By Briscoe, Daren
Byline: Daren Briscoe
Brenda Paz's life was in danger. When the 17-year-old was arrested by Virginia police in June 2002, she unexpectedly started telling them vivid tales about life as a member of the violent Mara Salvatrucha street gang, better known as MS-13. Her boyfriend was a gang leader and a murder suspect. Paz knew MS-13's cardinal rule--talk to the cops and die--but she hated rules, and loved to talk, and the police were very good listeners. A Honduran-born runaway who was raised in Los Angeles, she joined MS-13 at 12 and witnessed dozens of crimes, including murders. Paz's memory was so vivid that the Feds enrolled her in the witness-protection program to keep their new informant safe from fellow gang members. "She wasn't just a witness," Greg Hunter, her court-appointed lawyer, told NEWSWEEK. "She was like the Rain Man of witnesses."
Paz was relocated to another state and furnished with a new name and Social Security number. She was warned to be inconspicuous and to avoid any contact with gang members. But Paz chafed under the rules. She called old friends and invited some to visit her. Then, in June 2003, desperately lonely and homesick, she fled her safe house and returned to northern Virginia. A few days later, two fishermen found Paz's stabbed, bloated body on a riverbank.
Four MS-13 members are now on trial for her murder. The case has helped illuminate the secretive world of the witness-protection program, and in particular the storied agency's latest challenge: learning to protect a new generation of witnesses who, like Paz, are younger, less disciplined and more likely to ignore the rigid rules that keep them safe. Lean budgets and a bureaucracy set in its decades-old ways have constrained the program's ability to adapt. Intimidation and violence against witnesses have risen sharply in recent years, increasing the agency's workload. The program now protects more than 17,000 people, up 12 percent from 1995. Yet at the same time, the number of agents who handle cases has declined by nearly 30 percent. A recent Justice Department audit expressed "serious concerns" about morale at the agency. …