Brenda Paz was just what law enforcement needed: someone who could break open the secret world of one of the most dangerous street gangs in America – the gang called Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. The 16-year-old informant provided a critical window into a gang that, authorities say, has infiltrated 33 states, with hardcore members organizing drug trafficking, gun running, robberies, and assassinations.
As correspondent Dan Rather reports, perhaps nothing underscored how far the gang would go to maintain its criminal empire than what happened to Brenda Paz: she was murdered one year after she began cooperating with police.
In 2002, Brenda Paz admitted what many wouldn't dare - that she was a member of the inner circle of the brutal gang MS-13. Fearing charges for a murder she had witnessed, Brenda started telling police what she knew.
"They wanna be the top gang, the top Hispanic gang. That's what they want. They want to be the one with the most killings, the most murders," Brenda told police investigators in an interview that was videotaped.
Two decades ago, refugees from the long, bloody civil war in El Salvador started the gang in Los Angeles. It has spread across the U.S., with an estimated 10,000 members organized in loosely-knit cliques, or cells. And Brenda Paz, who had settled in Virginia, knew this world better than most, as Detective Bob Freeman of the U.S. Park Police soon learned.
Det. Freeman says Brenda had extensive knowledge about MS-13 that law enforcement didn't have. Simple things, like "what certain hand signs mean."
Freeman says he was not surprised how much she knew about the gang. "It was her life. It was everything she had," he explained.
She was just the type of person the gang recruits. Brenda was born in Honduras and raised in a broken home in a poor area of Los Angeles. Most females are initiated into the gang through sex, but at age 13, Brenda endured the traditional male initiation rite of being "jumped in" or beaten by gang members for 13 seconds. Tough and charming, her nickname in the gang was Smiley. She dated a high ranking member and traveled with him across the country, where she'd seen MS-13 mark its territory with violent crimes.
Det. Freeman says Brenda gave police decisive or near-decisive information on at least 60 cases and that most of the information checked out.
She also told authorities she was ready to start a new life and escape the gang's creed, which is summed up in one of its signature tattoos, a tattoo of three dots. "The three dots are my crazy life. We adopted it for a gang in L.A. that's tres puntos. But we gave it our own signification, the three places MS will lead you – jail, hospital or the cemetery," Brenda told investigators.
Her words were prophetic. Within the year, she was found murdered on the banks of the Shenandoah River. She had been stabbed repeatedly and her throat had been slit. And the autopsy revealed something else: she was four months pregnant.