Posted on May 4, 2005

In MS-13, a Culture of Brutality and Begging

Jamie Stockwell, Washington Post, May 2

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.


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.