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Murdering Journalists in Mexico

Three Years Later, Brad Will is Still Dead

by JOHN ROSS

Three years after he was gunned down by Oaxaca state security agents October 27th 2006 while filming a confrontation between activists and local police during the oft-violent campaign to oust tyrannical governor Ulisis Ruiz Ortiz (URO), a prominent member of the once-and-future ruling PRI party, U.S. photojournalist Brad Will is still dead.

So are 55 other journalists working in Mexico over the past ten years (eight more remain missing), according to a roster painstakingly complied by Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based journalists’ group. 16 of those on the kill list have been slain since Brad’s still unresolved death. With rare exception, the murders of journalists in Mexican are never solved.

Will, a 35 year-old community activist and troubadour turned Indymedia reporter, covered social protest in such Latin American hot spots as Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chiapas before arriving in Oaxaca to interview leaders of the APPO (Oaxaca Peoples’ Popular Assembly) and striking teachers whose prolonged street protests demanding URO’s removal as governor galvanized that conflictive southern state during the summer and fall of 2006. Will is the only non-Mexican on the death list held by Reporters Without Borders.

Lead poisoning is an occupational hazard for journalists in Mexico. The most recent killing (at this writing) took place October 9th in the northern state of Durango where crime reporter Gerardo Esparza was executed with a coup de grace to the head in the state capitol – three journalists have been executed in Durango during the first ten months of 2009, two of them last May.

On September 23rd in neighboring Chihuahua, pistoleros burst into the newsroom at Radio Vision in Nueva Casas Grandes and gunned down crusading reporter Norberto "El Gallito" (‘the Bantam Rooster’) Miranda who had been probing ties between police and 25 recent killings by drug gangs. Miranda was the third reporter killed in Chihuahua during the military occupation of the state that began in 2007 and is the 15th to be assassinated since 2000. In May 2008, Emilio Gutierrez Soto, a correspondent for "El Diario", fled Nueva Casas Grande and applied for political asylum in the U.S. after receiving repeated death threats.

Despite the appalling absence of resolution in Will’s death three years after the fact, his killers have long been plainly identified. A front-page photo in the national daily El Universal on the morning after the shooting that has since been displayed around the world frames up four Santa Lucia de Los Caminos’ police agents firing at the Indymedia photojournalist from 35 meters away. Two of the cops, Abel Zarate AKA "El Chapulin" and Manuel Aguilar Coello "El Comandante" were arrested immediately after the murder and then inexplicably cut loose several days later.

Despite the very public identification of the killers (eight other journalists witnessed the killing), URO’s then-chief prosecutor Rosa Lizbeth Cano (now the state auditor) accused four young APPO supporters who had pulled Will out of the line of fire and driven the mortally-wounded U.S. reporter to a local Red Cross hospital, as being responsible for his murder. Arrest warrants for the four remain outstanding.

Although ballistic experts from the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and the independent Physicians For Human Rights (PHR was asked to investigate by Brad’s family) established beyond a reasonable doubt that the bullets that slammed into Brad’s chest and side destroying his intestines had been fired from 35 meters away, presumably by the four police agents caught in the Universal photo, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (PGR), which has taken over the case from Cano, continues to claim that the Indymedia reporter was gunned down by APPO militants with whom he was standing when he fell.

The murder of an American citizen in Mexico did not make much of an impression on the U.S. State Department. Then-ambassador Tony Garza, a Texas political crony of ex-president George Bush, immediately blamed the APPO and Section 22, a rebel local of the National Education Workers Union, for inciting the violence that cost Will his life. Washington’s only response to Brad’s murder was to post travel warnings for U.S. tourists in the region. On the heels of Will’s death and greenlighted by Garza’s accusations, outgoing president Vicente Fox mobilized thousands of federal police to suppress the rebellion in Oaxaca.

Brad Will was not the only victim of police repression in that majority indigenous state. From August through November, 26 militants were gunned down by URO’s police death squads that each night rode through the city firing on APPO barricades. No one has ever been charged in the killings.

Despite efforts by Tony Garza, now a Mexican businessman and married to the wealthiest woman in the country, to sweep the Will case under the diplomatic rug, Brad’s family and friends have struggled to keep the case alive. Their campaign has been backed up by human rights kingpins like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. When AI director Irene Khan tried to present Governor Ruiz with her organization’s scathing report on police abuses in Oaxaca, URO rudely rejected the document and handed it back to her.

During 2008 U.S. congressional hearings on the so-called Merida Initiative signed by Bush and Mexican president Felipe Calderon in that Yucatan peninsula city, which provides security forces here with $3,000,000,000 worth of hardware for Calderon’s ill-advised war on Mexican drug cartels (13,000 citizens have died since it was declared in late 2006), Brad Will’s friends and former co-workers disrupted the proceedings, arguing that Mexico’s army and police should not be rewarded for committing human rights abuses.

As a result, language was inserted in the Merida Initiative implementation bill urging the Calderon government to begin a serious investigation into Will’s death. 15% of Merida monies would be held back if a progress report was not issued in the next 120 days.

In October 2008, 48 hours before the 120 day deadline was to expire, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office charged a young APPO supporter, Juan Manuel Martinez, the community sports coordinator in Santa Lucia de los Caminos, with Will’s murder. Martinez was alleged to have been standing near the U.S. photojournalist when he was shot down. The PGR asserted that it had two eye-witnesses (who it has never formally produced) – one is the nephew of the mayor of Santa Lucia, a URO intimate, and the other a former Televisa camera operation who has reportedly since recanted. Both admitted that they had not seen Martinez with a weapon and were not witnesses to the actual killing. No motive has ever been ascribed to Martinez for the murder. Yet Juan Manuel Martinez remains imprisoned in Santa Maria Ixcotel, Oaxaca’s maximum lock-up, charged with Brad Will’s killing and is facing a 40-year sentence.

On the first anniversary of his arrest this past October 16th, several hundred APPO supporters gathered in the old colonial plaza of the Oaxaca state capital to remind citizens of this on-going miscarriage of justice. Like Will’s death, Martinez’s incarceration has largely been forgotten by the press and the public. Meanwhile, the real killers remain free and several are still on the Santa Lucia de los Caminos police payroll.

"That’s all history now" PRI federal deputy Adolfo Tinoco, a staunch defender of Ruiz, commented to the left daily La Jornada, "Oaxaca is at peace and in order now thanks to our governor."

Juan Manuel Martinez’s arrest satisfied the U.S. Congress that the deadline for pursuing Brad Will’s murderer had been met and all Merida funds have since been disbursed. When outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a goodbye visit to Mexico to distribute checks October 22nd 2008, one week after Martinez was jailed, she expressed satisfaction that justice had been done. The Obama administration and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not seen fit to revisit the matter.

Since Brad Will’s murder October 27th 2006, the political dynamic on both sides of the border has undergone a sea change. Barrack Obama has become the first Afro-American president of the United States and George Bush has been consigned to the garbage heap of history. Felipe Calderon, who came to high office in a fraud-marred election, has faced serial disasters that cripple his credibility.

In the early days of his presidency, Calderon scrupulously avoided any suggestion that human rights abuses had occurred in Oaxaca for fear of offending URO and his PRI party whose support he craved to pass his legislative package – at the top of Calderon’s wish list was the privatization of PEMEX, the national oil monopoly. The privatization of PEMEX is urged by Washington and both Tony Garza and his successor Carlos Pascual speak often of the need for private (U.S.) investment in Mexico’s nationalized oil industry.

The PRI’s hand was enforced by the party’s strong showing in last July’s mid-term elections that gave it a majority in the Mexican congress. Since the Great Tumult of 2006, URO and his party, which ruled Mexico for seven decades before being ousted in 2000 by Calderon’s rightist PAN, have dominated local elections in Oaxaca and Ruiz has become a key player in the PRI’s powerful Governors’ Conference that now includes the chief executives of 22 out of the republic’s 31 states. With one year left in his stay in the Oaxaca statehouse, Ulisis Ruiz is confident he will finish out his term and hand off the office to "the next PRI governor." URO is said to have set his sights on Los Pinos, the Mexican White House.

Mexico’s Supreme Court justices are some of the highest priced jurists in the world, knocking down half million dollar salaries that rival both Calderon’s and Obama’s take-home pay. Nonetheless, despite their financial fortunes, the tilt of the 11-judge court is quirky and unpredictable. The Supreme Court voted to uphold Mexico City’s abortion on demand law by a 10 to one majority (only two of the justices are women) but recently freed paramilitaries convicted of the massacre of 45 Tzotzil Indian supporters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. When charged with investigating human rights abuses by state and federal police in the Mexico state farming village of San Salvador Atenco May 3rd and 4th 2006 during which hundreds were brutalized and arrested, two young men killed by police bullets and tear gas canisters, and 20 women sexually abused, the Court chalked the havoc up to a few rotten cops and absolved the governor Enrique Pena Nieto, the odds-on favorite to be the PRI’s presidential candidate in 2012. After the 2006 incident, Pena Nieto boasted to reporters that he was "proud of his police."

The Court’s ruling on Atenco did not auger well for victims of Ulisis Ruiz’s hard hand in Oaxaca when the Supremes initiated a probe of the 2006 violence in that impoverished southern state. Indeed, the case was at first handed to one of the panel’s most conservative members Mariano Azuela for preliminary investigation. As anticipated, Judge Azuela produced a massive (926 pages) whitewash, absolving Ruiz and laying the blame for human rights violations on the APPO and the striking teachers whom the justice accused of seeking to overthrow the constitutional state government. Azuela was seconded by another right-wing member of the court, Sergio Anguiano, who labeled the victims "subversives and guerrilleros." Their draft document excused police misbehavior because Oaxaca, a poor state, does not have adequate police training facilities.

But a funny thing happened to Azuela’s near thousand-page finding on its way to the full court. Despite personnel lobbying of each of the justices by URO to rubberstamp the whitewash, the judges rejected Azuela’s conclusions and, by a seven to four majority, fingered the Oaxaca governor for abuses of authority and related atrocities, including 26 murders commited by his police during the summer and fall of 2006. Nonetheless, the court’s verdict included no penalties or sanctions and the only remedy available – the governor’s impeachment ("juicio politico") has absolutely no chance of being consummated by a congress in which the PRI holds an absolute majority.

The Supreme Court’s rebuke of URO curiously made no reference to the complicity of ex-president Vicente Fox, Fox’s Secretary of Public Security Eduardo Medina Mora, the late Carlos Abascal, then Interior Secretary, or Felipe Calderon whose presidency overlapped the Oaxaca crackdown. Federal police under their command were involved in brutal confrontations with the APPO and the striking teachers all summer long and on November 2nd 2006, days after Brad Will was murdered, 5000 Federales were airlifted to Oaxaca and rounded up hundreds of Oaxaca citizens, some of them innocent pedestrians trapped in the dragnet, beat and tortured them and shipped them out of state to a federal prison 1200 kilometers away. The Federal Police commander in that carnival of repression, Ardelio Vargas, is now a PRI deputy in the lower house of Congress where he heads up the oversight committee on national security.

Who bears the brunt of responsibility for myriad violations of individual guarantees in Oaxaca in 2006 – the PRIista Ulisis Ruiz’s cops or the federal police sent in by Vicente Fox, a totem of the right-wing PAN? A glance back at the convoluted events on the ground in Oaxaca during that terrible season is instructive. By July, the PRI had suffered an embarrassing shellacking in the presidential election and URO gave his police carte blanche to maim and kill APPO supporters, anticipating that the turmoil would force Fox’s hand and turn Oaxaca into a federal problem. But the more out of control the situation became, the deeper Fox dug in his heels and refused the governor’s request for a massive infusion of federal troops. It was only after the murder of a gringo reporter that Fox got the green light from Bush’s ambassador Garza and ordered the Federales in to stamp out the rebellion.

Despite the pivotal role that his murder played in the denouement of the Oaxaca uprising, Brad Will’s name is not even mentioned in the Mexican Supreme Court’s evasive verdict.

Brad Will! Presente!

JOHN ROSS’ monstrous "El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption In Mexico City" will hit the streets in November (to read raving reviews from the likes of Mike Davis and Jeremy Scahill go to www.nationbooks.org.) Ross will be traveling Gringolandia much of 2009-2010 with "El Monstruo" and his new Haymarket title "Iraqigirl", the diary of a teenager growing up under U.S. occupation. If you have a venue for presentations he would like to talk to you at johnross@igc.org