Brad Will is Still Dead

Brad Will, the U.S. photo-journalist murdered at the height of the Oaxaca rebellion two years ago, is still dead – although his spirit keeps kicking.

Brad Will’s death continues to haunt his family and friends on both sides of the border.  Indeed, recent Mexican government allegations that Brad’s friends and fellow activists are responsible for his killing have triggered a firestorm of bitterness, frustration, and frank disbelief.

In an article published in 25 alternative U.S. weeklies last year, this reporter traced Brad Will’s steps on the day of his death.

All morning on October 27th 2006, as the rebellion to force the removal of brutal Oaxaca governor Ulisis Ruiz was escalating to bloody denouement, Will walked from one barricade to the next interviewing and filming supporters of the Oaxaca Peoples’ Popular Assembly or APPO.

In Santa Lucia de los Caminos, a working class suburb of the state capital, Ruiz’s gunmen had just opened fire on APPO militants crouched behind a barricade on broad Railroad Avenue.  When the gunmen disappeared down a narrow side street, Brad followed the APPO supporters as they pursued the attackers, continuing to film as the pistoleros dashed into a well-fortified compound on Juarez Street.  Shots rang out from the upper floor windows but as the afternoon wore on, the confrontation flagged.

Then five local cops in civilian dress appeared at the head of the street about 35 to 50 meters away and turned their weapons on the APPO supporters milling around outside the compound.  When the plainclothes police began to fire, Brad turned towards them, still filming.  A .38 caliber slug caught him square in the chest.  The impact caused him to drop his video camera and swerve to the left where a second bullet smashed into his right side destroying vital organs.  Mortally wounded, Brad Will slid down to the sidewalk as the bullets continued to explode around him.

The names of Brad Will’s killers are Abel Santiago Zarate AKA “El Chino”, Manuel Aguilar AKA “El Comandante”, Juan Carlos Soriano AKA “El Chapulin”, Juan Sumano, and Pedro Carmona, a Santa Lucia detective with a fearsome reputation, who seemed to direct the operation. A picture of the five assassins firing their weapons ran the next day on the front page of “El Universal”, one of Mexico’s most important dailies, and has since been republished around the world.

Risking their lives under the barrage of bullets fired from up Juarez Street, four young men ran to the still-breathing cameraman and hustled him around the corner out of harm’s way where he lay dying on the sidewalk.  Gualberto Navarro’s white VW bug was parked just a few feet away and Brad was laid out in the backseat.  Photographer Gustavo Vilchis and Leonardo Ortiz would accompany the dying U.S. journalist to the hospital – Vilchis kept applying mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to keep Brad alive.  The fourth rescuer, Miguel Cruz, stayed behind.

Getting Brad Will to the Red Cross hospital in Oaxaca city quickly turned into a tragic comedy of errors.  The VW got about a mile down the road and ran out of gas.  Leonardo and Gualberto tried to flag down a taxi but none would stop.  It began to pour.  Finally, the driver of a pick-up truck took pity and Brad Will was loaded into the back but he expired on route and was dead on arrival at the Red Cross hospital.

Two of the shooters, Santa Lucia police officers, were held briefly, their .38 pistols examined, and then released.  13 days later, Oaxaca state prosecutor Lizbeth Cana, a Ruiz political operator who now serves the governor as liaison with the state legislature, pinned Brad’s murder on the four young men who risked their own lives to try and save the New York-based journalist.  Cana lied that his rescuers had delivered the coup de grace on the way to the Red Cross – photographic evidence clearly shows that Brad had been shot twice before being driven into the city.  The motive for the killing, according to Lizbeth Cana, was to “internationalize” the conflict in Oaxaca.

“Fabricando cupables” – manufacturing guilty parties – is a staple of the Mexican justice industry.

Although Cana’s bizarre allegations never went further than the local press, charges of aiding and abetting Brad Will’s execution were revived by federal prosecutor Victor Camilo Corzo at an October 19th Oaxaca press conference when Corzo implied that the photographer’s would-be saviors had participated in a cover-up to hide the identity of what he described as the “real killer”, Juan Manuel Martinez Moreno, an APPO supporter and director of sports activities for the city of Santa Lucia de los Caminos.  The federal prosecutor claims that Martinez Moreno was standing next to the journalist and shot Will from a distance of less than two meters away.

In the kind of exercise in hypocrisy at which the Mexican justice system excels, the federal prosecutor was accompanied by Octavio Orelliana Wiarco whom the government of Felipe Calderon has designated to investigate crimes against journalists.  20 Mexican journalists have been murdered in the past seven years – Wiarco has failed to resolve a single case.

According to Corzo, two unidentified witnesses (subsequently revealed to be an ex-Televisa cameraman and the nephew of the mayor of Santa Lucia de los Caminos who purportedly ordered the cops into action) identified Martinez Moreno as being the person who yelled at Will to stop filming – the warning is recorded on the tape recovered from Brad’s camera.  Although apparently neither of the witnesses saw Martinez Moreno fire two “.9mm” caliber bullets into Brad, he has been charged with his murder – changing the caliber of the bullets from .38mm as the official autopsy report cites to .9mm seems to be designed to get the Santa Lucia police officers off the hook.

Juan Manuel Martinez Moreno was immediately taken into custody and is now imprisoned at Oaxaca’s dread Santa Maria Ixcotel state prison.

The Mexican government’s allegations are vehemently contradicted by forensic experts from the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), a government agency, and Physicians for Human Rights, an NGO asked to investigate the killing by Brad’s parents.  Indeed, both organizations have concluded that Brad Will was killed by a .38 caliber bullet fired from 35 to 50 meters away.  The absence of powder burns on Brad’s clothes is a clear indication that he was not shot at close range as the federal prosecutor claims.

The federal prosecutor’s charges are “unsubstantiated and inexact” according to Dr. Epifanio Salazar, the CNDH forensic expert – Dr. Salazar once headed the federal justice department’s forensic services.  Salazar’s remarks were made following the arrest of Martinez Moreno and a second APPO supporter Octavio Perez Perez who has been accused of participating in the “cover-up.”  Eight other warrants, thought to include Gualberto Navarro, Gustavo Vilchis, Leonardo Ortiz, and Miguel Cruz are pending.

Brad Will’s murder on October 27th 2006 greenlighted then-Mexican president Vicente Fox to send thousands of military-trained Federal police (PFP) into Oaxaca to brutally quell the rebellion.  Hundreds of APPO supporters were jailed and tortured during the crackdown.  Fox’s decision to send in the PFP was commended by U.S. ambassador Tony Garza, who on the night of Brad’s murder, accused the APPO of inciting the violence.

From its start, the federal investigation into the killing has been colored by “politics”, charges CNDH ombudsman Jose Luis Soberanes, not usually a squeaky wheel when it comes to government killing of activists (Soberanes is reportedly a member in good standing of the conservative Catholic cabal, Opus Dei.)  Why, after two years of foot-dragging has the federal prosecutor suddenly cleared up the case in the 15 days before the anniversary of the killing, the ombudsman asked?  His answer: The National Human Rights Commission had insisted that Brad’s murder be resolved by the second anniversary of his killing.

Moreover, Soberanes maintains that the U.S. State Department has been pressuring the Calderon government for resolution of the matter prior to releasing $1.4 billion USD in anti-drug funds allocated under the so-called “Merida Initiative.”

Last summer, during congressional hearings on the anti-drug initiative, a group of Brad Will’s friends lobbied both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate not to release any funds to re-arm repressive Mexican security forces until the photo-journalist’s murder was cleared up.  One result of their doggedness: Senator Patrick Leahy (D. Vermont) inserted one sentence in the Merida Initiative authorization asking for the investigation to be speeded up.

This past Friday (Oct. 24th) following Martinez Moreno’s arrest, White House drug czar John Water announced that Merida money was finally on its way to Mexico.  Meanwhile, Harry Bubbins, a community gardener, and Rob Jereski, two of Brad Will’s closest associates back home on New York City’s Lower East Side, have been on hunger strike outside Senator Hillary Clinton’s Park Avenue offices demanding that Clinton intervene in the whitewash and frame-up.

The impunity that the Mexican government has extended to the five Santa Lucia de los Caminos police killers is remarkable and could only have been ordered from the top.  The usual modus operandi of the Mexican justice system is to “sacrifice” the government assassins and protect what are called here the “intellectual authors” of such violent crimes.  But charging the police with Brad Will’s murder would have pointed to the collaboration of Governor Ruiz and his party, the once-ruling (71 years) PRI, and driven a wedge between the PRI and Felipe Calderon’s right-wing PAN at a moment when the dubiously-elected president desperately needed the PRI’s support to push his legislative package through the Mexican congress.

At the top of that legislative wish list was so-called “Energy Reform” i.e. the privatization of the nationalized oil company PEMEX.  Opening up PEMEX to private investment by such U.S.-based transnationals as Exxon and Halliburton has long been a priority for Washington whose interests in Mexico Ambassador Garza is sworn to defend.

Last Thursday (Oct. 23rd), after months of acrimonious wrangling in the Mexican Senate, the PAN and its PRI allies finally passed the Calderon privatization “reform” – although the measure is not all the oil giants wanted, it gives them a foot in PEMEX’s door.  The measure was strenuously opposed by leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, from whom millions of Mexicans believe Calderon stole the 2006 election scant months before Brad was gunned down.  The PRI-PAN coup was voted up in a congressional office building under heavy PFP protection rather than in the Senate, which was ringed by thousands of protestors.

Tragically, in death, Brad Will has become a pawn in this cynical power play by Calderon’s government and the terminally corrupt PRI.

Brad Will was not the only victim of Ulisis Ruiz’s homicidal mayhem although his death is one of the few that has even been investigated.  26 victims perished under Ruiz’s guns between August and October 2006.  Now as the Days of the Dead once again dawn over Mexico, Ulisis’s “muertos” continue to cry out from their unquiet graves for justice.

JOHN ROSS and “El Monstruo” are in the final rounds of their epoch “lucha”.  These dispatches will continue to be issued at ten-day intervals until the referee’s decision is in.  If you have further information write johnross@igc.org or visit johnross-rebeljournalist.com




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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org

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