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Seven Years in Impunity

Categories mexico, social movements, solidarity1 Comment

Today is the seventh anniversary of Brad Will’s murder in Oaxaca. October 27, 2006, paramilitary police officers killed the independent reporter and activist as he filmed them barrel down on the barricade he held down alongside members of APPO- the city-wide assembly which formed out of a teacher’s strike and soon consumed the city. This is also the week to honor the dead. Día de los Muertos is November 2nd and altars are starting to go up for those passed on. It feels fitting to honor one of the dead of the strange tribe that I find myself a part of- American radicals in Mexico.

Llegó el momento de las mujeres con el pesar en los ojos. Tres mujeres, tres viudas. Florina Jiménez Colmenares, Angélica Martinez Avella, Carmen Marín García. Hablaron con el corazón en la mano, lamentando el dolor de los familiares de Brad, alabando a Brad por ser un periodista inocente que quiso contar las verdades de los pueblos de Oaxaca, y pidieron a la familia que luchara para que se hiciera justicia porque ya sabían que no habría justicia en ninguno de los otros asesinatos si el de Brad, el extranjero, quebada en la impunidad.

The moment for the women, with heaviness in their eyes, arrived. Three women, three widows. Florina Jiménez Colmenares, Angélica Martinez Avella, Carmen Marín García. They spoke with their hearts in their hands, lamenting Brad’s relatives’ pain, praising Brad for being an innocent journalist who wanted to recount the truth of Oaxaca’s communities, and imploring the family to fight for justice to be served, because they already knew that there wouldn’t be justice for any of the other murders if Brad’s, the foreigner, remained in impunity.

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El levantamiento en Oaxaca: afan de impunidad de Brad Will. John Gibler, 2012.

My translation to English from Spanish text.

You’re not supposed to cry in cafes. Sip your coffee, surf WiFi, chat with a friend. Mexico might permit more emotional expression than back in New England, but crying is a bit much.

But here I am, fighting tears in Cafe Brujula in downtown Oaxaca. Like it or not, I’ve always had some sort of connection to Brad. Falling in with a crowd of organizers a decade my senior in Western Massachusetts, the degrees of separation were few. While my less-informed friends were fretting whether I’d be killed in a narco-gun battle, the radical ones were more preoccupied by death-by-paramilitary. But Chiapas was one thing and Brad’s death in Oaxaca in 2006 was another. That’s what I told myself, preserving the calculated confidence that moving to a foreign country required. A friend and mentor had lived with Brad in squats on the Lower East Side. We talked about him over coffee before I packed up from my four years in the hills and valleys of Western Massachusetts and left town. She remembered him as boisterous and fearless. Hopping trains, climbing fire escapes. After four years of reading theory and imagining the big scary world, from our little cozy corner, I knew the appeal.

Now after months in neighboring Chiapas, I’ve made it to Oaxaca. In San Cristobal my position is dubious, my activities decidedly un-touristic. But here I know I’m an outsider, a tourist. Most of all a yanqui.

I bought the little book in La Jícara, the political bookstore cafe a friend tipped me off to. Reading in Spanish is still hard, and each book feels like a milestone. “First book finished in Spanish.” “First fiction book.” This one is awarded “First book in Spanish that I can’t put down and read it cover to cover in two days.”

In Oaxaca and San Cristobal both you walk in the footsteps of such recent, such revolutionary history. Even as a zapo- APPO-turista, you don’t see the dirty details. In Mexico’s relentless march of capitalist development, social movements are squashed for you, highways pave rainforests for you, hotels dispossess urban collective spaces for you, luxury airports rob campesinos of their lives and livelihoods.1

Revolutions certainly aren’t good for business and in January ’95 Chase Bank sent a now-famous memo, stating that, “The government will have to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy.”

But every rule has its exception and today the revolutionary history brings in the back-packers in droves. Across the country and the world Chiapas has become a beacon for those of us who believe another world is possible. But the big bucks are in the luxury hotels next to Mayan ruins, the rainforest canopy tours, the international conventions. Eager to welcome monied foreigners, the Mexican government also isn’t afraid to kick out the trouble-makers.

By the time you realize it’s all a lie, sitting in the zócalo taking in the afternoon scene, it’s too late. Your coffee is rainforest-shade-grown-organic-fair trade certified and the folkloric dance is sponsored by the state government’s cultural authorities and even if you stay at the edgy hostel with the Che Guevara logo, you’ve bought into the carefully constructed myth of Mexican prosperity and multi-culturalism.

Sitting here drinking my coffee, it’s a beautiful morning. The bright, crisp sunshine that’s making me fall in love with Oaxaca pours into the courtyard. It was in these very streets where it all went down. Briefly America and the rest of the world looked to Oaxaca, as they had looked to Chiapas in ’94. But now the gaze is reserved for language students, tourists and retirees. Teacher protests are making news again, the same old bullshit why the unions are destroying Mexican economic growth. Forgive my hysterics. Your city is beautiful and I will continue spending money here. It’s your history, your broken political system, that’s breaking my heart.

On October 2nd this year thousands marched through the streets of Oaxaca, San Cristobal, Mexico City and many other cities across the country. As the multitude flowed in the Zócalo in Oaxaca I watched from the sidelines, trying to explain to my parents why they march each year. Someone spray-painted in red block letters “GO HOME YANKEE,” just up the street from the Zócalo. I went back a day later to take a picture, but it was already painted over, the tranquil order of the tourist thorough-fare restored.

Messages about killing government officials, smashing the media establishment, and justice for political prisoners all remain emblazoned on downtown streets. For the tourist they are too removed, too situated in Mexican politics to pose a threat. Yet questioning our presence here crosses a line none of those messages do.


Brad also crossed that line, planting himself in the barricades, the heart of the 2006 rebellion, and broad-casting what he saw to US audiences.

In the cruel impunity of state violence in Mexico, he was the sole death of 23 during those months in Oaxaca to receive any investigation. When a gringo got killed the rebellion finally made headlines in the US.

It’s not yet time for this Yankee to go home. Just to remember the bloodshed that precedes the white-washing of city streets. To remember colonization continues. And the people relentlessly righting every day to forge a different reality. To Brad. And to all the dead who aren’t remembered outside their community because they were born brown, because they were born poor, because they were born indigenous.

Further information on Brad Will:

March in Oaxaca to commemorate Brad:


1These references in order: (1) Chase Bank memo, (2) The Palenque-San Cristobal highway a secretive project to build a highway to facilitate tourism to Palenque, (3) based on personal experiences in San Cristobal, (4) the planned luxury airport in San Salvador Atenco, outside Mexico City, ignited fierce resistance among local communities, who would have lost the land they cultivate to sustain themselves to the construction project. In May 2006 federal police entered the community, violently arrested dozens, including numerous women who were sexually assaulted after their arrest, and resulting in two deaths.

1 thought on “Seven Years in Impunity

  1. Wow, Martha. Great analysis! I love hearing your perspective one what its like being an outsider and a traveler. My instinct is often to feel the guilt and shame and just pack my bags. I really appreciate you sitting with the complexity of it. Also great to hear commemoration for Brad and the role he played as an “outsider” who played such a key role alongside so many other incredible and incredibly brave folks.

    Your writing is beautiful! Keep rocking!

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