Oaxaca: Brad Will’s accused killers released

Sarah Ferguson writes for the Village Voice, Dec. 1:

The two Oaxacan town officials accused of gunning down Indymedia journalist Brad Will were released from prison today after a state judge claimed there was a “fading of evidence” against them.

The Mexico City daily Milenio reports that local town councillor Abel Santiago Zárate and his chief of patrol, Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello were both set free after the judge concluded that the two “could not be guilty” because they were too far away to have delivered the fatal shots.

Will was killed on October 27 while filming a street skirmish between protesters and town officials in the Santa Lucia del Camino, on the outskirts of the state capital in Oaxaca.

The judge’s ruling was based on new and conflicting evidence presented by state prosecutors, who recently tried to pin Will’s murder on the demonstrators he was filming.

According to the judge, the state’s autopsy and ballistic reports found that Will was shot by a 9 mm gun at a distance of “less than 10 meters away.” (The state’s estimate of the distance keeps changing: last week there were reports of 1 to 3 meters and 2 to 4 meters).

However, the judge said Zarate and Aguilar were firing .38 revolvers from a minumum distance of 35 meters away.

In court the two men tried to claim they had only fired in the air, despite the ample news footage and photographs showing the two officials firing directly into the crowd of demonstrators, who had been chasing the gunmen through the town after they opened fire on a protest barricade.

Several people were wounded in the shootings, including a teacher and a photographer for Milenio who got hit below the knee just as Will was shot. (Two others were killed later that day in separate attacks.)

It’s unclear whether state officials are still trying to blame supporters of the protest coalition APPO (Oaxaca People’s Popular Assembly) for Will’s murder. One news account [ Noticias de Oaxaca] named six other men implicated in the crime, although there was no indication of who these men are or why prosecutors suspect them.

Indymedia activists in Oaxaca immediately accused state prosecutors of a coverup and said they had “no confidence” in the ability of state officials to investigate the shooters, who are all members of the state’s governing party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Amnesty Internationaland other human rights groups have accused Oaxaca’s governor Ulises Ruiz of backing paramilitary-style assaults on APPO demonstrators by plain clothes gunmen tied to his party.


The news of the shooters’ release came as about 30 people stood in the rain outside the Mexican Mission to the United Nations in midtown New York to demand a “credible” investigation into Will’s murder as well as the deaths and “disappearances” of scores of other activists in Oaxaca.

Following the violent clashes this weekend, more than 200 people have been rounded up, many of them shipped off to a maxium secuirity prison in the central state of Nayarit, where there are reports of abuse and torture. At least 50 others are unaccounted for, rights activists say.

Meanwhile, new allegations are surfacing in the Mexican media suggesting that members of the PRI may have been involved in the fires that engulfed the State Supreme Court house on Saturday as well as other government offices.

The fires and destruction in the capital have been used by federal police to justify their aggressive crackdown on APPO, a coalition of unions, students, indigenous councils, and other grassroots groups that formed to seek the ouster of Governor Ruiz.

Yesterday, the state teachers union announced a strike to protest the actions by federal police, who have been raiding schools to arrest teachers who took part in the demonstrations.

“We want to call attention to these human rights violations,” said Harry Bubbins, an activist from the Bronx who was a close friend of Will, as he passed out flyers outside 2 UN Plaza, the soaring green office building where the Mexican Mission is located.” The next step is putting pressure on American Congress members to ensure there is a full State Department investigation into Will’s death.”

But given the chaos in Mexico, one wonders whether anyone is listening. Fist fights broke out in Mexico’s Congress this morning as opposing lawmkers challenged the inauguration of incoming president Felipe Calderon.

When Bubbins and another New York demonstrator tried to phone up to the Mexican Mission from the front desk, they were told by a woman who answered the phone that no one was there “because of the protests” and because the office was expecting an “exterminator.”

“What kind of exterminator?” Bubbins asked.

See our last posts on Mexico and the Oaxaca crisis and Brad Will.

  1. CPJ: feds should take over investigation
    From the Committee to Protect Journalists, Dec. 4:

    The Committee to Protect Journalists renewed its appeal to Mexican federal authorities today to take over the investigation into the killing of U.S. journalist Bradley Roland Will after two local officials suspected in his shooting were freed.

    Will, 36, an independent documentary filmmaker and reporter for the news Web site Indymedia, was killed covering antigovernment protests in the restive southern city of Oaxaca on October 27. Leftist activists of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), and a group of armed men, allegedly including officials and off-duty policemen, clashed in the municipality of Santa Lucía del Camino.

    “We believe that in the current political climate Oaxaca state authorities are incapable of conducting an impartial and prompt investigation,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Federal authorities should seek a legal basis to take over the investigation We renew our call on federal authorities to take over the investigation and ensure Bradley Will’s murder does not go unpunished.”

    On December 1, judge Victoriano Barroso Rojas released local councilman Abel Santiago Zárate and his chief of security Orlando Manuel Aguilar, saying that the men were too far from Will to have shot him. The two officials were arrested a few days after Will’s death. Photographs and video footage helped local authorities identify the suspects.

    Judge Barroso told CPJ today that an autopsy and ballistic reports showed that Will was shot by a 9-millimeter gun fired just over three feet (1 meter) away. Copies of the reports have not been made public. “The prosecutor’s investigation has found that the local officials were not responsible for the shooting because they were not close to the journalist,” said Barroso.

    According to Barroso, witnesses told investigators that Zárate and Aguilar opened fire but they used .38 pistols from a minimum distance of 114 feet (35 meters). Video footage and photographs showed the officials firing into the APPO crowd.

    The two men acknowledged shooting, but said they had fired in the air in defense of a family that was being harassed by APPO activists, Barroso said.

    Based on ballistic reports, state prosecutors believe that the two shots that hit Will came from the same gun, Barroso said.

    Oaxaca State Attorney General Lizbeth Cana had suggested that APPO protesters shot Will. Supporters of the protesters dismissed the suggestion as an attempt to cover up for the real murderers.

    Judge Barroso said that releasing the suspects did not mean the case was closed but that the state prosecutors would continue their investigation. According to Proceso magazine, seven people are still being investigated though there was no indication why prosecutors suspected them.

    On October 30, CPJ sent attorney general Daniel Cabeza de Vaca a letter calling upon the federal authorities to fully investigate the killing and bring those responsible to justice.

    Though the office of the special prosecutor that investigates crimes against the press is monitoring the inquiry, the case is still being prosecuted by Oaxaca state authorities.

    Oaxaca City has been under siege for the past seven months by protesters demanding the resignation of Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz, who they claim rigged the 2004 election and has used violence against his opponents. At least nine people have died in the clashes, including Will, according to the Associated Press. Several journalists covering the unrest have been beaten and harassed by protesters, and police and officials in civilian clothes, CPJ research shows.