Gang Members Convicted of Killing Protected Witness

Madeleine Brand talks with Washington Post reporter Jerry Markon about Tuesday's conviction of two gang members in the slaying of a woman in the witness protection program. The murder of Brenda "Smiley" Paz was carried out by the notorious M-S 13 gang in Virginia.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand, and this is DAY TO DAY.

A guilty verdict in a brutal gang murder. Two years ago Brenda "Smiley" Paz was stabbed to death. She was four months pregnant and a former federal informant. Yesterday a jury in Alexandria, Virginia, found two members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang guilty of her murder. Two other gang members were acquitted. The gang, which is known as MS-13, began here in Los Angeles in the 1980s among immigrants from El Salvador. But MS-13 has now spread across this country and to the south. It's active in several Latin American countries. Authorities say the gang may have 50,000 members, and one law enforcement official has said this isn't a gang; it's an army. Jerry Markon is a reporter for The Washington Post and he joins me from member station WETA in Arlington, Virginia.

And, Jerry, welcome back to DAY TO DAY.

Mr. JERRY MARKON (The Washington Post): Thank you very much.

BRAND: Tell us about Brenda Paz. Who was she?

Mr. MARKON: She was, as you said, a longtime member of MS-13. She was born in LA, I believe, ran away from home and, like a lot of members of this gang, hooked up with other runaways and other MS-13 members and the gang sort of became her family, her home, so to speak. And at some point, I believe in 2002, for reasons still somewhat unknown, she began cooperating with law enforcement, both federal and state, that was investigating MS-13, and that ultimately, the prosecutors say, led to her death.

BRAND: So basically she was targeted for singing to authorities.

Mr. MARKON: Yes, the gang code for that is what's known as a, quote, "green light." That's MS-13 lingo for an order to kill, and an order was issued to target her because the gang became aware of her cooperation. She was not incredibly discreet about it, as testimony revealed during this trial. She told some other people in the gang about it and just sort of said, `Don't tell anybody.' And also at one point, I believe some business cards of some gang investigators were found in her stuff. You know, the gang members found it and sort of knew from that that she was cooperating.

BRAND: And then didn't she voluntarily leave the witness protection program?

Mr. MARKON: Yeah. It's a very interesting story, because the lure of the gang just proved too much. As we understand it, I mean, she basically missed her friends and--people she thought were her friends, actually, and when she was in the federal witness protection program, she was in a hotel in Minneapolis and began calling her old compadres and asked some of them to come visit her in Minneapolis. And as the testimony revealed, she went home with them, went home back to northern Virginia. This was in June of 2003, and three weeks later she was killed.

BRAND: What did you learn during the trial about the inner workings of MS-13?

Mr. MARKON: We learned that the members are very young. There's a lot of, you know, teen-agers in the gang, and in some ways, they're really not that different than every other teen-ager. I mean, some of the things that were testified to--you know, at one point some members were staying at somebody's apartment, another gang member, and he told them not to answer the phone because he was worried his mother would find out. The mother was out of town, and he was worried his mother would find out they were staying there, you know, which is just the same kind of thing you might have from other teen-agers. And they would have parties; they would have very raucous parties. But there was also a very violent side to the gang. The witnesses talked about beatings and gang rapes and obviously murders. We learned also that the gang is divided into cliques which have a, you know, pretty detailed organization, you know, and the different cliques all had, I believe, weekly meetings where they would come to resolutions and decide certain things. And among the things they would decide at these meetings is whether somebody would be green-lighted which, as I said, is an order to kill.

BRAND: Jerry Markon is a reporter for The Washington Post. Thanks a lot, Jerry.

Mr. MARKON: Sure. Thank you.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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