Oaxaca, Mexico Those of us who report from the front lines of the social-justice movement in Latin America share an understanding that there’s always a bullet out there with our name on it. Brad Will traveled 2,500 miles, from New York to this violence-torn Mexican town, to find his.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2006, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca was on fire. Death squads, the pistoleros of a despised governor, rolled through the cobblestoned streets of this colonial capital, peppering with automatic weapon fire the flimsy barricades erected by masked rebels. Hundreds were killed, wounded, or imprisoned.
Will, a New York Indymedia videojournalist, felt he had to be there. Xenophobia was palpable on the ground when Will touched down. Foreign journalists were attacked as terrorists by the governor’s sycophants in the media: "Si ves un gringo con cámara, matanlo!" the radio chattered if you see a gringo with a camera, kill him!
For much of the afternoon of Oct. 27, Will had been filming armed confrontations on the barricades just outside the city. He was trapped in the middle of a narrow street while gunshots boomed all around him, but he kept filming, looking for the money shot.
And he found it: on his final bits of tape, two clearly identifiable killers are perfectly framed, their guns firing. You hear the fatal shot and experience Brad’s shudder of dismay as the camera finally tumbles from his hands and bounces along the sidewalk.
By all visible evidence, Brad Will filmed his own murder. But this is Mexico, where justice is spelled impunity and Will’s apparent killers continue to ride the streets of Oaxaca, free and, it seems, untouchable.
Curiously, this egregious murder of a US reporter in Mexico has drawn minimal response from US Ambassador Tony Garza, an old crony of President George W. Bush. Why this lack of interest? Can it be that Washington has another agenda that conflicts with justice for Will the impending privatization of Mexican oil?
Will was once a fire-breathing urban legend on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Whether perched atop the Fifth Street squat where he had lived for years and waving his long arms like Big Bird as the wrecking ball swung in, or being dragged out of City Hall dressed as a sunflower while trying to rescue the neighborhood’s community gardens, this child of privilege from Chicago’s wealthy North Shore was a legitimate street hero in the years before the World Trade Center towers collapsed and the social-change movement in New York City went into deep freeze.
Will hosted an incendiary weekly show on the New York pirate station Steal This Radio and was an early part of Indymedia, the Web publishing experiment born during the "Battle of Seattle," the World Trade Organization protests that rocked that city in 1999.
With his long hair neatly tied back and parted down the middle, with his granny glasses and fringe beard, and with his fierce commitment to building community, Will seemed to have emerged whole from a more utopian time in America.
He was an independent journalist, one of the growing number of people, such as Josh Wolf in San Francisco, who use the Internet and their video cameras to track and report on social moments and injustice. He wore no credential from any major news organization. But using outlets like Indymedia, he like Wolf, who spent seven months in prison to avoid giving the police a copy of his video outtakes represented part of the future of journalism.
Will’s journey to the land where he would die began right after Sept. 11, 2001. Dyan Neary, then a neophyte journalist, met Will in a South Street skyscraper elevator coming down from the WBAI studios from which Amy Goodman broadcast soon after the terrorist attacks.
"We walked down the piles. They were still smoking," Neary remembered in a phone call from Humboldt County. "We were both really scared. We thought this was not going to be resolved soon. Maybe never. So we thought we should go to Latin America, where people were still fighting."
Will and Neary spent most of 2002 and 2003 roaming the bubbling social landscape of Latin America. In Fortaleza, Brazil, they confronted the director of the Inter-American Development Bank during riotous street protests. They journeyed to Bolivia too and interviewed Evo Morales, not yet the president. They traveled in the Chapare rainforest province with members of the coca growers’ federation. They hung out in Cochabamba with Oscar Olivera, the hero of the battle to keep Bechtel Corp. from taking over that city’s water system. Everywhere they went, they sought out pirate radio projects and offered their support.
In February 2005, Will was in Brazil, in the thick of social upheaval, filming the resistance of 12,000 squatters at a camp near the city of Goiânia in Pernambuco state, when the military police swept in, killing two and jailing hundreds. On his videos, you can hear the shots zinging all around him as he captured the carnage. Will was savagely beaten and held by the police. Only his US passport saved him.
Undaunted by his close call, Will picked up his camera and soldiered back through Peru and Bolivia, and when the money ran out, he flew back to New York to figure out how to raise enough for the next trip south. He was hooked. In early 2006, drawn like a moth to flame, he was back, tracking Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign through the Mayan villages on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
In the spring of 2006, Will was back in New York as he tracked the Other Campaign and the incipient rebellion in Oaxaca on the Internet from his room in Williamsburg. (The rent gougers had forced him out of the Lower East Side.) He was poised to jump south again, friends say, but was worried that he would just be one more white guy getting in the way.
In the end, the lure of the action in Oaxaca pulled him in. He bought a 30-day ticket, caught the airport shuttle from Brooklyn to John F. Kennedy International Airport, and flew south Sept. 29. His return was set for Oct. 28. He never made that flight.
THE COMMUNE OF OAXACA
A mountainous southern Mexican state traversed by seven serious sierras, Oaxaca is at the top of most of the nation’s poverty indicators infant mortality, malnutrition, unemployment, and illiteracy. Human rights violations are rife. It’s also Mexico’s most indigenous state, with 17 distinct Indian cultures, each with a rich tradition of resistance to the dominant white and mestizo overclass. Oaxaca vibrates with class and race tensions that cyclically erupt into uprising and repression.
The Party of the Institutional Revolution, or PRI, ruled Mexico from 1928 to 2000, the longest-running political dynasty in the world. The corrupt organization was dethroned by the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and its picaresque presidential candidate, Vicente Fox, former president of Coca Cola México.
But in Oaxaca, the PRI never lost power. While voters were throwing off the PRI yoke all over the rest of the country, in Oaxaca one PRI governor had followed another for 75 years. The latest, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, a protégé of party strongman and future presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo, won a fraud-marred election over a right-left coalition in 2004.
In the first 16 months of his regime, Ruiz proved spectacularly unresponsive to the demands of the popular movements for social justice. When, on May 15, 2006, National Teachers Day, a maverick, militant local of the National Education Workers Union known as Section 22 presented its contract demands, Ruiz turned a deaf ear. Then, on May 22, tens of thousands of teachers took the plaza and 52 surrounding blocks and set up a ragtag tent city. Each morning the maestros would march out of their camp and block highways and government buildings, which were soon smeared with anti-Ruiz slogans.
Ruiz retaliated before dawn June 14, sending 1,000 heavily armed police officers into the plaza to evict the teachers. Low-flying helicopters sprayed pepper gas on the throng below. Ruiz’s police took up positions in the colonial hotels that surround the plaza and tossed down concussion grenades from the balconies. Radio Plantón, the maestros’ pirate radio station, was demolished and the tent city set afire. A pall of black smoke hung over the city.
Four hours later a spontaneous outburst by Oaxaca’s very active community, combined with the force of the striking teachers and armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails, overran the plaza and sent Ruiz’s cops packing. No uniformed officers would be seen on the streets of Oaxaca for many months. And on June 16, two days after the monumental battle, 200,000 Oaxacans marched through the city to repudiate the governor’s "hard hand." The megamarch was said to extend 10 kilometers.
John Gibler, who closely covered the Oaxaca uprising as a human-rights fellow for Global Exchange, wrote that the surge of the rebels June 14 soon transformed itself into a popular assembly. The Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly, or APPO, was formally constituted June 21. The APPO had no leaders but many spokespeople, and all decisions had to be made in assemblies.
A CITY PARALYZED
For the next weeks, the actions of the APPO and Section 22 paralyzed Oaxaca but the rest of Mexico took little notice. Instead, the nation was hypnotized by the fraud-marred July 2 presidential election in which a right-wing PAN-ista, Felipe Calderón, had been awarded a narrow victory over leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of a coalition headed by the Party of the Democratic Revolution. López Obrador was quick to cry fraud, pulling millions into the streets in the most massive political demonstrations in Mexican history. Oaxaca still seemed like small potatoes.
But Oaxaca is an international tourist destination, and the APPO and Section 22 protests had closed down the tourist infrastructure, blocking the airport and forcing five-star hotels to shutter their doors. On July 17, Ruiz was forced to announce the cancellation of the Guelaguetza, an indigenous dance festival that has become Oaxaca’s premiere tourist attraction, after roaming bands of rebels destroyed the scenery and blockaded access to the city.
Ruiz began to fight back. By the first weeks of August, the governor launched what came to be known as the Caravan of Death a train of 30 or 40 private and government vehicles rolling nightly, firing on the protesters. Ruiz’s gunmen were drawn from the ranks of the city police and the state ministerial police.
To keep the Caravan of Death from moving freely through Oaxaca, the APPO and the union threw up barricades; 1,000 were built in the working-class colonies throughout the city and its suburbs. The rebels piled up dead trees, old tires, and burned-out cars and buses to create the barricades, which soon took on a life of their own; murals were painted using the ashes of the bonfires that burned all night on the barriers. Indeed, the barricades gave the Oaxaca struggle the romantic aura of the Paris Commune uprising of 1871 and attracted droves of dreadlocked anarchists to the city.
An uneasy lull in the action gripped Oaxaca on Oct. 1, when Will arrived at the bus terminal, then found himself a cheap room for the night. The break wouldn’t last long.
ON THE BARRICADES
Like most non-Mexicans who style themselves as independent reporters, Will had no Mexican media credential and therefore was in the country illegally, working on a tourist visa and susceptible to deportation. To have some credential other than his Indymedia press card to hang around his neck, he got himself accredited with Section 22 and wore the rebel ID assiduously.
On Oct. 14, APPO militant Alejandro García Hernández was cut down at a barricade near Símbolos Patrios, a downtown plaza. Will joined an angry procession to the Red Cross hospital where the dead man had been taken.
In the last dispatch he filed from Oaxaca, on Oct. 16, Will caught this very Mexican whiff of death: "Now [García Hernández lies] waiting for November when he can sit with his loved ones on the day of the dead and share food and drink and a song … one more death one more martyr in a dirty war one more time to cry and hurt one more time to know power and its ugly head one more bullet cracks the night."
The dynamic in Oaxaca had gotten "sketchy," Will wrote to Neary. Section 22 leader Enrique Rueda Pacheco had cut a deal with the outgoing Fox government and forced a back-to-work vote Oct. 21 that narrowly carried amid charges of sellout and payoffs. If the teachers went back to work, the APPO would be alone on the barricades and even more vulnerable to Ruiz’s gunmen. But backing down was not in the assembly’s dictionary, and the APPO voted to ratchet up the lucha (struggle) and make Oaxaca really ungovernable.
Mobile brigades were formed young toughs armed with lead pipes and nail-studded boards who hijacked buses still running in the city, forced the passengers off, and rode around looking for action. Later the buses would be set afire. Charred hulks blossomed on the streets of the old colonial city. The barricades were reinforced to shut down the capital beginning Oct. 27.
The escalation proved to be a terrible miscalculation. In Mexico City the postelectoral turmoil had finally subsided, and PAN was ready to deal with the PRI; bailing out the governor of Oaxaca was the PRI’s price of admission.
It wasn’t a good time for inexperienced foreigners. Ruiz’s people were checking the guest lists at the hostels for "inconvenient" internationals. Immigration authorities threatened extranjeros with deportation if they joined the protests. The local US consul, Mark Leyes, warned Americans that he would not be able to help them if they got caught up in the maelstrom.
Adding to this malevolent ambiance, a new pirate station popped up Oct. 26. Radio Ciudadana (Citizens’ radio) announced it was broadcasting "to bring peace to Oaxaca" and to celebrate the honor of "our macho, very macho governor." The announcers seemed to have Mexico City accents. Wherever they had been sent from, they let loose with a torrent of vitriolic shit stuff like "We have to kill the mugrosos [dirty ones] on the barricades." The extranjeros, the radio said, were stirring up all the trouble: "They pretend to be journalists, but they have come to teach terrorism classes."
More frightening was this admonition: "Si ves un gringo con cámara, matanlo!" "If you see a gringo with a camera, kill him!"
This poison spewed out of local radios all day Oct. 26 and 27, but whether Will heard the warnings and if he did, whether knew what they meant is unclear. He didn’t speak much Spanish.
SHOT IN THE CHEST
On Oct. 27, Will went out to do interviews on the barricade at Santa María Coyotepec, about 20 kilometers from the city. The three barricades at Coyotepec, Cal y Canto, and La Experimental were crucial to closing down Oaxaca the next day. The broad Railroad Avenue where the barricade was stacked was empty. Nothing was moving. Will walked on to the next barricade at La Experimental to check out the action.
Soon after the Indymedia reporter left, all hell broke loose at Cal y Canto. A mob of about 150 Ruiz supporters stormed down Railroad Avenue, led by what witnesses thought was a Chevy Blazer. The vehicle was moving very fast. "We thought it would try and crash through the barricade," Miguel Cruz, an activist and witness, recalled. But the SUV stopped short, and several men jumped out with guns blazing. The APPO people hunkered down behind the makeshift barrier and moved the women and kids who were with them into a nearby house. Then they went on the counterattack with Molotov cocktails, homemade bazookas that fired bottle rockets, and slingshots. Most of the mob had melted away, and with the gunmen retreating, the rebels torched their vehicle.
Will heard about the gunfire and hurried back to Cal y Canto with a handful of other reporters. They arrived a little after 3 p.m.
Will climbed under a parked trailer to film the shooters. He focused on a man in a white shirt. When an APPO activist (who is not seen on the videotape) came running by, Will indicated the shooter "Camisa blanca." While all this was going on, the camera captured a bicyclist peddling dreamily through the intersection. Soon after, a large dump truck appeared on the scene, and the group on the barricade used it as a mobile shield as they chased the gunmen down the avenue.
Suddenly, the pistoleros veered down a narrow side street, Benito Juárez, and took refuge in a windowless, one-story building on the second block. The only access to the building was through a large metal garage door, and the reporters followed the APPO militants, many of whom were masked, as they tried to force their way in. Will stood to one side of the door for a minute, poised for the money shot. Then the compas tried unsuccessfully to bust down the big door by ramming the dump truck into it.
In the midst of this frenzy, five men in civilian dress two in red shirts (the governor’s color) and the others in white appeared at the head of Benito Juárez, about 30 meters away, and began shooting at the rebels.
Two of the gunmen were later identified by Mexican news media as Pedro Carmona, a cop and local PRI political fixer, and police commander Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello. One of those in the white shirts, crouched behind Carmona, was Abel Santiago Zárate, a.k.a. El Chino. Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello were reported to be the personal bodyguards of municipal president Manuel Martínez Feria of the PRI. The other two would later be fingered as Juan Carlos Soriano, a.k.a. El Chapulín (the grasshopper), and Juan Sumano, both Santa Lucía del Camino police officers. All five are eminently identifiable in the film Will shot just moments before the bullets hit him.
When the shooting erupted, Will took cover on the opposite side of the narrow street from the rest of the media. He was crouched against a lime green wall when the first bullet came. On the video soundtrack, you can hear both the shot and Will’s cries of dismay as it tore through his Indymedia T-shirt and smashed into his heart. A second shot caught him in the right side and destroyed his innards. There was little blood spilled, the first slug having stopped his heart.
In footage that witness Gustavo Vilchis and others filmed, the entrance wound of the first shot looks like a deep bruise. The second shot was not recorded on the soundtrack and may have been fired simultaneously with the first.
Others were shot in the pandemonium. Oswaldo Ramírez, filming for the daily Milenio, was grazed. Lucio David Cruz, described as a bystander, was hit in the neck and died four months later.
As Will slid down the wall into a sitting position, Vilchis and activist Leonardo Ortiz ran to him. Will’s Section 22 credential had flown off, and no one there knew his name. With bullets whizzing by, the compas picked Will up and dragged him out of the line of fire and around the corner to Árboles Street, about 35 paces away. Along the way, his pants fell off.
"Ambulance! We need an ambulance! They’ve shot a journalist!" Vilchis, a tall young man with a face like an Italian comic actor’s, shouted desperately. Gualberto Francisco, another activist, had parked his vochito (Volkswagen Bug) on Árboles and pulled up alongside Will, who was laid out on the pavement in his black bikini underwear.
Ortiz and Vilchis loaded the dying Will into the back seat. They thought he was still breathing, and Vilchis applied mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. "You’re going to make it … you’re all right," they kept telling him. But Will’s eyes had already turned up he was perdido (lost), as they say in Mexico.
The vochito ran out of gas, and while the frantic young men ferrying Will were stuck in the middle of the Cinco Señores crossroad, it began to rain hard. They tried to stop a taxi to take them to the Red Cross, but the driver supported the government and wanted to argue. Finally, they flagged down a pickup truck and laid Will out in the bed. He was dead when he arrived at the hospital, according to the report by the coroner, Dr. Luis Mendoza.
THE OUTRAGE BEGINS
Oct. 27 was the bloodiest day of the Oaxaca uprising. Four people were killed besides Will: Emilio Alonso Fabián, Esteban Ruiz, Esteban López Zurita, and Audacia Olivera Díaz.
Unlike their murders, Will’s death triggered international outrage. Because he was so connected and because much of the episode was recorded on film the shot of the mortally wounded Indymedia reporter lying in the middle of a Oaxaca street went worldwide on the Web in a matter of minutes.
There were instant vigils on both coasts of the United States. On Oct. 30, 11 of Will’s friends were busted trying to lock down at the Mexican consulate off Manhattan’s Park Avenue, where graffiti still read "Avenge Brad!" in December. Anarchists splattered the San Francisco consulate with red paint. Subcomandante Marcos sent his condolences and called for international protests. Goodman did an hour-long memorial.
On March 16, 2007, at its midyear meeting in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, the Inter-American Press Association, an organization devoted to freedom of speech and the press in the Americas, passed a resolution calling for action on the Will case.
"The investigation into the killing has been plagued by irregularities and inconsistencies, and no arrests have been made," the group said in a statement. IAPA called for the federal attorney general to take over the investigation, "in view of the lack of confidence in state authorities and the lack of progress in the case, so that it may apprehend the culprits, who, according to one theory of the investigation, may be indirectly linked to state authorities."
The official reaction to Will’s death was more cautious. "It is unfortunate when peaceful demonstrations get out of hand and result in violence," a US spokesperson told the media, seeming to blame the APPO for Will’s killing. After once again warning Americans that they traveled to Oaxaca "at their own risk," Ambassador Garza commented on the "senseless death of Brad Will" and how it "underscores the need for a return to the rule of law and order."
"For months," he said, "violence and disorder in Oaxaca have worsened. Teachers, students, and other groups have been involved in increasingly violent demonstrations."
Garza’s statement sent Fox the signal he had been waiting for. Now that a gringo had been killed, it was time to act. The next morning, Oct. 28, 4,500 officers from the Federal Preventative Police, an elite force drawn from the military, were sent into Oaxaca not to return the state to a place where human rights, dignity, and a free media are respected but to break the back of the people’s rebellion and keep Ruiz in power.
On Oct. 29 the troops pushed their way into the plaza despite massive but passive resistance by activists, tore down the barricades, and drove the commune of Oaxaca back into the shadows.
In Mexico the dead are buried quickly. After the obligatory autopsy, Brad’s body was crated up for shipment to his parents, who now live south of Milwaukee. After a private viewing, the family had him cremated.
Killing a gringo reporter in plain view of the cameras (one of which was his own) requires a little sham accountability. On Oct. 29 the state prosecutor, Lizbeth Caña Cadeza, announced that arrest warrants were being sworn out for Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello, two of the five cops caught on film gunning Will down, and they were subsequently taken into custody.
The scam lost currency two weeks later when, on Nov. 15, Caña Cadeza dropped a bombshell at an evening news conference: the cops hadn’t killed Will, she said; he was shot by the rebels.
Will’s death, she insisted, had been "a deceitful confabulation to internationalize the conflict" and was, in fact, "the product of a concerted premeditated action." The mortal shot had been fired from less than two and a half meters away, Caña Cadeza said although there is nothing in the coroner’s report to indicate this. The real killers, she said, were "the same group [Will] was accompanying."
In the state prosecutor’s scenario, the order of the shots was reversed: first Will had been shot in the side on the street, then rematado (finished off) with a slug to the heart on the way to the hospital in Francisco’s vochito.
The prosecutor’s plot was immediately challenged by the APPO. "The killers are those who are shown in the film," Florentino López, the assembly’s main spokesperson, asserted at a meeting that night.
And in fact our detailed investigation shows that there is very little evidence to support Caña Cadeza’s theory. Photos from the scene, some published in the Mexican media, show Will’s body with a bloody hole in his chest on the street near where he fell indicating that his fatal heart wound occurred well before he was dragged into the car where he was supposedly shot.
There’s another problem with the prosecutor’s suggestion: nobody on the scene saw any APPO members, or anyone except the authorities, carrying guns. This reporter has talked to numerous eyewitnesses, and all told the same tale: the rebels at the barricade that day had no firearms with which they could have shot Will.
Miguel Cruz, who spent much of Oct. 27 with Will, first at the Council of Indigenous People of Oaxaca, of which he is a member, and then on the barricade at Cal y Canto and on Juárez Street, is a soft-spoken young Zapotec Indian, but he pounded vehemently on the kitchen table when he addressed Caña Cadeza’s allegations.
"The compañeros had no guns. What gun is she talking about? They had slingshots and Molotovs but no guns. The PRI-istas and the cops had their .38s, and they were shooting at us," he said. "We were trying to save Brad Will’s life, not to kill him."
And if Caña Cadeza had any proof of her allegations, she likely would have filed charges. But none of the protesters or Will’s companions has been formally charged with the killing. Prosecutors have never publicly presented the alleged murder weapon.
But by the time Caña Cadeza told her story, of course, the only way to determine for sure the order of the bullets and the distance from which they had been fired would have been to exhume Will’s body. And there was no body; he had been cremated the week before.
On Nov. 28, Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello were released from custody by Judge Victoriano Barroso because of "insufficient evidence," with the stipulation that they could not be rearrested without the presentation of new evidence.
Caña Cadeza, who is now running as a PRI candidate for the state legislature, collaborated closely on the case with Oaxaca secretary of citizen protection Lino Celaya. Both reported to Ruiz’s secretary of government, Heliodoro Díaz, who in turn reported directly to the governor. There seems little doubt that the prosecutor’s accusations of murder against Will’s comrades and the determination of innocence for the apparent killers came straight from the top.
ON THE EVIDENCE TRAIL
Dr. Mendoza was occupied when I stopped by the Oaxaca city morgue to ask for a copy of the autopsy report on which the state has based its allegations.
"Will died eight months ago," Mendoza complained testily. "Do you know how many others have died since? How many autopsies I’ve performed?" He gestured to a morgue room where cadavers were piled up.
The coroner was scrunched over his desk, filling out the paperwork for one of the dead. He didn’t have any time to look for the autopsy report. I was not the first reporter to ask him about the document. "What paper are you from anyway?" he asked suspiciously, and when I showed him my media card, he told me that it didn’t sound like a real newspaper to him. "I know what I’m doing. I worked as a coroner in your country," he snapped defensively and waved me out of the office.
But Mendoza might not be quite as cocksure as he sounded. A senior agent for the US government in Oaxaca, who asked not to be named in this article, told me later that Mendoza confided to him that he was no ballistics expert, nor could he determine from how far away the bullets were fired.
I walked into the police commissary under the first-floor stairs of the Santa Lucía del Camino Municipal Palace. The small room was crowded with cops and cigarette smoke. Three of the officers were in full battle gear, and the rest were plainclothes. I had been warned not to ask for Carmona, the most prominent red shirt on Will’s film. Carmona is described as a prepotente i.e., a thug with an attitude who is always packing.
Instead, I asked the desk clerk if I could get a few minutes with Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello. For all I knew, the two were sitting in the room behind me. The desk clerk studied my card. "Qué lástima!" he exclaimed what a shame. Santiago Zárate had just left and wouldn’t be back until after six. Aguilar Coello was off that day. When I called back after six, Santiago Zárate was still not available. Nor were he and Aguilar Coello ever available the dozen or so times I called back.
This sort of stonewalling is not terribly unusual for Mexico, where killer cops often sell their services to local caciques (political bosses) and go back to work as if nothing had happened. Those who direct this sort of mayhem from their desks in the statehouses and municipal palaces the "intellectual assassins," as they are called are never held accountable for their crimes.
A VISIT FROM HOME
In March, Brad’s parents, Kathy and Howard Will, and his older brother and sister paid a sad, inconclusive visit to Oaxaca. They had hired Miguel Ángel de los Santos Cruz, a crackerjack human rights lawyer who has often defended Zapatista communities in Chiapas. Gibler, the Global Exchange human-rights fellow, was the translator.
The Wills, upper-middle-class Americans, had little experience with the kind of evil that lurks inside the Mexican justice system; the trip was a traumatic, eye-opening experience.
The federal Attorney General’s Office had taken over the case from the state in December, but rather than investigating police complicity and culpability, it was pursuing Caña Cadeza’s dubious allegation blaming Will’s companions for his killing.
Gustavo Vilchis, Gualberto Francisco, Leonardo Ortiz, and Miguel Cruz were summoned to give testimony, with the Wills in attendance. Testifying was a risky venture, as the witnesses could have been charged with the murder at any moment, but out of respect for the family, the compas agreed to tell their story to the federal investigators. During the hearing they were repeatedly questioned about and asked to identify not the cops who appear on Will’s film but their own compañeros, some masked, who appeared on tape shot by Televisa, the Mexican TV giant. They refused.
When Los Santos accompanied the Wills to a meeting with Caña Cadeza, she touted her investigation and promised them a copy of its results. But she refused to allow the family to view Will’s Indymedia T-shirt and the two bullets taken from his body. They were, she explained, under the control of Barroso the judge who had cut loose the cops.
THE POLITICS OF OIL
There are larger geopolitics at work here.
The US Department of State has a certain conflict of interest in trying to push first-year Mexican president Calderón to collar Will’s killers. The crackdown in Oaxaca was all about a political deal between Calderón’s PAN and Ruiz’s PRI: if PAN saved the governor’s ass, the PRI would support the president’s legislative package.
Indeed, the PRI’s 100 votes in the lower house of the Mexican Congress guarantee Calderón the two-thirds majority he needs to alter the constitution and effect the change that’s at the top of his legislative agenda opening up Petróleos Mexicanos, or PEMEX, the nationalized petroleum corporation and a symbol of Mexico’s national revolution, to private investment, a gambit that requires a constitutional amendment.
Since then-president Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated Mexico’s petroleum industry from Anglo and American owners and nationalized it in 1938, the United States has been trying to take it back. "Transnational pressure to reprivatize PEMEX has been brutal," observed John Saxe Fernandez, a professor of strategic resource studies at Mexico’s autonomous university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
During the run-up to the hotly contested 2006 presidential elections, candidates Calderón and López Obrador debated the privatization of Mexico’s national oil corporation before the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico City; former US ambassador Jeffrey Davidow moderated the debate. When the leftist López Obrador insisted that he would never privatize what belonged to all Mexicans, the business leaders stared in stony silence. The conservative Calderón’s pledge to open PEMEX to private investment drew wild applause. Calderón was, of course, Washington’s horse in the fraud-marred election.
In order to accommodate Washington, Calderón needs a two-thirds majority in the congress and the PRI’s votes in the lower house are crucial to guaranteeing passage of a constitutional amendment. "Without the PRI’s votes, PEMEX will not be privatized. That is why Calderón has granted Ruiz impunity," Saxe Fernandez concluded.
Washington is eager to see PEMEX privatized, which would create an opportunity for Exxon Mobil Corp. and Halliburton (now PEMEX’s largest subcontractor) to walk off with a big chunk of the world’s eighth-largest oil company. Pushing Calderón too hard to do justice for Will could disaffect the PRI and put a kibosh on the deal.
It is not easy to imagine Brad Will as a pawn in anyone’s power game, but as the months tick by and his killing and killers sink into the morass of memory, that is exactly what he is becoming. 2
John Ross is the Guardian‘s Mexico City correspondent. This story was comissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and is running in about 20 alternative papers this week.