When Brenda Paz,, 17, was arrested by Virginia police in 2002, she told them vivid tales about life as a member of the violent Mara Salvatrucha street gang, known as MS-13. Her boyfriend was a gang leader and a murder suspect. Paz’s memory was so vivid that the feds enrolled her in the witness-protection program to keep her safe from fellow gang members, Newsweek reports. Paz called old friends and invited some to visit her. In 2003, lonely and homesick, she fled her safe house and returned to northern Virginia. A few days later her stabbed, bloated body was found on a riverbank.
The case shows the witness-protection program’s challenge of protecting a new generation of witnesses who are younger, less disciplined and more likely to ignore the rigid rules that keep them safe. Newsweek says that “lean budgets and a bureaucracy set in its decades-old ways have constrained the program’s ability to adapt.” It protects more than 17,000 people, up 12 percent from 1995. The number of agents who handle cases has declined by nearly 30 percent. A recent Justice Department audit expressed “serious concerns” about agency morale.