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In MS-13, a Culture of Brutality and Begging
Gang's Women Panhandle, Men Plot in Motels, Testimony Shows

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.

Paz was different from the other girls. She came as close to being a leader as a female could, in part because of her membership in a more elite clique, the Normandies Locos Salvatruchas, or NLS. She pushed the boundaries, according to testimony, and she broke many of the rules. The most prominent rule, the one that forbids cooperation with authorities, is what got her killed.

On trial for her killing is Denis Rivera, 21, of Alexandria, who goes by the nickname "Conejo," or rabbit. He is accused of plotting Paz's death from jail cells in Arlington and Fairfax counties after discovering that she was going to testify against him in a murder case. He was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison for that crime.

Seated beside him in the courtroom are Oscar A. Grande, 25, of Fairfax, Ismael J. Cisneros, 26, of Vienna and Oscar A. Garcia-Orellana, 32, of Fairfax, each accused of carrying out the carefully plotted slaying.

Each defendant faces the death penalty if convicted.

The prosecution, having called nearly 50 witnesses, is expected to finish its case today. Attorneys for each defendant then have a chance to present their sides.

Although heavily focused on the weeks leading up to Paz's slaying on July 13, 2003, the trial also has devoted much time to outlining the makeup and livelihood of MS-13. Divided into numerous cliques -- Grande and Cisneros belong to the Centrales Locos Salvatruchas, or CLS; Garcia-Orellana belongs to the Modesto Locos Salvatruchas, or MDLS; and Rivera was a founder of the Big Gangsters Locos Salvatruchas, or BGLS -- the members meet every weekend for their "masses" and once a month for the "Big One," a meeting that if missed can lead to a beating.

At the meetings, they discuss the rules and the appropriate punishment for those who fail to abide by them.

Some cliques have only a few members while others have upward of 30. Clique members mostly hang out with each other, although they are friendly toward everyone in MS-13. Rules dictate the hierarchy: Members face punishment if they write their clique name before the characters MS-13. All tattoos, for example, must have MS-13 etched above or before the clique name.

In Room 318 at the Holiday Inn, the members mostly talked about Paz. They knew she was helping authorities, and they knew she could send many of them to jail with her testimony. Paz was helping investigators from at least six states and had witnessed many crimes, from thefts to beatings to murder.

The approved sanction for being an informant is a "green light" on that person's life, gang code for an authorized killing. Witnesses have testified that it must be carried out within a reasonable period by a fellow gang member. But not before the target has been made to feel comfortable.

Luring in those tagged for death is a concept the gang refers to as "baby-sitting," a drawn-out process in which the person is coddled, as was Paz, known in the gang as Smiley.

Grande, a mustachioed man with dark, closely cropped hair, was Paz's babysitter, according to testimony.

Beginning when she moved into an FBI safe house in Silver Spring in November 2002, Grande, who goes by the nickname Pantera, or panther, became close to Paz. He spent many hours with her at the safe house, a one-bedroom apartment in the Winexburg Manor complex. With about a dozen others, the pair would drink, smoke and adorn each other's body with tattoos using homemade kits.

And so it made sense, witnesses testified at the trial, that Grande would offer to kill her.

"He said she trusted him the most and that he would go, and then he asked for volunteers" to help, testified Joel H. Reyes-Mattos, 24, a member of Centrales Locos Salvatruchas. He added that Cisneros, who goes by the nickname Arana, or spider, "raised his hand."

After an afternoon spent roaming the department stores of the Fair Oaks Mall, Paz and several others secured a room at the Holiday Inn. That night, according to testimony, the plan was hatched: She would be killed the next morning far from Northern Virginia to avoid arousing suspicion.

According to testimony, Paz, 16 weeks pregnant, fell asleep that night on the floor of the motel room, curled up in the arms of Grande. It was his last night as her "babysitter." The next morning she awoke very early. She dressed in the darkness of the room and followed Grande, Cisneros and Garcia-Orellana out the door.

Staff writer Jerry Markon contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company