the way.
"Her life was pretty much gang Mecca," said one Northern Virginia investigator who got to know her well. "All her contacts, all her friends, all her stories." At the same time, the investigator said, she was tired of gang life. "She showed signs of, 'Hey, guys, this is getting old.' She desperately wanted to get out."
Paz's death saddened law enforcement officials throughout the region, where she had become an invaluable witness against Mara Salvatrucha. Police universally point to MS-13 as the most dangerous and fastest-growing street gang in Northern Virginia, and members have been linked to a number of killings in recent years.
Authorities say Paz offered a unique knowledge of the gang's history and structure. She knew the gang's leaders and their nicknames and had an uncanny ability to take investigators inside the minds of its members.
"There were times when she would say, 'Why don't you all do this?' " said one investigator. "I would say, 'That might not work.' And she'd say, 'No, you need to think like them. Do this. Go there.' And it would make sense."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
Brenda Paz's body was found in Shenandoah County about three weeks after she left the federal Witness Protection Program.
(Courtesy Of Greg Hunter)