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August 8-15, 2007

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Flower Power: Activist Brad Will would dress up as a flower, Big Bird or whatever else it took to protest the injustices he witnessed.

Who Killed Brad Will?

And why have Mexican and U.S. authorities allowed the murderers of an American activist to go free?

By John Ross

OAXACA--Those of us who report from the front lines of the social justice movement in Latin America share an understanding that there's a bullet out there with our names on it. Brad Will traveled 2,500 miles, from New York to this violence-torn Mexican city 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 the colonial state capital, the hired guns of a despised governor, peppering with automatic weapon fire the flimsy barricades erected by masked rebels. Hundreds were killed, wounded or imprisoned.

Will, a political activist and video journalist working with Indymedia (the New York-based Independent Media Center), 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 syncophants in the press: "Si ves un gringo con camera, 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, you see two killers perfectly framed up, their guns firing. You hear the fatal shot and experience Will's shudder as the camera tumbles from his hands. In photos taken by El Universal, a Mexican newspaper, the gunmen are perfectly identifiable.

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 U.S. reporter in Mexico has drawn minimal response from Mexican Ambassador Tony Garza, an old Bush crony.

Heading South

Will was once a fire-breathing militant on Manhattan's Lower East Side. 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 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 with them New York's social-change movement.

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 World Trade Organization protests that rocked that city in 1999. With his long hair neatly tied back, his granny glasses and fringe beard, Will seemed to have emerged whole from another time.

Will was an independent journalist, one of the growing number of people who use video cameras and the Internet to track and report on social moments and injustice. His journey to the land where he would die began right after Sept. 11, 2001. Soon after the terrorist attack, he met Dyan Neary, then a neophyte journalist.

"We walked down the piles," she recalls. "They were still smoking. 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 through Latin America. Everywhere they went, they sought out pirate radio projects and offered their support. In February 2005, Will was in Brazil filming the resistance of 12,000 squatters when 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 assault. Will was 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 his money ran out, flew back to New York to figure out how to raise enough for another trip. From his room in Brooklyn during the spring of 2006, he tracked Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas' Other Campaign on the Internet. He was poised to head 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.

The Commune of Oaxaca

A southern state traversed by seven mountain ranges, Oaxaca is at the top of most of Mexico's poverty indicators--infant mortality, malnutrition, unemployment and illiteracy. Human-rights violations are common. Oaxaca vibrates with tensions that cyclically erupt into uprising and repression.

In 2000, the rest of Mexico threw off the yoke of the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), which ruled the nation since 1928, but in Oaxaca, the PRI still reigns. The PRI's Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (known as URO) won a fraud-marred gubernatorial election over a right-left coalition in 2004.

In the first 16 months of his regime, Ortiz was unresponsive to the demands of social justice movements.

On May 15, 2006, National Teachers Day, a maverick teachers union known as Section 22 presented its contract demands, and Ruiz turned a deaf ear. On May 22, tens of thousands of teachers took over Oaxaca's plaza and surrounding blocks and set up a ragtag tent city. Each morning, they would march out of their camp and block highways and government buildings.

Ruiz retaliated before dawn on June 14, sending a thousand heavily armed police into the plaza with grenades as helicopters sprayed pepper gas on the throng below. A pall of black smoke hung over the city.

Four hours later, Oaxaca's politicized community, 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. Two days later 200,000 Oaxacans marched through the city to repudiate the governor's "hard hand" in a column said to extend six miles. The Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly (APPO) was born.

For the next weeks, Oaxaca was paralyzed--but the rest of Mexico took little notice. Instead, the nation was hypnotized by the July 2 presidential election, which inspired the biggest political demonstrations in Mexican history. Oaxaca seemed like small potatoes.

But Oaxaca is an international tourist destination, and APPO had blocked the airport and forced five-star hotels to shutter their doors.

Ruiz began to fight back. By the first weeks in August, he 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. In response, the APPO and the teachers threw up barricades--1,000 were built in the working class colonies throughout the city and its suburbs. 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 had gripped Oaxaca when Brad Will arrived at the bus terminal on the Oct. 1 and found himself a cheap room for the night. The break wouldn't last long.

Oaxaca police officers firing at the crowd

Raul Estrella, El Universal News Agency
Closing Shot: 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, Comandante Manuel Aguilar Coello, Pedro Carmona and Abel Santiago Zarate, a.k.a. 'El Chino.'

On the Barricades

On Oct 14, APPO militant Alejandro Garcia Hernandez was cut down at a barricade downtown. In response, mobile brigades were formed--young toughs armed with lead pipes 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. 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 Oaxaca governor was the PRI's price. The local U.S. consul, Mark Leyes, warned Americans that he would not be able to help them if they got caught up in the maelstrom.

To add to this malevolent ambience, a new pirate radio station popped up on Oct. 26. Radio Ciudadana (Citizens Radio) let loose with a torrent of vitriol --provocations like "we have to kill the mugrosos [dirty ones] on the barricades." Whether Will heard or understood the warnings is unclear. He didn't speak much Spanish.

On the 27th, Will went out to do interviews on one barricade that was crucial to closing down Oaxaca. The broad avenue where the barricade was stacked was empty. Nothing was moving. Will walked onto another barricade to check out the action.

Shortly after he left the first barricade, all hell broke loose. A mob of about 150 supporters of the governor stormed down the avenue, led by a car moving very fast. The vehicle stopped short of the barricade and several men jumped out with guns blazing. The APPO people hunkered down and went on the counterattack with Molotov cocktails, home-made bazookas that fired bottles, and slingshots. Will heard about the gunfire and hurried back to the barricade with a handful of other reporters. They arrived a little after 3pm.

Will climbed under a parked trailer to shoot the gunmen. He focused on a man in a white shirt. When an APPO activist came running by, Will indicated the shooter. While all this was going on, his camera captured a bicyclist peddling dreamily through the intersection.

In the midst of the frenzy, five men in civilian dress--two in red shirts (the governor's colors) and three others in white--appeared at the head of Juarez 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 Zarate, a.k.a. "El Chino."

Zarate and Coello were reported to be the personal bodyguards of PRI Municipal President Manuel Martinez 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 smashes into his heart. A second shot caught him in the right side and destroyed his innards. There was little blood.

As Will slid down the wall into a sitting position, Vilchis and activist Leonardo Ortiz ran to him.  With bullets whizzing by, the militants 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.

A man named Gualberto Francisco had parked his Volkswagen on Arboles and pulled up alongside where Will was laid out on the pavement in his underwear.

Ortiz and Vilchis loaded a dying Brad Will into the back seat. 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.

Will was dead when they finally arrived at the hospital.

The Outrage Begins

Will's death triggered international outrage. Because he was so connected, and much of the episode was recorded on film, the image of the mortally wounded Indymedia reporter lying in the middle of an Oaxaca street went worldwide on the web in a matter of minutes. There were instant vigils on both coasts of the United States.

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. representative 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 commented on the "senseless death of Brad Will" and how it "underscores the need for a return to the rule of law and order."

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 to break the back of the rebellion.

On Sunday the 29th, the troops pushed their way into the plaza despite massive passive resistance by activists. They tore down the barricades and drove the Commune of Oaxaca back into the shadows.

In Mexico, the dead are buried quickly. After an obligatory autopsy, Will's body was crated up for shipment back to his parents' home south of Milwaukee. After a private viewing, the family had Brad Will cremated.

On Oct. 29, URO's state prosecutor Lizbeth Cana Cadeza announced that arrest 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.

Two weeks later, on Nov. 15, Cadeza 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 2 1/2 meters away, Cana said--although there is nothing in the autopsy report to indicate this. The real killers were "the same group [Will] was accompanying."

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

Lizbeth Cana, who is now running as a PRI candidate for the 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 Ortiz's secretary of government, Heliodoro Diez, who in turn reported directly to URO. There seems little doubt that the state prosecutor's accusations of murder against Will's comrades--and the determination of innocence for the apparent killers--came straight from the top.

A Visit From Home

In March, Brad Will's parents, along with his 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. The Wills, upper-middle-class Americans, had little experience with the kind of evil that lurks inside the Mexican justice system.

The federal attorney general's office had taken over the case from the state in December, but rather than investigating police complicity and culpability, was pursuing Lizbeth Cana's dubious allegations blaming Will's companions for the killing.

Although testifying was a risky venture, as they could be charged with the murder at any moment, the militants agreed to tell their story to the federal investigators in the presence of the Wills. During the hearing, the witnesses were repeatedly asked to identify their own compaņeros, some of whom were masked, who appeared on tape shot by a television station--not the cops who appear on Will's film. They refused.

When de los Santos accompanied the Wills to a meeting with Cana, she touted her investigation and promised them a copy of it. But she refused to allow the family to view the Indymedia T-shirt Will was wearing when he died and the two bullets taken from his body. They were under the control of Judge Barroso, she explained--the same judge who cut loose the cops.

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 Calderon to collar Brad Will's killers. The crackdown in Oaxaca was all about a political deal between Calderon's PAN and Ulises's PRI: Save URO's ass, and the PRI would support the president's legislative package--indeed, the PRI's 100 votes in the lower house of Congress guarantees Felipe the two-thirds majority he needs to alter the Mexican constitution.

And at the top of Calderon's legislative agenda is opening up PEMEX, the nationalized petroleum corporation expropriated from Anglo and American owners in 1938, to private investment, a gambit that requires a constitutional amendment.

Washington 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 Calderon 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.

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