Giving Up a New Life for a Gang Death
That innate intelligence struck those who met her.
"If she had been born into a white, suburban family, she would have been president of her chess club at Wellesley," said Hunter, who tried desperately to persuade Paz to stay in witness protection. "She was an amazingly intelligent and charming young woman who read Dostoevski and Cervantes."
But the news of her death was not a complete surprise to authorities, who had heard that she might be in danger and say Paz was oddly naive about the risks she was taking.
"She had zero understanding of the personal threat to her," said Sgt. Alan Patton of the Grand Prairie, Tex., police department, who along with a colleague interviewed Paz in Fairfax County in September about a 2001 homicide in Grand Prairie. Paz provided key details about the killing of a 21-year-old man who was slain by MS-13 members while she was living in Texas.
"We left there and both felt Brenda would end up dead by the hands of MS-13," Patton said. "I left there feeling sorry for her in a respect. She said she wanted to go to school, get her diploma. But I didn't get the impression she was ever going to get any of that done. It's predictable, but sad all the same."
The loss of Paz was a particular blow to federal officials in Alexandria, where sources say she was expected to be a government witness in a key homicide investigation. Three alleged MS-13 members, including a man described in court papers as the leader of MS-13 in Northern Virginia, are scheduled to go on trial next month in the September 2001 death of Joaquim Diaz, 19, who was stabbed to death on federal property on Daingerfield Island in Alexandria along the George Washington Parkway. All three have pleaded not guilty.
The Diaz slaying helped trigger a broader federal grand jury probe of MS-13. Law enforcement sources describe the investigation as far-reaching and say it is expected to extend beyond the Diaz case.
"There's a general recognition that the gang problem has grown more serious in terms of the threat it poses to the larger community," said U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty, who is heading the probe. He declined to discuss Paz's role in the investigation.
Diaz, of Alexandria, also was found by a fisherman with multiple stab wounds to his heart, torso and hands. His throat was cut from one end to the other, and a portion of his larynx was removed and found near his body. Authorities say in court papers that he was killed because he was affiliated with a rival gang.
Such violence is typical of MS-13, say law enforcement officials, who have been tracking the gang ever since it was founded in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s by young men from El Salvador. Many of them immigrated with military skills honed from serving on death squads at home, and the gang's founders quickly became feared around Los Angeles.
Paz was born in Honduras but was raised on those Los Angeles streets. Little could be determined about her parents. But at 12, she followed in her father's footsteps and was initiated into MS-13. Some girls are "sexed in" to the gang by having sex with a member. Paz was "jumped in," which required that she be beaten.
Mara Salvatrucha became Paz's life, law enforcement officials say. She dropped out of school in eighth grade and hung out with members in Los Angeles and, a few years later, traveled with them to Texas. Paz dated high-ranking gang leaders. "They would go from place to place because they either knew somebody there or it was an area where they could hang out or find somebody to take them in," one investigator said.
Patton, the Grand Prairie police sergeant, said that when detectives there first questioned Paz about the December 2001 killing -- while she still lived in Texas and before she began cooperating with investigators -- they got nowhere. "She very much had the gang-banger attitude," he said. " 'I wasn't there. I don't know what you're talking about. I have nothing to say.' "
Sometime last year, Paz followed gang members to Virginia. She was quickly accepted into local MS-13 culture -- "she had her bona fides" from Los Angeles and Dallas, one investigator said.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company