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Throughout the summer and fall of 2006, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca was on fire. Police squads rolled through the cobblestone streets of this colonial state capital, the hired guns of an unpopular governor, peppering with automatic weapons the barricades erected by masked rebels. Hundreds were killed, wounded, or imprisoned.
Brad Will, a 36-year-old video journalist for New York Indymedia, felt he had to be there.
When Will arrived, foreign journalists were being treated as terrorists by the government-controlled media: “¡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.
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 of dismay as the camera tumbles from his hands and bounces along the sidewalk. Photos taken at the same time by the Mexican newspaper El Universal show the same gunmen.
By all visible evidence, Will filmed his own murder. But this is Mexico, and Will’s apparent killers continue to live in Oaxaca, free and, it seems, untouchable.
As activists go, Will was out there. He had perched atop the 5th Street squat on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he had lived for years, waving his long arms like Big Bird as the wrecking ball swung in. He had been dragged out of City Hall, where he arrived dressed as a sunflower to rescue the neighborhood’s community gardens. He was an anarchist and a freegan who tried to subsist on what others threw out. He was also a child of privilege from Chicago’s wealthy North Shore who left to join what his fellow activists called the social-change movement.
Will hosted an incendiary weekly show on Steal This Radio, a pirate station, and he was an early part of Indymedia, the Web publication that grew out of the World Trade Organization protests that rocked Seattle in 1999.
With his long hair neatly tied back and parted down the middle, his granny glasses and fringe beard, and his fierce commitment to building community, Will seemed to have emerged whole from the time before Nixon.
He considered himself an independent journalist, someone who used the Internet and his own video cameras to track and record his causes.
Will’s journey to the place he would die began right after 9/11. Dyan Neary, an activist and his former girlfriend, met Will in the elevator coming down from the WBAI studios on South Street, where Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! had been broadcasting commentary and reports about the attack on the World Trade Center.
“We walked down the piles. They were still smoking,” Neary remembers. “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 landscape of Latin America. In Fortaleza, Brazil, they confronted the director of the InterAmerican Development Bank during riotous street protests. They went to Bolivia and interviewed Evo Morales, who would later become that country’s president, and traveled in the province of Chapare with the coca growers’ federation. They hung out in Cochabamba with labor leader Oscar Oliviera, who had fought to keep U.S. engineering company 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 filming the resistance of 12,000 squatters at a camp near the city of Goiania in Goias 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. Will was reportedly beaten and held by the police.
Undaunted, he picked up his camera and went back through Peru and Bolivia. When the money ran out, he flew back to New York to figure out how to raise enough scratch for the next trip south.
In early 2006, he was back, tracking Zapatista spokesman Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos and the Zapatistas’ anticapitalist “Other Campaign” through the Mayan villages on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
In the spring of 2006, Will was back in New York, keeping track of the Other Campaign and a burgeoning rebellion in Oaxaca on the Internet from his room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
He was itching to go to Mexico again, friends say, but worried that he would just be one more white guy getting in the way. In the end, the lure of what was going on in Oaxaca pulled him in. He bought a ticket, caught the airport shuttle from Brooklyn to JFK, and flew south Sept. 29. His return was set for Oct. 28.
Teachers Take over Plaza
A mountainous southern Mexican state traversed by seven serious sierras, Oaxaca is at the top of most poverty indicators—infant mortality, malnutrition, unemployment, and illiteracy. It’s also home to 17 distinct Indian cultures, each with a history of resistance to Mexico’s white and mestizo (mixed white and native ancestry) ruling class. Oaxaca’s class and race tensions typically and cyclically erupt into uprising and repression.
The Revolutionary Institutional Party, or PRI, ruled Mexico from 1928 through 2000. It was dethroned by the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and its presidential candidate, Vicente Fox, a former president of Coca-Cola Mexico, in 2000.
But in Oaxaca, the PRI never lost power. While all over the country, voters threw the party out, in Oaxaca one PRI governor had followed another for 75 years. In the latest election, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz won a gubernatorial election over a right-left coalition in 2004; numerous stories in El Universal and other publications criticized the election as fraudulent and corrupted.
In the first 16 months of his administration, Ruiz Ortiz had ignored demands from labor groups and other populist movements. On May 15, 2006, National Teachers Day, a maverick, militant local of the National Education Workers Union calling itself Section 22 presented its contract demands. They wanted higher pay and better working conditions, as well as breakfast and textbooks for poor children. They also wanted Ruiz Ortiz to resign; the governor did not respond. Then on May 22, tens of thousands of teachers walked out of Oaxaca’s schools. They took over the plaza and 52 surrounding blocks and set up a ragtag tent city. Each morning, the protesters would march out of their camp and block highways and government buildings, which were soon smeared with antinRuiz Ortiz slogans.
Ruiz Ortiz 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 Ortiz’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 teachers’ pirate radio station, was demolished; the tent city was set on fire. A pall of black smoke hung over the city.
Four hours later, a spontaneous outburst from Oaxacans and the striking teachers, armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails, overran the plaza and sent Ruiz Ortiz’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 rule.
The surge gained momentum a week later with the formation of the Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly, or APPO, which labeled itself a “movement of the bases, not of leaders.”
A City Paralyzed
The strike lasted for five months. For much of that time, the APPO and Section 22 controlled Oaxaca—but the rest of Mexico was transfixed by the July 2 presidential election, which narrowly elevated right-wing National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón 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 for the most massive political demonstrations in Mexican history. In this climate, Oaxaca’s rebellion barely registered.
But the city is an international tourist destination, and the APPO and Section 22 had closed down its infrastructure, blocking the airport and forcing five-star hotels to shutter their doors. On July 17, 2006, Ruiz Ortiz canceled the Guelaguetza, a dance festival that has become Oaxaca’s premier tourist attraction, after roaming bands of rebels destroyed the scenery and blockaded access to the city.
Ruiz Ortiz Fights Back
By the first weeks in August, Ruiz Ortiz launched what activists and protesters called his 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 police and the governor’s supporters from traveling freely through the city, the APPO and the teachers threw up elaborate barricades—a thousand were built in the working-class colonies throughout the city and its suburbs. The rebels piled up dead trees, old tires, and the carcasses of burned-out cars and buses. Murals were painted with the ashes of the bonfires that raged all night on the barriers.
The barricades gave the Oaxaca struggle the romantic aura of a commune, attracting droves of dreadlocked anarchists to the city.
An uneasy lull in the action had settled in when Brad Will arrived at the bus terminal on Oct. 1 and found himself a cheap room for the night. The break wouldn’t last long.
On the Barricades
Will had no Mexican press credential and therefore was in the country illegally, working on a tourist visa and susceptible to deportation. He filled out paperwork with Section 22 and wore the rebel ID along with his Indymedia press card.
On Oct. 14, APPO militant Alejandro García Hernández was shot to death 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 online dispatch he filed from Oaxaca on Oct. 16, Will wrote: “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. If the teachers left, the APPO would be alone on the barricades and even more vulnerable to Ruiz Ortiz’s gunmen. But backing down is not in the Popular Assembly’s arsenal, and the APPO voted to ratchet up the struggle to make Oaxaca ungovernable.
The protesters formed mobile brigades—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, their charred hulks left burning on the streets. The barricades were reinforced, and the capital shut down on Oct. 27.
The escalation proved to be a terrible miscalculation. 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 of admission.
It wasn’t a good time to be an inexperienced foreigner. Ruiz Ortiz’s people were checking guest lists at hostels for inconvenient internationals. Immigration authorities threatened foreigners 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.
Adding to this atmosphere, a new pirate radio station popped up at 99 on the FM dial. 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 vitriol on Oct. 26 and 27—“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.”
None of Will’s friends knows whether Will heard the warnings or, if he did hear them, that he knew what they meant. He didn’t speak much Spanish.
Shot in the Chest
On Oct. 27, 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 to the next barricade at La Experimental.
Shortly after Will 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, shooting. 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 supporters scattered; 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 reporters. They arrived a little after 3 p.m.
Will climbed under a parked trailer to document the shooting. He focused his camera in on a man in a white shirt. When an APPO activist came running by (we never see who it is on Will’s last tape) Will indicated the shooter—“Camisa blanca.” While all this was going on, he captured a bicyclist pedaling 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 gunmenveered down a narrow side street 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 stood to one side of the door for a minute, poised for the right shot. Then the rebels 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 Benito Juarez Street, about 30 meters away, and began shooting at the rebels.
The two gunmen were later identified by Mexican news media as Pedro Carmona, a local PRI policeman, and Police Commander Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello. One of the men crouched behind Carmona was Abel Santiago Zárate. Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello were reported to be the personal bodyguards of PRI Municipal President Manuel Martinez Ferrea. The other two men were Juan Carlos Soriano, aka “El Chapulin” (“The Grasshopper”), and Juan Sumano, both Santa Lucia police officers.
The gunmen are clearly visible in the film Will shot just moments before the bullets hit him, and they are framed in a picture taken at the same time by Raul Estrella, which 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 he was hit. A second shot caught him in the right side. There was little blood, the first slug having stopped his heart. On film that protester and photographer Gustavo Vilchis and others took, the entrance wound looks like a deep bruise. The second shot is not recorded 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. 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. With bullets whizzing by, the men picked him up and dragged him out of the line of fire around the corner to Arboles Street. Along the way his pants fell off.
“Ambulance! We need an ambulance! They’ve shot a journalist!” Vilchis shouted desperately. A man named Gualberto Francisco had parked his Volkswagen Bug on Arboles and pulled up alongside where Will was laid out on the pavement in his underwear.
Ortiz and Vilchis loaded 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.
The VW 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 pickup and laid Will out in the bed. He was dead when he arrived at the hospital, according to Dr. Luis Mendoza’s autopsy report.
Expressions of Outrage
Four others were killed besides Will on Oct. 27: Emilio Alonso Fabián, Estevan Ruiz, Estevan López Zurita, and Eudacia Olivera Diaz.
Unlike their murders, Will’s death triggered international outrage. Because he was American and 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 on the Web in a matter of minutes.
There were instant vigils on both coasts of the United States. On Monday morning, Oct. 30, 11 of Will’s friends were busted trying to lock down the Mexican Consulate in Manhattan where graffiti, as of last December, still read: avenge brad! Anarchists in San Francisco splattered the consulate there with red paint. Subcomandante Marcos sent his condolences and called for international protests. WBAI’s 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,” an official with the U.S. State Department told the press. 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.”
“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 to break the rebellion and put Ruiz Ortiz back in power.
On Sunday the 29th, the troops pushed their way into the plaza, tore down the barricades, and drove the Commune of Oaxaca out.
In Mexico, the dead are buried quickly. After Mendoza performed the autopsy, Will’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.
Killing an American reporter in plain view of the cameras (one of which was his own) demands accountability, even in Mexico. On Oct. 29, Ruiz Ortiz’s state prosecutor Lizbeth Caña Cadeza announced that arrest warrants were being sworn out for Abel “El Chapulin” Santiago Zárate and Orlando Manuel Aguilar, two of the five cops caught on film firing shots at Will, and they were subsequently taken into custody.
This push for justice lost currency two weeks later when 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 2-and-a-half meters away, Caña said—although nothing in Mendoza’s autopsy report corroborates this. The real killers, Caña 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 in the street, then he’d been finished off with a slug to the heart on the way to the hospital in Francisco’s VW.
The prosecutor’s account 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.
In fact, 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 his fatal heart wound had occurred well before he was dragged into the car.
In addition, numerous witnesses tell the same tale: The rebels at the Cal y Canto barricade that day had no firearms.
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 Juarez 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,” he said.
Caña has filed no charges against the protesters. Ruiz Ortiz’s prosecutors have never publicly presented the alleged murder weapon.
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 Will’s body. And that, of course, is impossible.
On Nov. 28, Santiago Zárate 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.
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 Ortiz’s Secretary of Government, Heliodoro Diaz, who in turn reported directly to Ruiz Ortiz.
No Help in Mexico
Dr. Mendoza was otherwise occupied when I stopped 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 complained testily. “Do you know how many others have died since? How many autopsies I’ve performed?” He gestured to a room where cadavers were piled up.
The coroner scrunched over his desk, filling out the paperwork for one of the corpses. He didn’t have any time to look for the autopsy report. I was not the first reporter to ask him for it. “What paper are you from anyway?” he asked suspiciously, and when I showed him my press card he told me that it didn’t sound like a real paper 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.
I walked into the police commissary under the first floor stairs of the Santa Lucia del Camino Municipal Palace. The small room was crowded with cops and cigarette smoke. Three of the officers were in full uniforms and the rest were plainclothes. I had been warned not to ask for Pedro Carmona, described as prepotente, a thug with an attitude, who is always packing.
Instead I asked the desk clerk if I could get a few minutes with Security Supervisor Abel Santiago Zárate and Police Commander Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello. The desk clerk studied my card. “Que lástima! (What a shame!)” he exclaimed—the supervisor had just left and wouldn’t be back until after 6. The comandante was off, he said. When I called back after 6, Santiago Zárate was still not available. Nor would he or Aguilar Coello ever be available the dozen or so times I called back.
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 human rights lawyer who has often defended Zapatista communities in Chiapas.
The Wills had little experience with the Mexican justice system. 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 Caña’s allegations.