- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

Four members of the most violent and largest gang in Northern Virginia yesterday went on trial on capital murder charges in the 2003 slaying of a 17-year-old pregnant gang member.

At U.S. District Court in Alexandria, defense lawyers and federal prosecutors selected a jury of 18 men and women and gave opening statements in a case that will expose the inner workings of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

Prosecutors argued that three MS-13 members killed Brenda Paz on July 13, 2003, at the direction of Denis Rivera, who was in jail awaiting trial in the slaying of a rival gang member.

Prosecutors contend the four men knew that Miss Paz was talking to police and that she was going to be a witness in Mr. Rivera’s murder trial.

With nicknames Rabbit, Panther, Spider and Cat, the four men sat in the same courtroom yesterday. Each defendant, flanked by defense attorneys, wore a dress shirt and a tie. Mr. Rivera’s parents and friends of other defendants attended the first day of the trial.

Each man is charged with capital murder and, if convicted, could face the death penalty.

During opening statements, prosecutor Ronald L. Walutes Jr. told the jury of 10 men and eight women that Mr. Rivera, 20, ordered Miss Paz’s killing from his Fairfax County jail cell because he knew that she would testify against him in the rival gang member’s murder case. Miss Paz was later killed near the Shenandoah River.

Mr. Walutes told the jury that Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana, 31, of Fairfax, held a rope around Miss Paz’s neck. She was then stabbed to death by Oscar Antonio Grande, 21, of Fairfax, and Ismael Juarez Cisneros, 25, of Vienna, Va.

Prosecutors said they will rely heavily on Mr. Rivera’s letters sent from jail and taped recordings of telephone conversations.

Mr. Walutes said the lack of physical evidence and witnesses was proof that Miss Paz’s slaying was calculated.

Mr. Rivera “knew there was no evidence,” Mr. Walutes told the jury. “He looked to the gang to ensure that the government had no witnesses against him.”

Each defense team gave its own opening statement.

Mr. Garcia-Orellana’s attorney told the jury his client had nothing to do with the slaying.

“Any suggestion that Mr. Garcia held Miss Paz from behind is false,” his attorney, Frank Salvato, argued. He said Mr. Garcia-Orellana was not aware of the murder plot and that he saw the killing happen, but did not take part in it.

Defense attorneys told the jury that Miss Paz was a “significant” MS-13 member, who faced criminal charges and showed no interest in cutting her connections with the gang.

Mr. Cisneros’ attorney, Jim Clark, argued that Miss Paz may have cooperated with police to get free housing and a $50,000 stipend.

“Brenda Paz started to cooperate with the government because she was in a lot of trouble,” Mr. Salvato told the jury.

Mr. Rivera was awaiting trial for the Sept. 16, 2001, slaying of Joaquim Diaz, who was fatally stabbed on Daingerfield Island on the Potomac River outside Alexandria. Mr. Diaz, 20, belonged to a rival gang.

In November 2003, Mr. Rivera was convicted of capital murder in the Diaz case and later sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Prosecutors argued that Mr. Rivera ran a local “clique,” or subgroup of MS-13, called “Big Gangsters Local Salvatrucha,” or BGLS. He recruited members of different cliques for the killing, prosecutors said.

Mr. Walutes told the jury that Mr. Grande and Mr. Cisneros were senior members of Centrales Local Salvatrucha, or CLS. Mr. Garcia-Orellana was a former member of a clique from El Salvador called Modelos.

Mr. Garcia-Orellana came to the U.S. in 1998 to work and was not involved with gangs for several years. But gang members asked him to give them rides in his car, and before long he was hanging out at their hotel room parties.

During a courtroom break yesterday, Mr. Rivera’s father, Jorge Rivera, 41, said his son is innocent. “The evidence is coming,” he said. “The government says Brenda Paz is a beautiful person, but she is not. She is a very bad person. She is a liar.”

The FBI estimates that MS-13 has about 3,000 members in 30 cliques in the Washington area. The agency also estimates that there are 50,000 to 70,000 members of MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang in El Salvador and Honduras.

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