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Murder in Oaxaca — We know who murdered independent journalist Brad Will. Why are his killers still 

John Ross, a former resident of Arcata, has been the Mexico City correspondent for the San Francisco Bay Guardian for 22 years. He is the author of eight books on Mexican politics and has lectured extensively on Latin America on college campuses from Harvard to UC Berkeley. His book Murdered By Capitalism takes its title from the Trinidad gravestone of E.B. Schnaubelt.

This story was commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. It is appearing simultaneously in 20 papers across the country.

OAXACA — 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 names 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 rolled through the cobblestone streets of this colonial state capital, the pistoleros of a despised governor, peppering with automatic weapon fire the flimsy barricades erected by masked rebels. Hundreds were killed, wounded, or imprisoned.

Will, a New York Indymedia video journalist, 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 press: “ Si ves a un gringo con cámara, mátalo !” 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, you see two killers perfectly framed up, 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. Photos taken by El Universal , the Mexican newspaper, at the same time show the same gunmen, and they’re perfectly identifiable.

By all visible evidence, Brad Will filmed his own murder. But this is Mexico, where justice is spelled i-m-p-u-n-i-t-y — and Will’s apparent killers continue to ride the streets of Oaxaca, free and, it seems, untouchable.

Curiously, this egregious murder of a U.S. reporter in Mexico has drawn minimal response from Ambassador Tony Garza, an old Bush crony. Why this lack of interest? Can it be that Washington has another agenda that conflicts with justice for Brad Will — the impending privatization of Mexican oil?

Heading south

Will was once a fire-breathing urban legend on Manhattan’s lower east side. Perched atop the 5th 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 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 Towers collapsed and the social-change movement in New York City went into deep freeze.

Will hosted an incendiary weekly show on the 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, his granny glasses and fringe beard and fierce commitment to building community, Will seemed to have emerged whole from a more utopian time in America.

Will was an independent journalist, one of the growing number of people who, like Josh Wolf in San Francisco, used the internet and their own 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 and Wolf — who spent seven months in prison to avoid giving the police a copy of his video outtakes — represent 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 Brad in the elevator coming down from the WBAI studios in the South Street skyscraper from which Amy Goodman used to broadcast soon after the terrorist attack.

“We walked down the piles. They were still smoking,” she 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 InterAmerican Development Bank during riotous street protests.

They journeyed to Bolivia, too, and interviewed Evo Morales, not yet the president, and traveled in the Chapare with the coca growers federation. They hung out in Cochabamba with Oscar Oliviera, the hero of the battle to keep Bechtel from taking over the 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 Goiana in Perembuco state when the military police swept in, killing two and jailing hundreds. On his videos, you can hear the live ammunition zinging all around him as he captures the carnage. Will was savagely beaten and held by the police. Only his U.S. 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, flew back to New York to figure out how to raise enough scratch for the next trip south. He was hooked.

In early 2006, like a moth to the flame, he was back, tracking Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign through the Mayan villages on Mexico’s Yucatan 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 across the river in Brooklyn. (The rent gougers had forced him off the lower east side.)

He was poised to jump south again, friends say, but 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 JFK and flew south Sept. 29. His return was set for Oct. 28. He never made the plane.

Commune of Oaxaca

A mountainous southern Mexican state traversed by seven serious sierras, Oaxaca is up 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 through 2000, the longest-running political dynasty in the known universe. 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-Mexico, in 2000.

But in Oaxaca, the PRI never lost power. While all over the country, voters were throwing off the PRI yoke, in Oaxaca one PRI governor had followed another for 75 years. In the latest installment, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, known as URO, a protégé of party strongman and future presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo, won a fraud-marred gubernatorial election over a right-left coalition in 2004.

In the first 16 months of his regime, Ulises Ruiz had proven spectacularly unresponsive to the demands of the popular movements for social justice. When on May 15th 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 22nd, 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-URO slogans.

Ruiz retaliated before dawn on June 14, sending a thousand heavily armed police into the plaza to evict the teachers. Low-flying helicopters sprayed pepper gas on the throng below. Ruiz’s police had taken up positions in the colonial hotels that surround the plaza and tossed down concussion grenades from the balconies. Radio Planton, 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 from Oaxaca’s very active community and the force of the striking teachers, armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails, overran the plaza and sent URO’s cops packing. No uniformed police 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 mega march was said to extend 10 kilometers.

John Gibler, who closely covered the Oaxaca uprising as a human rights fellow for Global Exchange, writes 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 a week later on June 21st. The APPO would have no leaders but many spokespersons, and all decisions had to be taken in popular assemblies.

A city paralyzed

photo of protest marchFor the next weeks, the APPO and Section 22 would paralyze 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 PANista, Felipe Calderón, had been awarded a narrow victory over leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the candidate of a coalition headed by the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). López Obrador was quick to cry fraud, pulling millions into the streets, 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 had closed down the tourist infrastructure, blocking the airport and forcing five star hotels to shutter their doors. On July 17th, Ruiz was forced to announce the cancellation of the “Guelaguetza,” an “indigenous” dance festival that has become Oaxaca’s premierephoto of protest march 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 in August, URO launched what came to be known as a Caravan of Death — a train of 30 or 40 private and government vehicles — rolling nightly, firing on the protesters. The governor’s gunmen were drawn from the ranks of the city police force and the state ministerial cops.

To keep the Caravan of Death from moving freely through the city, the APPO and the maestros threw up barricades — a thousand were built in the working class colonies throughout the city and its suburbs. The rebels piled up dead trees, old tires, the carcasses of burnt-out cars and buses to create the barricades which soon took on their own life — murals were painted with the ashes of the bonfires that burnt all night on the barriers.

In fact, the barricades gave the Oaxaca struggle the romantic aura of the Paris Commune, and attracted droves of dreadlocked anarchists to the city.

An uneasy lull in the action gripped Oaxaca when Brad Will arrived at the bus terminal on the first of October and found himself a cheap room for the night. The break wouldn’t last long.

On the barricades

Like most non-Mexicans who style themselves independent reporters, Brad Will had no Mexican press credential and therefore was in the country illegally, working on a tourist visa and susceptible to deportation. So that he would have some credential other than his Indymedia press card to hang around his neck, he got himself accredited at Section 22 and wore the rebel i.d. assiduously.

On Oct 14, APPO militant Alejandro García Hernández was cut down at a barricade near the corner of Símbolos Patriotas (“Patriotic Symbols”) downtown. 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 Oct. 16, Will caught this very Mexican whiff of death: “Now (Alejandro) lies there waiting for November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, when he can sit with his loved ones again to share food and drink and song ...”

“One more death. 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 on Oct. 21 that narrowly carried amidst charges of sell-out and pay-offs. 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 is not in the Popular 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 boards with nails driven through them who hijacked what buses were 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. Up in Mexico City, the post-electoral turmoil had finally subsided and the PAN was ready to deal with the PRI; bailing out the Oaxaco governor was the PRI’s price of admission.

It wasn’t a good time for inexperienced foreigners. URO’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 U.S. consul, Mark Leyes, warned Americans that he would not be able to help them out if they got caught up in the maelstrom.

To add to this malevolent ambiance, a new pirate radio station popped up at 99 on the FM dial 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 a un gringo con cámara, mátalo !” — literally “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 hear them, knew what they meant — is unclear. Brad Will didn’t speak much Spanish.

Shot in the chest

On the 27th, Will went out to do interviews on the barricade at Cal y Canto. That outpost, along with two others at Santa Maria Coyotepec and La Experimental, was crucial to closing down Oaxaca. The broad Railroad Avenue where the barricade was stacked was empty. Nothing was moving. Will walked onto the next barricade at La Experimental to check out the action.

Shortly after the Indymedia reporter left, all hell broke loose at Cal y Canto. A mob of about 150 supporters of the governor stormed down Railroad Avenue, led by what witnesses thought was a Chevy Blazer. The car was moving very fast. “We thought it would try and crash through the barricade,” Miguel Cruz, an activist with the Council of Indigenous People of Oaxaca (CIPO), recalls. 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, home-made bazookas that fired bottle rockets, and slingshots. Most of the mob had melted away and with the gunmen retreating, the rebels torched their car.

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 shoot the shooters. He focused in on a man in a white shirt. When an APPO activist came running by (we never see who it is on Brad’s last tape) Will indicated the shooter — “C amisa blanca”. While all this was going on, his 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 in 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 them with their faces masked, as they tried to force their way in. Will actually stood to one side of the door for a minute, poised for the “money shot.” Then the compasconpañeros , pals — 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 colors) and three others in white — appeared at the head of Juárez Street, about 30 meters away, and began shooting at the rebels.

The two red shirts were later identified by Mexican news media as Pedro Carmona, a local PRI political fixer and cop, and Police Commander Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello. One of the white shirts crouched down behind Carmona was Abel Santiago Zárate, aka “El Chino.” Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello were reported to be the personal bodyguards of PRI Municipal President Manuel Martínez Ferrea. The other two white shirts would be fingered as Juan Carlos Soriano and Juan Sumano, both Santa Lucia police officers.

You can see the gunmen in the film Brad Will shot just moments before the bullets hit him, and they are clearly framed in a picture taken at the same time that ran on the front page of El Universal.

When the shooting erupted, Will took cover on the opposite side of the narrow street from the rest of the press. He was crouched against a lime green wall when his bullet came for him. You can hear the shot on the sound track and listen to Will’s cries of dismay as it tears through his Indymedia t-shirt and smashes into his heart. A second shot caught him in the right side and destroyed his innards. There was little blood, the first slug having stopped his heart from pumping. On film that Gustavo Vilchis and others took, the entrance wound looks like a deep bruise.

The second shot is not recorded on the sound track and may have been fired simultaneously with the first one.

Others were hit in the pandemonium. Oswaldo Ramírez, filming for the daily Milenio , was grazed in the fusillade. Lucio David Cruz, described as a bystander, was shot 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. His Section 22 credential had flown off and no one really knew his name. With bullets whizzing by, the compas picked him up and dragged him out of the line of fire around the corner to Arboles 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, shouted desperately. A man named Gualberto Francisco had parked his vochito (Volkswagen Bug) on Arboles and pulled up alongside where Will was laid out on the pavement in his black bikini underwear.

Leonardo and Gustavo loaded a dying Brad Will into the backseat. 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 receded to the back of his head, perdido (lost) as they say here.

The vochito ran out of gas, and as the three frantic young men were stuck in the middle of the Cinco Senores 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 pick-up truck and laid Will out in the bed. He was dead when he arrived at the hospital, according to Dr. Mendoza’s report.

The outrage begins

Oct. 27 was the bloodiest day of the Oaxaca uprising. Four others were killed besides Brad; their names were Emilio Alonso Fabián, Estevan Ruiz, Estevan López Zurita, and Eudacia Olivera Díaz.

Unlike their murders, Brad’s death triggered international outrage. Because he was so connected — and 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. On Monday morning, 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. Amy Goodman did an hour-long memorial.

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 U.S. spokesperson told the press, seeming to blame the APPO for Will’s killing. After once again warning Americans that they traveled to Oaxaca “at their own risk,” Ambassador Tony Garza, a Bush crony from his Texas days, 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 President Fox the signal he had been waiting for. Now that a gringo had been killed, it was time to act. The next morning, Saturday, Oct. 28, 4,500 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 and peoples’ dignity and a free press are respected but to break the back of the peoples’ rebellion and maintain Ulises Ruiz Ortiz in power.

On Sunday the 29th, the troops pushed their way into the plaza despite massive, 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 Dr. Luis Mendoza had performed the obligatory autopsy, Brad’s body was crated up for shipment back to his parents who now live south of Milwaukee. After a private viewing, the family had Brad Will cremated.

Sham accountability

Killing a gringo reporter here in plain view of the cameras (one of which was his own) requires a little sham accountability. On Oct. 29, URO’s state prosecutor Lizbeth Caña Cadeza announced that arrests warrants were being sworn out for Abel Santiago and Orlando Manuel Aguilar, two of the five cops caught on film firing shots at Brad Will, and they were subsequently taken into custody.

The scam lost currency two weeks later, when on Nov. 15, Caña dropped a bombshell at an evening press 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 said — although there is nothing in Dr. Mendoza’s report to indicate this. The real killers were “the same group (Will) was accompanying.”

In the state prosecutor’s scenario, the order of the shots was reversed: first Brad had been shot in the side in the street and then rematado (finished off) with a slug to the heart on the way to the hospital in Gualberto’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’s theory. Photos from the scene, some published in the Mexican press, show Will’s body with a bloody hole in his chest on the street near where he fell— indicating that his fatal heart wound had 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 of the APPO members — or anyone else except the authorities — carrying guns. I have talked to numerous eyewitnesses, and all of them tell the same tale: The rebels at the Cal y Canto barricade that day had no firearms, no weapons with which to have shot Brad Will.

Miguel Cruz, who spent much of Oct. 27 with Will, first at the CIPO headquarters and then on the barricade at Cal y Canto and Juárez Street, is a soft-spoken young Zapotec Indian, but he pounded on the kitchen table vehemently when he addressed Lizbeth Caña’s allegations.

“The compañeros had no guns. What gun is she talking about? They had slingshots and Molotovs but no guns. The PRIistas and the cops had their .38s and they were shooting at us. We were trying to save Brad Will’s life, not to kill him.”

And if Caña had any proof of her allegations, she likely would have filed charges. But none of the protesters or Will’s companions has ever been formally charged with the killing. Ruiz’s prosecutors have never publicly presented the alleged murder weapon.

But by the time Caña 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 be to exhume Brad Will’s body. And there was no body — he had been cremated the week before.

On Nov. 28, as expected, El Chino and Manuel Aguilar were released from custody because of “insufficient evidence” by Judge Vittoriano Barroso, with the stipulation that they could not be re-arrested without the presentation of new evidence.

Lizbeth Caña, who is now running as a PRI candidate for state Legislature (with the strong support of the Oaxaca governor) 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 URO. There seems little doubt that the state prosecutor’s accusations of murder against Brad’s comrades — and the determination of innocence for the apparent killers — came straight from the top.

On the evidence trail

Dr. Mendoza is otherwise occupied when I stop by the CEMEFO, the Oaxaca city morgue, to ask him for a copy of the autopsy report upon which the state of Oaxaca has based its allegations.

“Will died eight months ago,” Mendoza complains testily, “do you know how many others have died since? How many autopsies I’ve performed?” He gestures to the morgue room where the cadavers are piled up.

The coroner is scrunched over his desk, filling out the paperwork for one of the stiffs. He doesn’t have any time to look for the autopsy report. I am not the first reporter to ask him about the document. “What paper are you from anyway?” he asks suspiciously and when I show him my press card he tells me that it doesn’t sound like a real paper to him. “I know what I’m doing. I worked as a coroner in your country” he snaps defensively and waves me out of the office.

I walk into the police commissary under the first floor stairs of the Santa Lucia del Camino Municipal Palace. The small room is crowded with cops and cigarette smoke. Three of the officers are in full battle gear and the rest are all plainclothes. I have been warned not to ask for Pedro Carmona, the most prominent red shirt in Brad’s photo. Carmona is described as prepotente , i.e. a thug with an attitude, who is always packing.

Instead I ask the desk clerk if I could get a few minutes with security supervisor Abel Santiago Zárate and police commander Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello. For all I know, the two are sitting in the same room behind me. The desk clerk studies my card. “ Que lástima ! (What a shame!)” he exclaims — the supervisor has just left and won’t be back until after six. The Comandante is off today. When I call back after six, El Chino is still not available. Nor would he or Aguilar ever be available the dozen or so times I called back.

This sort of stonewall is nothing terribly unusual for Mexico, where killer cops often sell their service to local caciques (political bosses) and go back to work as if nothing happened. Those who direct this mayhem from their desks in the state houses and municipal palaces — the “intellectual assassins” as they are termed — are never held accountable for their crimes.

A visit from home

In March, Kathy and Howard Will and Brad’s older brother and sister paid a sad, inconclusive visit to Oaxaca. They had hired Miguel Angel de los Santos Cruz, a crackerjack human rights lawyer who has often defended Zapatista communities in Chiapas. John Gibler would translate.

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 (PGR) had taken over the case from the state in December but rather than investigating police complicity and culpability, was pursuing Lizbeth Caña’s dubious allegations blaming Will’s companions for the killing.

Gustavo, Gualberto, Leonardo, and Miguel Cruz were summoned to give testimony with the Wills in attendance. Testifying was a risky venture, as they could be 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, the witnesses were repeatedly questioned about and asked to identify not the cops who appear on Brad’s films but their own compañeros, some of who were masked, who appeared on tape shot by Televisa, the Mexican TV giant. They refused.

When De Los Santos accompanied the Wills to a meeting with Caña, she touted her investigation and promised them a copy of it. But she refused to allow the family to view Brad’s Indymedia t-shirt and the two bullets taken from his body. They were under the control of Judge Barroso — the same judge who cut loose the cops — she explained.

The politics of oil

There are larger geopolitics at work here.

The U.S. State Department has a certain conflict of interest in trying to push freshman Mexican president Felipe Calderón to collar Brad Will’s killers. The crackdown in Oaxaca was all about a political deal between Calderón’s PAN and Ruiz’s PRI: Save URO’s ass, and the PRI would support the president’s legislative package — indeed, the PRI’s hundred votes in the lower house of congress guarantees Felipe Calderón the two thirds majority he needs to alter the Mexican constitution.

And at the top of Calderón’s legislative agenda is opening up PEMEX, the nationalized petroleum corporation expropriated from Anglo and American owners in 1938 and a patriotic symbol of Mexico’s national revolution, to private investment, a gambit that requires a constitutional amendment.

Since President Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated and nationalized Mexico’s petroleum industry from Anglo-American owners in 1938, the U.S. has been trying to take it back. “Transnational pressure to re-privatize PEMEX has been brutal,” observes John Saxe-Fernández, a professor of strategic resource studies at Mexico’s autonomous university (UNAM).

During the run-up to the hotly contested July 2, 2006, presidential elections, the two candidates debated the privatization of Mexico’s national oil corporation before the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico City; former U.S. ambassador Jeffrey Davidow moderated the debate. When leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador insisted he would never privatize what belonged to all Mexicans, the business suits stared in stony silence. Felipe 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 Mexican congress — and the once-ruling PRI’s hundred votes in the lower house are crucial to guaranteeing constitutional amendment. “Without the PRI’s votes PEMEX will not be privatized. That is why Calderón has granted Ulises Ruiz impunity,” Professor Saxe-Fernández concludes.

Washington, whose interests in Mexico Garza represents, is eager to see PEMEX privatized, an opportunity for Exxon and Halliburton (now PEMEX’s largest subcontractor) to walk off with a big chunk of the world’s eighth largest oil company. Pushing President Calderón too hard to do justice for Brad Will could disaffect the PRI and put a kibosh on the deal.

It is not easy to imagine Brad Will as being a pawn in anyone’s power game but as the months tick by and the killing and the killers sink into the morass of memory, that is exactly what he is becoming.

*Pictured above: This photo from the Mexican newspaper* El Universal , taken just as Brad Will was killed, shows clearly identifiable Oaxaca police officers firing at the crowd. From left to right, Juan Carlos Soriano, aka "El Chapulin," Comandante Manuel Aguilar, Pedro Carmona and Abel Santiago, aka "El Chino."

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