19-year-old who left MS-13 gives an inside account of the group’s inner workings

It was like an obsession,’ ex-gang member says
19-year-old who left MS-13 gives an inside account of the group’s inner workings

Wednesday, April 20, 2005
ALEXANDRIA — Jurors weighing the fate of four gang members charged in the killing of Brenda Paz heard a vivid insiders’ account of how the Mara Salvatrucha street gang works, plays and brutally enforces its rules.

During a stint on the witness stand that consumed about five hours, former gang member Stephanie L. Schwab described a gang life marked by parties fueled by drugs and beer during which gang members tattooed one another with homemade kits. Petty crimes such as car thefts and vandalism were the norm, she said, gang rapes were common, and members of rival gangs were subject to violent, random beatings.

Schwab was a critical witness in the trial of four members of Mara Salvatrucha — also called MS-13 — on trial in U.S. District Court on charges they plotted and carried out the killing of the 17-year-old Paz. Considered the largest and most violent street gang in the country, MS-13 is a growing presence across Virginia.

Charged are Denis Rivera, 21; Oscar Antonio Grande, 25; Ismael Juarez Cisneros, 26; and Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana, 31. Each has pleaded not guilty, and each could get the death penalty if convicted. Prosecutors charge that Paz, who died just four weeks after voluntarily leaving the federal witness protection, was killed because she was a “snitch.”

Schwab, 19, testified that she joined the gang soon after she ran away from her Manassas home at age 12. In response to questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald L. Walutes Jr., Schwab matter-of-factly provided a glossary of gang code. Police are called “dogs,” she said, “homeboy” means gang member and weapons are referred to as “guitars.”

“You have to have street smarts to figure it out,” she said.

She also catalogued a list of gang rules: never wear red, because it’s the color of a rival gang; never associate with a rival gang member; and never, ever cooperate with police. The penalty for the latter offense, she said, was a “green-light,” gang code for an order to kill.

Schwab said she had been punished for breaking the gang’s rules. For talking to a rival gang member, her boyfriend burned her arm with a cigarette, she testified.

Schwab’s testimony is considered key to the trial because prosecutors have little physical evidence against the defendants. Paz’s body, riddled with more than a dozen stab wounds, was found on a bank of the Shenandoah River on July 17, 2003.

To prove their case, prosecutors are relying on a series of telephone conversations taped between May and August 2003. Most of the phone calls involve Rivera, who is accused of masterminding the murder plot from his jail cell, where he was awaiting trial on a gang-related murder. Paz, his former girlfriend, was to testify against him.

Prosecutors concede that Rivera is never heard to explicitly order Paz to be killed. But they contend his conversations are laced with gang code words that are fully understood only by gang members. Schwab was called to the witness stand to help crack that code for jurors.

Schwab said she came to know Paz in early 2003 when Paz was living in an apartment in Silver Spring, Md. What Schwab didn’t know was that the apartment was actually an FBI safehouse, where Paz was staying while awaiting placement in the witness-protection program.

Schwab lived at the house for about six weeks. She said up to 15 people routinely spent the night there. Inside the apartment were “three or four” homemade tattooing machines, she said, where gang members festooned each other’s bodies. Parties were common and sex was rampant, she said.

She described how gang members panhandled on the street and ran scams to get money to pay for drugs and beer. She described how she and Paz once hustled a man by promising him sex for $50, and then reneging.

“We left him in the van,” she said with a laugh.

Long before she met Paz, Schwab said she came to consider the gang as her family. At age 15, she gave birth to a child fathered by an MS-13 member, she said.

“I cared about them because they were the only people that I had,” she said. “They were always there for me.”

“I loved it,” she added. “It was like an obsession.”

But Schwab’s testimony also undermined the prosecution’s portrayal of MS-13 as an efficient organization that routinely “green-lighted” members who were talking to authorities. Under an aggressive cross-examination from defense lawyer David Baugh, Schwab said she knew of numerous gang members who had been green-lighted, but none that had actually been killed.

“They don’t always catch them, and they don’t always know where they are,” she said.

Baugh also challenged Schwab’s credibility. Looking at a photograph of a man taken inside the Maryland apartment, Schwab at first testified that he was just partying with gang members. But confronted with her earlier testimony in front of a grand jury, she later admitted the man in the photo had paid for sex with another woman staying in the apartment.

Schwab, now married and the mother of two children, said she decided to leave the gang last year.

“I just think it’s all dumb now,” she said.

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