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The Fight Against MS-13

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.

"MS13 has rules, you understand?," says Ismael Cisneros, who is serving life in prison for Brenda's murder. "And when you break the rules, we all have to decide if you deserve to die."

Talking to police, Cisneros says, was breaking one of the gangs rules.

"I considered her a friend. She was a gang member. She was a home boy. That's what we called one another in the gang," he says.

And as a homeboy, Brenda knew the rules. She had initially gone into the federal witness protection program, but after she got pregnant, she was so isolated that she went back to Virginia. She was convinced that no one knew she was working with police. But Det. Freeman, who investigated Brenda's death, said the gang was spying on its own members.

"Mr. Cisneros was recorded and he's actually talking about conducting a private investigation into whether or not she's cooperating with law enforcement," says Freeman.

Not only does MS-13 conduct investigations of its own, but like a corporate organization, most cliques have regular meetings where they discuss recruiting, money and murder – what they call a "greenlight."

According to witnesses, the gang took a unanimous vote in a hotel that Brenda should be assassinated. The next morning, she was lured away on a fishing trip with her new boyfriend, Oscar Grande, and her friend, Ismael Cisneros.

A former MS-13 member who is now in jail on an ammunition possession charge and asked 60 Minutes not to use his name, went with them.

"I was facing the river. You know, I was watching, I was enjoying the view. Was summertime. It was nice place. And they was behind me fixing the fishing pole. And I turn my face. I see for couple seconds that she was get stabbing. And I freak out and I run away," he recalled.

Asked to confirm if he saw the stabbing of Brenda Paz, he answered "Yes."

She was stabbed by her boyfriend Oscar Grande and Ismael Cisneros, who later confessed. He said she had called out "Why?" "Because you're a rat" she was told. They stabbed her approximately 13 times.

"One is not born an assassin or born practicing where you have to stab someone to kill a person on the first try. I would have wanted for her not to have suffered, you understand? From the point where I was, it was painful for me. Everything that happened. And it keeps being painful even up to right now," says Cisneros.

But Brenda suffered the ultimate.

"We have all suffered, sir. Brenda suffered, we all suffered. Not only Brenda," Cisneros told 60 Minutes.

The three men were tried, along with another gang member, for Brenda's murder. Cisneros and Grande were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The third man at the scene, whom prosecutors alleged held a rope around her neck, took the stand in his own defense and was acquitted.

60 Minutes talked to one of Brenda's closest friends in MS-13, who was disguised extensively because of the risk to her life.

What's the most important thing for people to know about the gang?

"They're dangerous. They're very dangerous," she explained.

She was so outraged by her friend's murder that she decided to do what Brenda had done: break ranks and testify.

She says she didn't care that she might be possibly marked for death for testifying. "There's a baby involved. I mean, you have to be sick to actually hold a rope around somebody's neck, hear her screaming and fighting, being tortured and stabbed multiple times in the stomach, legs, and just dying," she said.

She said that Brenda's murder was a sign of how MS-13 was starting to transform itself into a more elaborate criminal organization.

"It's everywhere. There's MS in New York. There's MS in Florida. I mean, they're everywhere. Texas, Virginia, Minnesota," she said.

She says the gang is in the drug trafficking business, and more. "They traffic guns, drugs, whatever. Stolen cars."

And she says the worst thing she saw was rape. "Young girls being taken into the bathroom and one would go in and one would come out. Another one would go in, come out. And you just hear screaming and sometimes just get quiet."

And, authorities say, cliques send representatives to regional meetings, as seen on a police surveillance tape, where they dole out punishment for violating rules and they talk about expansion. And that's increasingly worrying to the head of the investigative division at the FBI, Assistant Director Chris Swecker.

The FBI has just formed a special task force to deal with a big gang for the first time. Why?

"Well, with respect to MS-13, we don't look at them as a typical gang. MS-13 has two characteristics that give us great concern and have drawn our attention. One is that they are extremely violent, and they're proliferating around the country. Two is they're an international criminal organization. They're not confined in the United States. You can find them in five countries. And now even in Europe," says Swecker.

Initial attempts to fight the gang with deportation contributed to its spread throughout Mexico and Central America, where there are now an estimated 50,000 members. In Honduras, in retaliation for the government's crackdown on the gang, MS-13 allegedly opened fire on a bus and killed 28 people last December.

And deportations are still a large part of U.S. strategy. Under a nine-month-old program called "Operation Community Shield," more than 1,600 gang members, including almost 800 members of MS-13, have been arrested and hundreds have been deported.

Ismael Cisneros doesn't think deportation is an effective tool. "They deported me and I came back and everyone they deport is going to come back."

Cisneros, who now says he has left the gang, was deported to Mexico after he had stabbed someone in Virginia in 1999. That was four years before he killed Brenda.

Swecker admits the return of the deportees to the United States is frustrating. "It's very frustrating. Deportation is a very good strategy. It's a low intensity effort that churns up activity churns up activity but we think the best way to go at them is to jail 'em and get them off the streets."

The Department of Homeland Security says deportation is also a useful tool when there isn't enough evidence to prosecute a criminal case. Meanwhile, in September, the FBI led simultaneous raids of MS-13 in five countries that netted 650 suspects in 24 hours. At that time, Swecker was optimistic about how long it would take to bring down the gang, setting a goal of about a year and a half.

But he admits that may not be a realistic timeframe.

What does Swecker think is a reasonable time frame for breaking MS-13?

"I think a more reasonable time frame is probably three to five years. We'll never wipe them out completely, I don't think. But I think we – our goal is to get them to a stage where they're not a criminal force," he says.

Meanwhile, the man who was acquitted for Brenda's murder after testifying in his own defense is facing deportation himself. His lawyers, Frank Salvato and Alex Levay, are fighting to keep him in the country.

"He testified and identified two fellow gang members as participants in the murder that took place. He endangered himself and his family by doing so," says Levay.

"We have a real fear that if he is deported, that he will have escaped one death sentence in the United States but face another death sentence in El Salvador," adds Salvato.

"I'm nervous. I'm still nervous about that," he told 60 Minutes. "They'll kill me. My family is in danger right now because I take the stand."

Because, as Brenda told police, MS-13 never forgets.

"Sooner or later, everything gets handled. If it takes you 20 years, oh it'll take you 20 years, but in that 20 years hell's going to break loose. Sooner or later, everything always gets handled. That's our motto," she told investigators.

What about Brenda's close friend who agreed to testify? What does she think her chances are to stay alive?

"None. I mean, I can keep myself safe and away from them. But I mean, if they were to find me, it's not like they would, you know, give me any mercy," she said.

Does she expect to be alive in two years?

"Well, I hope so," she said.

During the course of reporting this story, another federal witness in this case was drawn back into the gang and murdered at an MS-13 meeting in El Salvador. Police say she was killed by a rival gang.
By Kyra Darnton
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