In MS-13, a Culture of Brutality and Begging

Brenda Paz's body was found under the Meems Bottom covered bridge in Shenandoah County. Four MS-13 members are accused of killing Paz, who was helping authorities from at least six states investigate the gang.
Brenda Paz's body was found under the Meems Bottom covered bridge in Shenandoah County. Four MS-13 members are accused of killing Paz, who was helping authorities from at least six states investigate the gang. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 2, 2005

Inside a sparsely furnished motel room in Fairfax County, members of the violent street gang Mara Salvatrucha cemented the details of a death decree.

While the men debated, the women waited in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn Fairfax at Fair Oaks Mall. Brenda Paz, 17, stood among them, unaware that in Room 318, it was her fate the men were deciding.

When the meeting finally ended, the women filed back in, some carrying bags with a change of clothes. It was a Saturday, and they all planned to spend the night. In all, about a dozen members of the gang, also known as MS-13, crammed into the motel room. Hours later, empty beer cans and cigarette butts littered the furniture and floor.

Details of that night in 2003 were disclosed during testimony in U.S. District Court in Alexandria as part of a trial for those accused of killing Paz, who was slain early the next morning more than 100 miles away in Shenandoah County. The trial, in its fourth week, has cast light on the inner workings of MS-13, a gang that in recent years has staked its claim in Northern Virginia. Witnesses, including current and former gang members, have offered details of the everyday life of MS-13, from the mandatory weekly clique meetings to the list of rules with which recruits are indoctrinated.

Testimony has revealed a gang that is divided into smaller groups or cliques that resort mostly to petty theft and begging for their sustenance. There is no organized drug dealing or robbery, other than with a handful of older cliques, according to testimony.

"The girls would go out and ask for money," testified Gloria D. Rodriguez, 23, who hung out with the gang but was not a member. "We would just go to shopping centers and stuff and tell people we needed to make a phone call or something or needed to eat and needed some money. We would work as a group." They'd earn between $60 and $80 a day, enough for a group to eat at a McDonald's and get a motel room and some beer.

Perhaps most telling from the testimony is that the gang members -- an estimated 2,000 in the Washington region -- are in most ways not much different from other adolescents.

They hang out at shopping malls, especially those close to the motels where they party and sleep at night. They eat at fast-food restaurants. They play video games and watch movies. They talk about fast cars and rap artists, and they wear the baggy clothes that are popular among teenagers.

But they also are far more sophisticated and street savvy. The girls, some as young as 12, spend their mornings begging in such mostly Latino neighborhoods as Fairfax Circle in Fairfax and Arlandria in Alexandria to support the members, many of whom are runaways. The boys, also young, maintain control of the cliques. And when the sexes are together, there is a distinct hierarchy, with the males leading the meetings while the females wait outside, unable to offer any opinions.

On weekends, when those who live with their parents join the others in the motel rooms, the meetings, called misas , or masses, are conducted, and looming problems are discussed. It is at those meetings that decisions are made, from the mundane, such as approving tattoos, to the criminal, such as attacking a rival gang member or authorizing the killing of a fellow MS-13 member.

Mostly, the female members don't question the males. Doing so can result in a beating. Stephanie L. Schwab, 19, a former MS-13 member who ran away from her Manassas home when she was 12, testified that she once was burned with a cigarette for talking to someone in another gang.

After the meetings, the members drink beer and smoke cigarettes and marijuana. They tell jokes and stay up all night. According to testimony, sex also is rampant at the parties.


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