Who killed Brad Will?
This photo from the Mexican newspaper El Universal, taken just as Will was killed, shows clearly identifiable Oaxaca police officers firing at the crowd.
This protest at the U.N. was only a small part of the outcry over Will’s death.
Will knew the situation in Oaxaca was dicey but felt he had to be there.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
And why have Mexican and U.S. authorities allowed those who shot an American journalist 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 it’s always possible there are bullets out there with our names on them. 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, the pistoleros of a despised governor, rolled through the cobblestone streets of this colonial state capital, peppering with automatic weapons fire the flimsy barricades erected by masked rebels. Hundreds were killed, wounded, or imprisoned.
Will, a New York independent video journalist, felt he had to be there.
Xenophobia was palpable on the ground when Will arrived. Foreign journalists were being attacked as terrorists by the governor’s sycophants in the press. Kill any foreigner with a camera, the radio announcers urged.
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, 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 at the same time by El Universal, the Mexican newspaper, 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 crony of George W. Bush. 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?
Will was once a fire-breathing urban legend on Manhattan’s lower east side. Perching 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 dressing as a sunflower and being dragged out of City Hall in an effort to help 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 Center 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 World Trade Organization protests that rocked Seattle in 1999. Indymedia describes itself as “a collective of independent media organizations and hundreds of journalists offering grassroots, non-corporate coverage ... a democratic media outlet for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of truth.”
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. He was an independent journalist, one of the growing number of people who, like Josh Wolf in San Francisco, use the internet and their own laptops, recorders, and video cameras to track and report on social moments and injustice. Will 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 place where he would die began right after Sept. 11, 2001. Dyan Neary, than a neophyte journalist, met Brad in the elevator coming down from the WBAI radio studios soon after the terrorist attacks.
“We walked down the piles. They were still smoking,” she remembered in a phone call from Humboldt County, Calif. “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 and interviewed Evo Morales, not yet the president, and traveled in the Chapare rainforest region with the coca growers federation. They hung out in Cochabamba with Oscar Oliviera, the hero of the battle to keep Bechtel from taking over that 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 at a huge squatters’ camp in the state of Goias, 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. He was savagely beaten and held by the police — only his U.S. passport saved him.
Despite the close call, Will was hooked. He soldiered back through Peru and Bolivia and then, out of money, flew back to New York to raise more. In 2006, he ping-ponged back and forth between New York and Latin America — tracking Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas’ “Other Campaign” through Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, then returning to Brooklyn. (The rent-gougers had forced him out of Manhattan’s lower east side.)
Tracking the incipient rebellion in Oaxaca on the internet, he worried, friends said, about being just one more white guy in the way — but eventually, the lure of the action pulled him in. He flew south out of New York on Sept. 29, his return set for Oct. 28. He never made the plane.
The mountainous southern state of Oaxaca sits at the top of most of Mexico’s poverty-indicator lists — for infant mortality, malnutrition, unemployment, illiteracy. Human rights violations are rife. It also is home to Mexico’s heaviest concentration of indigenous peoples, 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 for most of the last century, until its corrupt dynasty was overthrown in 2000 by the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and its picaresque presidential candidate, Vicente Fox, former president of Coca Cola-Mexico.
But in Oaxaca, the PRI never lost power. While voters all over the country were throwing off its yoke, Oaxaca was electing that party’s Ulises Ruiz Ortiz — known as URO — in a fraud-marred gubernatorial election in 2004.
In the first 16 months of his regime, Ruiz proved spectacularly unresponsive to the demands of the popular movements for social justice. He turned a deaf ear in May 2006, when a militant local of the National Education Workers Union known as Section 22 presented its contract demands. A week later, tens of thousands of teachers took over Oaxaca’s 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. From the balconies of colonial hotels that surround the plaza, police tossed down concussion grenades. Radio Planton, the maestros’ pirate station, was demolished and the tent city set afire. A pall of black smoke hung over the city.
Four hours later, community members and 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 demonstration reportedly extended for more than six miles.
John Gibler, who closely covered the Oaxaca uprising as a fellow for the international human rights organization Global Exchange, wrote that the surge of rebels on June 14 soon transformed itself into a popular assembly. The Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly or APPO was formally constituted a week later. It would have no leaders but many spokespersons, with all decisions to be made in popular assemblies.
For the next several weeks, APPO and Section 22 would paralyze Oaxaca — but the rest of Mexico took little notice. Instead, the nation was hypnotized by the suspect July 2 presidential election in which a right-wing PANista, Felipe Calderón, was awarded a narrow victory over coalition candidate and leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. When López Obrador cried foul, millions poured into the streets, in the most massive political demonstrations in Mexican history. Oaxaca 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 shut their doors. On July 17, Ruiz was forced to announce the cancellation of the “Guelaguetza,” a dance festival that has become Oaxaca’s premier tourist attraction.
Ruiz began to fight back.
During the first weeks of August, he launched what came to be known as the “Caravan of Death” — a train of 30 or 40 private and government vehicles, rolling nightly, filled with city and state police officers firing on the protesters.
To keep the Caravan of Death from moving freely through the city, the APPO and the maestros threw up a thousand or more barricades in the working-class neighborhoods of the city and its suburbs. The rebels piled up dead trees, old tires, and the carcasses of cars and buses, and the barriers soon took on their own life. Murals were painted with the ashes of the bonfires that burned atop the piles, and the barricades lent an air of the Paris Commune to Oaxaca’s struggle.
An uneasy lull had gripped the city when Brad Will arrived at the bus terminal on the first of October and found himself a cheap room. But the break wouldn’t last long.
Like most non-Mexicans who style themselves independent reporters, Will had no Mexican press credential and only a tourist visa, meaning he was working illegally and susceptible to deportation. But he got himself accredited by Section 22 and wore the rebel group’s credential around his neck with his Indymedia press card.
On Oct. 14, APPO militant Alejandro García Hernández was killed at a barricade downtown. Will joined an angry procession to the Red Cross hospital where the dead man had been taken. In his last dispatch, on Oct. 16, Will’s words 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,” he wrote. “One more death. ... One more time to know power and its ugly head.”
The dynamic in Oaxaca had gotten “sketchy,” Will wrote to Neary. A Section 22 leader had cut a deal with the outgoing Fox government and forced a back-to-work vote Oct. 21 that narrowly carried, amid charges of sell-outs and pay-offs. If the teachers went back to work, the APPO would be alone on the barricades and even more vulnerable to Ruiz’ 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, forced the passengers off, and rode around looking for action. Later, the buses were set afire. The barricades were reinforced to shut down the capital beginning Oct. 27.
The escalation proved to be a terrible mistake. Up in Mexico City, the post-electoral turmoil had finally subsided, and PAN was ready to deal with the PRI.
It wasn’t a good time for inexperienced foreigners. Ruiz’ 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. 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, who seemed to have Mexico City accents, let loose a torrent of vitriol — 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 gringo with a camera, kill him!”
This poison spewed out of local radios all day Oct. 26 and 27, but 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 the barricade at Cal y Canto, one of three barriers crucial to closing down Oaxaca. On broad Railroad Avenue where the barricade was stacked, nothing was moving. Will walked on to the next barricade to check out the action.
Shortly after he left, all hell broke loose at Cal y Canto. A mob of about 150 supporters of the governor stormed down Railroad Avenue, led by a sport-utility vehicle 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), recalled. 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, homemade bazookas that fired bottle rockets, and slingshots. Most of the mob melted away, and as the gunmen retreated, the rebels torched the 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 his camera on a man in a white shirt. When an APPO activist came running by, Will indicated the shooter — “camisa blanca.” 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.
The pistoleros veered down a narrow side street, Benito Juarez, and took refuge in a windowless one-story building whose only entry was a large metal garage door. The reporters followed the APPO militants, many with their faces masked, as they tried to force their way in, ramming the big door with the dump truck.
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 Juarez Street, about 30 meters away, and began shooting at the rebels.
Two of the gunmen were later identified by Mexican news media as Pedro Carmona, a local PRI political fixer and police officer, and Police Commander Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello. One of the men crouched down behind Carmona was Abel Santiago Zárate a.k.a. “El Chino.” Both Santiago Zárate and Aguilar Coello were reported to be the personal bodyguards of PRI Municipal President Manuel Martinez Ferrea. The other two men were identified as Juan Carlos Soriano and Juan Sumano, both Santa Lucia police officers.
You can see the gunmen in the film Will shot just moments before he died. They are also 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 the bullets hit him. His video captured the sounds of the first shot and his cries of dismay as it tore through his Indymedia t-shirt and smashed into his heart. A second shot caught him in the right side and did more damage but produced little blood, the first slug having stopped his heart. On film shot by Mexican photographer Gustavo Vilchis and others, the entrance wound looks like a deep bruise.
The second shot, not recorded on the sound track, may have been fired simultaneously with the first one.
Others were hit in the pandemonium. A photographer 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. His Section 22 credential had flown off, and no one really knew his name. With bullets whizzing by, they picked him up and dragged him out of the line of fire and around the corner, Will’s pants falling off his skinny hips along the way.
“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 vochito (Volkswagen Bug) pulled up, and the two men loaded a dying Will into the back seat. Thinking he was still breathing, 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 rolled back — perdido (lost) as they say in Mexico.
The vochito ran out of gas in the middle of a crossroad, just as it began to rain hard. They tried to stop a taxi, but the driver supported the government and wanted to argue. Finally they flagged down a pickup truck and laid Will out in the bed. He was dead when he arrived at the hospital, according to the Oaxaca coroner’s report.
Oct. 27 was the bloodiest day of the Oaxaca uprising. Four others were killed besides Will: Emilio Alonso Fabián, Estevan Ruiz, Estevan López Zurita, and Eudacia Olivera Diaz. But only the American reporter’s death triggered an international outcry.
Because he was so connected — and because much of the episode was recorded on film — the shot of the mortally wounded Indymedia reporter lying in the middle of an Oaxaca street went worldwide on the Web in a matter of minutes.
Vigils were immediately announced on both U.S. coasts. Three days after his death, 11 of Will’s friends were busted trying to lock themselves down at the Mexican Consulate off Manhattan’s Park Avenue. Two months later, “Avenge Brad!” graffiti was still visible there. Anarchists splattered the San Francisco consulate with red paint. Subcomandante Marcos sent his condolences and called for international protests. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now did an hour-long memorial broadcast.
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. government 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 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, issued on the day Will died, 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, 4,500 officers of the 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 people’s dignity and a free press are respected, but to break the back of the rebellion and maintain Ulises Ruiz Ortiz in power.
One day later, 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 the coroner, Dr. Luis Mendoza, performed the obligatory autopsy, Will’s body was crated up for shipment back to his parents, who now live south of Milwaukee. After a private viewing, the journalist’s body was cremated.
Killing a gringo reporter in plain view of the cameras (one of which was the victim’s own) requires a little sham accountability. On Oct. 29, Oaxacan state prosecutor Lizbeth Caña Cadeza announced that arrests warrants had been issued for Abel Santiago and Manuel Aguilar, two of the five cops caught on film firing shots at Will, and they were subsequently taken into custody.
The scam lost currency two weeks later, however, when Caña dropped a bombshell at an evening press conference: The cops hadn’t killed Will, she said. He had been 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 Mendoza’s report to indicate that. The real killers were “the same group [Will] was accompanying,” she said.
In the prosecutor’s scenario, the order of the shots was reversed: First Brad had been shot in his side and then rematado — finished off — with a slug to the heart on the way to the hospital.
The prosecutor’s claim was immediately challenged by the APPO. “The killers are those who are shown in the film,” Florentino López, the Assembly’s main spokesman, asserted at a meeting that night.
And in fact, a 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. Numerous eyewitnesses told the same tale: The rebels at the Cal y Canto barricade that day had no firearms 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 Juarez Street, is a soft-spoken young Zapotec Indian, but he pounded on the kitchen table vehemently when he addressed Caña’s allegations.
“The compañeros had no guns. What gun is she talking about? They had slingshots and Molotovs but no guns. The PRI-istas and the cops had their .38s, and they were shooting at us” he insisted. “We were trying to save Brad Will’s life, not to kill him.”
Despite her statements, Caña never filed charges against any of the rebels in connection with Will’s death. Nor have prosecutors ever publicly presented the alleged murder weapon.
But by the time Caña told her story, Will’s body — the only source of proof of the order of the bullets or the distance from which they had been fired — was gone. He had been cremated the week before.
On Nov. 28, as expected, Abel Santiago and Manuel Aguilar were released from custody by Judge Vittoriano Barroso because of “insufficient evidence,” with the stipulation that they cannot be re-arrested in connection with Will’s death 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 Oaxacan government secretary Heliodoro Diez, who in turn reported directly to Ruiz. 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.
Dr. Mendoza is otherwise occupied when I stop by 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 about Brad Will’s death.
“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; the rest are plainclothes. I have been warned not to ask for Pedro Carmona, the most prominent officer in Will’s photo. Carmona is described as prepotente, that is, 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 and police commander Manuel Aguilar. 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 6 p.m. And the comandante is off today. When I call back after 6, El Chino is still not available. Nor would he or Aguilar ever be available on the dozen or so times I called back.
This sort of stonewalling is nothing terribly unusual for Mexico, where killer cops often sell their services to local caciques (political bosses) and go back to work as if nothing happened. Those who direct this mayhem from their desks in the statehouses and municipal palaces — the “intellectual assassins” as they are termed — are never held accountable for their crimes.
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 perversions of 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.
Vilchis, Ortiz, the Volkswagen driver, 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 Will’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 or the two bullets taken from his body. She explained that they were under the control of Judge Barroso — the same judge who cut loose the cops.
There are larger geopolitical factors 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’ PRI: Save Ruiz’ ass, and the PRI would support the president’s legislative package — indeed, the PRI’s hundred votes in the lower house of congress guarantees Calderón the two-thirds majority he needs to alter the Mexican constitution.
Such alterations are at the top of Calderón’s legislative agenda because they are necessary to opening up PEMEX, the nationalized petroleum corporation and symbol of Mexico’s national revolution, to private investment.
Since President Lazaro 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,” observed John Saxe-Fernández, a professor of strategic resource studies at Mexico’s autonomous university (UNAM).
During the run-up to the hotly contested 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. When leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador insisted he would never privatize what belonged to all Mexicans, the business suits stared in stony silence. Calderón’s pledge to open PEMEX to private investment drew wild applause. Calderón was, of course, Washington’s horse in the 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,” Saxe-Fernández concluded.
Washington, whose interests in Mexico Tony Garza represents, is eager to see PEMEX privatized, an opportunity for ExxonMobil and Halliburton (now PEMEX’s largest subcontractor) to walk off with a big chunk of the world’s eighth- largest oil company. Pushing Calderón too hard to do justice for Will could disaffect the PRI and put the kibosh on the deal.
It is not easy to imagine Brad Will as 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.
Brad Will was one of 26 people to die on the barricades of Oaxaca from May 2006 to January 2007 and the ninth reporter working in Mexico to have been killed or “disappeared” during the last year, most at the hands of the narco gangs. Forty journalists have been slain in Mexico since 2000, and 63 in the past two decades, according to the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA). According to Reporters Without Borders, the 81 confirmed killings of journalists around the world during 2006 is the highest death toll since 1994.
John Ross 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 California.
This story was commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.
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