Sarah Ferguson writes for the Village Voice, Nov. 26 (with some very gruesome photos of the autopsy online):
The family of slain Indymedia journalist Brad Will has renewed its call for an independent investigation of his shooting, which occurred while Will was covering protests in Oaxaca, Mexico. Family members accused authorities in Oaxaca of attempting a “ludicrous” cover-up after the Oaxaca state attorney general, Lizbeth Caña Cadeza, alleged earlier this month that Will was shot by the protesters he’d gone to Mexico to film.
Will, 36, was gunned down on the outskirts of Oaxaca City on October 27 as he videotaped a street skirmish that broke out after pro-government gunmen opened fire on supporters of APPO (the Popular People’s Assembly of Oaxaca). The grassroots coalition had taken over government buildings and barricaded streets in the capital in order to force the removal of Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz.
Two local officials tied to Ruiz’s governing party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), have already been arrested and charged with Will’s murder: Abel Santiago Zárate, a councillor in Santa Lucia del Camino, the municipality where Will was shot, and his chief of patrol, Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello.
Arrest warrants were also reportedly issued for two local police officers and the former head of a neighboring barrio—thanks to TV footage and press photos showing these men in civilian dress firing pistols and rifles into a crowd of mostly young demonstrators wielding rocks and homemade rockets.
The mayor of Santa Lucia del Camino, a PRI-dominated working class neighborhood, told the press that local officials and members of his police force fired on demonstrators that day in order to defend against attacks on their property (the protesters burned one of the shooter’s cars), and a purported threat to take over City Hall.
Nevertheless, at a press conference on Wednesday, November 15, Caña and other state forensic experts presented new ballistic “evidence” purporting to show that Will had been shot at close range—which Caña said “proved” Will could not have been shot by the PRI gunmen.
Rather, Caña alleged that someone from the APPO side shot Will at close range in the street, and later at point-blank range as he was being transported to the hospital, in order, she claimed, to create an “international incident.”
Caña based this supposition on the two 9 mm bullets extracted from Will’s body (initially reported to be AR-15 rifle bullets), which she claims were fired from the same gun—as well as Will’s own videotape, which she said appeared to pick up warnings from the demonstrators for him to stop filming just before he was shot.
Her charges outraged leaders of APPO who accused state officials of fabricating evidence in order to win the release of the two PRI officials currently in custody.
“It seems a very clear fabrication and a stupid way of trying to blame the protesters,” charged APPO spokesperson Florentino Lopez.
U.S. officials have also expressed concern. The Mexican daily El Universal reported that the FBI is now looking into the case, although U.S. officials would not confirm what role the FBI might play.
“We are awaiting the results of the investigation, and have made known that we expect the investigation to be rigorous,” a spokesperson from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said.
The Oaxacan authorities’ new murder theory contradicts the abundant media footage showing the frantic demonstrators carrying his injured body amid a hail of gunfire, then struggling to revive him. If someone from APPO wanted him dead, they could have just let him die in the street. Why bother putting him in a car then shooting him again? And how could any expert tell from photos of the body that the second shot was delivered 15 minutes later?
One U.S. official told the Voice, “I don’t know anyone who believes what they’re saying.”
On Wednesday, Amnesty International criticized the state’s case as “biased and confused” and called on the Mexican federal government to bring in “foreign experts” to review the evidence. The rights group also recommended that the case be taken up by the Mexican federal prosecutor’s office for crimes against journalists.
The next day, the attorney general backtracked and said no one from her office ever told the media that Will had been shot at point-blank range, as was widely reported by AP and in the Mexican press. Instead, Caña asserted that both of the bullets that hit Will were fired at “close” range—between one and three meters away. Nevertheless, Caña stood by her theory that the PRI gunmen currently in custody were too far away to have shot Will.
The attorney general’s conflicting accusations have only fueled the rumor and speculation about Will’s death in Mexico. (See especially the conservative blogger Mark in Mexico, who’s been quick to pounce on APPO.)
Many fear the actual killers will never be held accountable. The state officials investigating the crime have a vested interest in blaming Will’s death on the protesters, whom Caña has termed “terrorists” and “urban guerrillas.”
But APPO, which last week announced it would name its own “commission” to investigate, also has a stake in politicizing Will’s death. The conspiracy posed by Caña mirrors the theory initially voiced by APPO leaders, who accused the governor and state officials of gunning down an American journalist to create a pretext for federal action—in this case the dispatching by Mexican president Vicente Fox of more than 4,000 federal police to put down the Oaxaca rebellion.
Now APPO is alleging that the second bullet to Will’s side may have been delivered by the state after Will died, in order to help create a “smokescreen” around his murder.
The Mexican network Televisa ran an interview with a local doctor who accompanied the gravely injured Will to the Red Cross, first in a VW bug and later in a pickup truck, after the VW ran out of gas. This doctor, who signed Will’s body over to the coroner, insisted he never saw a second bullet wound.
But photos taken immediately after Will collapsed on the street clearly show a second wound on his side.
Javier Otaola, a photographer for the Mexican daily Excelsior, gave the Voice a sequence of shots showing a wound to the right side of Will’s abdomen, in the same area where that second bullet was found to have entered his body.
The wound in Otaola’s photos matches the location of the second bullet wound in pictures taken at the morgue.
Otaola said that although he didn’t notice it at the time, he believes Will may have been struck by this second bullet just seconds after he was felled by the fatal shot to the center of his abdomen.
Otaola’s photo was taken as the demonstrators struggled to carry Will’s limp body out of the line of fire. His testimony and photos directly challenge the state’s hypothesis that an APPO supporter delivered this second bullet point blank as a coup de grace 15 to 20 minutes later, while Will’s body was being transferred from one car to another on the way to the Red Cross.
The Mexican [Oaxacan] daily Noticias made note of the apparent “contradiction” raised by the Excelsior photos. Yet strangely, neither Excelsior nor anyone else in the Mexican press has published them.
According to the U.S. consul in Oaxaca, the state coroner reported that the second shot was not lethal, and that the first shot, which hit just below his sternum, had likely killed Will within minutes due to massive internal bleeding. (The bullet passed through his liver and aorta and lodged in the spine.)
Will’s family has not yet released the results of the autopsy. But on Tuesday, the chief medical examiner who performed the autopsy went on television to dispute the state’s findings. He said there were no powder burns on Will’s body, as the state had previously alleged, and said both shots were fired from a distance. (One source close to the case told the Voice the autopsy found the two shots were fired from the same gun and from a distance of no less than 15 meters, but that has not been confirmed.)
There are still many unknowns, among them just how Will could have been gunned down from afar when his own video shows several APPO supporters standing in front of him at the moment he’s hit.
Witnesses have said the PRI shooters were firing from a house up the block and from behind a dump truck parked down the street. Caña claims the PRI gunmen in custody were firing from the street and could not have hit Will at the angles by which the bullets entered his body.
Now she is using Will’s tape, readily available online, to raise suspicions about the APPO supporters or sympathizers who were close by at the time he was hit.
By enhancing the audio, the state’s experts picked up dialogue from APPO demonstrators warning Will and other cameramen in the area not to film.
The following exchange was quoted in the Mexico City daily Milenio:
—Don’t be taking photos, turn off your fucking cameras.
—What did I tell you, man? Don’t be taking photos.
A gunshot is heard, and someone yells, “No, no, no.”
Immediately, another gunshot is heard.
According to the attorney general, that’s when Will screams and drops the camera.
Caña alleges the sound of the gunshot proves it was fired at close range, and claims Will’s camera even picks up the sound of someone jacking a cartridge into a pistol.
But others say it would be very hard to gauge the firing distance from the audio alone, given the type of unidirectional mic Will was using, which would have amplified the sound of an immediate impact to his body.
Moreover, Will was hit smack in the center of his abdomen, as his camera faced forward. If the shot were fired at close range, how could he not have filmed the shooter? The prosecutor claims Will had turned his body sideways but kept his camera pointing forward.
That seems like a stretch. But the questions raised by Will’s tape are all the more unsettling given that the Voice has learned Will’s footage was edited by activists in Oaxaca, in part because it captured a few jacked-up young men on the APPO side brandishing pistols and other rudimentary weapons that day.
No one is saying anyone edited out footage of Will being shot by an APPO sympathizer. On the contrary, all the witnesses the Voice spoke to, including two cameramen for major dailies, insisted the shots that took down Will and injured several others (including a photographer for Milenio) all came from the Priistas.
Still, the revelation that Will’s tape, as it exists on the Internet, is no longer pristine at least complicates the case. Could his death have been the result of friendly fire, even intentional friendly fire?
Otaola, who had turned to run away when Will got hit, insists that’s not possible. “He could not have been shot at point blank,” he says. “There was not anyone armed in front of him.”
His account was backed by another photographer for a major Mexican daily who asked not to be named. “The shots were only coming from the Priistas side. I saw him get shot in the chest. There was one bullet and that was in the chest,” said the photographer, who added that he saw none of the APPO sympathizers bearing guns at the time Will was hit.
Otaola also dismissed the state’s contention that the demonstrators could have targeted Will because they didn’t want him to film them. He notes that there were at least four others filming in the immediate area, including a guy with a TV camera. Moreover, he said, APPO warnings about being photographed during protests are common.
“The APPO are afraid of the government identifying them from pictures and putting them in jail, or getting kidnapped,” he said. “But I don’t think that was an excuse to kill Brad.”
According to Otaola, demonstrators on the scene laid Will on the street as a photographer for a human rights group tried to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation—hardly the actions of people complicit in his murder.
Yet by editing Will’s tape, the activists may have made their version of the shooting vulnerable to questioning, despite the evidence and testimony pointing to the PRI gunmen.
Now some of Will’s rescuers have gone into hiding for fear they could wind up charged with the crime. Caña has raised the possibility of new arrests.
Last Saturday, more than 300 residents and APPO supporters marched through Santa Lucia del Camino to protest the state’s accusations.
“People are really scared now,” says Emilie Smith, an Anglican priest from Canada. She works with the indigenous rights group CIPO, which runs a collective house in Oaxaca near where Will was shot. “They seem to be setting up somebody for a fall.”
However flimsy and conflicting, the state’s accusations have succeeded in coloring public perceptions in Mexico. At one point last week, 36 percent of the posters to an online poll on Yahoo’s Mexico page said they believed APPO had shot Will.
It’s all too much for Will’s family. “We are outraged at this recent turn of events and are pressing forward with the U.S. State Department as well as other sources to demand an full and independent investigation,” says Brad’s sister Christy Will. “We know that can’t happen with the existing corrupt government that’s there.”
The family has called for the creation of an independent federal commission in Mexico to look into Will’s shooting and the attacks that killed two others that day and injured scores of others. They have also requested a formal “inquiry into the extent to which higher-level officials in the state government of Oaxaca have been involved in both Brad’s murder and other human rights violations.”
Federal law enforcement officials in Mexico say they are monitoring the probe closely and have asked that state turn over its evidence—though on Sunday La Jornada reported that Oaxacan authorities have “resisted” doing so and appear to be stalling.
Christy Will says her family is being cautious about releasing more specifics in her brother’s case, in part out of concern for other independent journalists and activists in Oaxaca. Since her brother’s death and the crackdown on APPO by federal police, there have been numerous police raids on activists’ homes and reports of arbitrary detentions, “disappearances” and even “torture” by federal police.
“We’re really concerned about people’s safety,” she says. “There are witnesses in hiding because they are so fearful they could be targeted for what they know.”
“The human-rights violations are endless,” she continues. “This is way bigger than Brad. This is alarming and frightening, and we’re also incredibly angry.”