Accepted for Life
Once accepted into MS-13, it can be deadly to try to break free again. And so it was for Brenda Paz. Born in Honduras, she grew up in Los Angeles where, at age 12, she dropped out of school and became a gang gypsy. For the next five years, Paz moved with MS-13 members from state to state until 2002, when she was arrested in Northern Virginia for stealing a car. In exchange for leniency, Paz gave prosecutors firsthand information about armed robberies, stabbings and shootings stretching from California to Texas to North Carolina.
That information made Paz the clutch witness in a federal trial back in Northern Virginia. In September 2001, some members of MS-13 had mistaken a young man named Joaquim Diaz for a rival gang member, lured him back to their apartment to smoke pot, and then stabbed him to death in a nearby park with a steak knife.
Paz knew the details and was willing to talk. In return, the feds placed her in a halfway house, and then relocated her to Kansas City under the Federal Witness Protection Program. But the strictures and the isolation became too much for Paz. She made contact with her former gang, and its members convinced her to come back, assuring her that everything was okay. On a July day in 2003, a fisherman was casting the North Fork of the Shenandoah River when he found Paz’s body. Her murder had been grisly — a rope to strangle her from behind, 16 stab wounds to the chest and arms, and three deep slices across the neck. Paz, just 17, was in her fifth month of pregnancy.
Brenda Paz’s fate underscores the difficulty police have in finding youths willing to become informants. With such ruthless enforcement of loyalty, few have the courage to turn on MS-13.
Federal prosecutors also face other difficulties. The default policy has been to deport suspected gang members, many of whom are illegal aliens. If caught in the United States again, they’re convicted for illegal re-entry — a felony that carries a maximum ten-year sentence followed by deportation.
But once the gang members are repatriated, weak governments in their home states — particularly in El Salvador and Honduras — are unable to bring them under control. The result has been to consolidate the gang’s base in these countries and further entrench its smuggling networks. Complicating matters, many MS-13 members are now American-born.
State and federal authorities nonetheless have had some successes in their battle against MS-13. The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has stepped up raids on suspected gang hangouts, and last year netted some 700 members of MS-13. State legislatures, including Virginia’s, have passed laws that enhance punishments for gang-related crimes and establish “gang-free zones” around public high schools.
Perhaps the most effective measures are to be found in Los Angeles. In 2004, an L.A. court issued an injunction that prohibits any two gang members from fraternizing in public. It’s a Draconian measure, but along with curfews, the injunction has quieted the streets considerably. “Virginia is what our problem was ten years ago,” says LAPD Officer Janine Manji. “You used to drive around and see [gang members] hanging out on the corners.”
Alex Sanchez agrees. A former high-ranking MS-13 member who now runs Homies Unidos, a Los Angeles gang-outreach program, Sanchez says, “You hardly see gang members kickin’ it in the streets anymore. The streets haven’t been this mellow in a long time.”
Still, MS-13 makes it clear it hasn’t gone away. Los Angeles has teams of workers who regularly paint over graffiti-scarred walls and bridges. After only a few nights, dawn reveals new gang spray-paintings.
Markers of the Past
As I toured MS-13’s Hollywood and Wilshire turfs with Sanchez, he points out markers of his own gang past. “See that fire hydrant?” he asks. “That’s where I first got arrested. This block here? That’s where I slept underneath one of the buildings.” Fights, evictions and arrests are too numerous for Sanchez to remember them all. “I’ve had my nose broken, my eye sliced open. I’ve gotten shot at, beaten up. Yeah, man …” He pauses. “It’s tough.”
It’s still tough for Isabella. Reassured by Sanchez that her real name wouldn’t appear in print, Isabella agreed to talk over dinner about life in MS-13. Now in her mid-20s, she was five years old when she came with her parents from Guatemala. Her father went to jail four years later, and Isabella and her mother have never gotten along. At 14, she was “jumped in” by four older MS-13 members, who pounded her mercilessly for 13 seconds. When it was over, she felt like she finally belonged. “They’re like your brothers,” she says of her posse. “They take good care of you.”
Isabella went by a new nickname, did some drugs, and made her bones on the street. Gothic tattoos run along her back, and deep knife scars trace her shoulder. She was drawn to the adrenaline, as well as the camaraderie. “You just there, and all of a sudden you get shot up,” she says, laughing toughly. “All of a sudden, you got a drive-by. All of a sudden, you got a cop busting in. Anything can happen, you know? You could die that night.”
In subsequent meetings, Isabella lets her guard fall. She desperately wants to get out, she says. She has a new car, a good, steady job in Santa Monica, and her eight-year-old daughter, Rosemary, is growing up. “I’m so tired of getting in trouble,” she says. “I’m so tired of dealing with the b.s. all my life — being locked up, seeing my homies die, going to funerals. And I don’t want to end up like that.” Isabella says she’ll marry her boyfriend, a tough gang leader with a long rap sheet, and they hope they’ll move to Las Vegas, farther from MS-13’s draw.
Outside a restaurant a few days later, however, Isabella relates a story that suggests her life is again off-track. A month ago, she says, a member of her group was parking his car outside his apartment when a rival gang member shot him in the leg and stomach. He lived, but now her gang wants its revenge. “We gotta go back and do something about it,” she says ominously. “What I mean is, we’re gonna get him. Anybody — anybody — will pay for what that fool did.”
As she bundles Rosemary into the car, Isabella’s cell phone rings. It’s her sister. She stands on the sidewalk chatting, and a police car cruises by. It turns into a driveway up the block and comes back, prowling slowly, watching her.
Walentin never made it home that night.