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WHO KILLED BRAD WILL?

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;Those of us who report from the front lines of the social justice movement in Latin America share an understanding that there's always a bullet out there with our names on it. Brad Will traveled 2,500 miles, from New York to a 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 rolled through the cobblestone streets of this eponymous colonial state capital, the pistoleros of a despised governor, peppering with automatic weapon fire the flimsy barricades erected by masked rebels. Hundreds were killed, wounded or imprisoned.

;;Will, a New York video journalist with the Independent Media Center (known as Indymedia), was there to chronicle the conflict. Xenophobia was palpable from the moment Will touched ground. Foreign journalists were attacked as terrorists by the governor's sycophants in the press: "Si ves un gringo con camera, matanlo!" the radio urged. Translation: "If you see a gringo with a camera, kill him!"

;;On the afternoon of Oct. 27, someone did exactly that. Brad Will videotaped his own murder. On his final bits of film, you see two killers perfectly framed, their guns firing. You hear a fatal shot and then Will's shudder of dismay as the camera tumbles from his hands. Photos published by El Universal newspaper at the same time show the same gunmen. They're perfectly identifiable, and indeed were later identified by the Mexican press as police officers.

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;Despite the seemingly damning evidence, the Mexican government has yet to hold anyone to account for Will's murder. Moreover, the heinous, controversial killing of an American reporter has drawn little response from Washington, D.C., or United States Ambassador Tony Garza. Why the lack of interest?

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;In the end, a cynic could conclude, it's all about oil.

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;HEADING SOUTH

;Will, a child of privilege from Chicago's North Shore, was a legitimate street hero in Manhattan in the years before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He hosted an incendiary weekly show on the pirate radio station Steal This Radio and was an early part of Indymedia, the web publishing experiment born out of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Will was an independent journalist, one of the growing number who used the Internet and their own video cameras to report on social injustice.

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;Before hopping a Sept. 29 flight to Mexico – and ultimately to his demise – Will spent the previous four years reporting in Latin America. He confronted the director of the Inter-American Development Bank in Brazil during riotous street protests. He and fellow journalist Dyan Neary went to Bolivia and interviewed future president Juan Evo Morales, and traveled in the Chapare region with coca growers. They hung out in Cochabamba with Oscar Oliviera, the hero of the battle to keep Bechtel from taking over the city's water system.

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;In February 2005, Will was in the thick of social upheaval in Brazil, filming the resistance of 12,000 squatters at a camp near the city of Goiânia when the military police swept in, killing two and jailing hundreds. On his videos, you can hear the live ammunition zinging around him as he captures the carnage. Will was savagely beaten and held by the police. Only his U.S. passport saved him.

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;Undaunted, Will picked up his camera and soldiered back through Peru and Bolivia. He only flew back to New York to raise enough money for the next trip south. In early 2006, he tracked Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas' Other Campaign through the Mayan villages on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. That spring, Will went back to New York and tracked the Other Campaign and the incipient rebellion in Oaxaca on the Internet from his room in Brooklyn.

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;Ultimately, the lure of the action in Oaxaca pulled him in. He flew south Sept. 29. His return was set for Oct. 28.

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;He never made the flight.

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;THE COMMUNE OF OAXACA

;Oaxaca ranks among Mexico's poorest states in nearly every poverty indicator imaginable: infant mortality, malnutrition, unemployment and illiteracy, as well as widespread human rights violations. It vibrates with class and race tensions that cyclically erupt into uprising and repression.

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; The Party of the Institutional Revolution, or PRI, ruled Mexico from 1928 through 2000, until the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and its picaresque presidential candidate, Vicente Fox, former president of Coca Cola-Mexico, dethroned it. But in Oaxaca, the PRI never lost power. While all over the country voters were throwing off the PRI yoke, in Oaxaca one PRI governor had followed another for 75 years. In the latest installment, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz won a fraud-marred gubernatorial election over a right-left coalition in 2004.

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;In the first 16 months of his regime, Ortiz proved unresponsive to the social justice movement. On May 15, 2006 – National Teachers Day – a militant leader of the National Education Workers Union (called Section 22) presented its contract demands, and the governor turned a deaf ear. A week later, tens of thousands of teachers took the 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-Ortiz slogans.

;; Ortiz retaliated on June 14, sending 1,000 armed police into the plaza to evict the teachers. Low-flying helicopters sprayed pepper gas. Ortiz's police took up positions in the hotels that surround the plaza and tossed concussion grenades from the balconies. Radio Planton, the maestros' pirate radio station, was demolished and the tent city set afire. A pall of black smoke hung over the city.

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;Four hours later, the teachers and their supporters stormed back, armed with clubs and Molotov cocktails, and overran the plaza and sent Ortiz's cops fleeing. No uniformed police officers were seen on the city's streets for months. On June 16, 200,000 Oaxacans marched through the city to repudiate the governor's "hard hand."

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;John Gibler, who covered the Oaxaca uprising as a human rights fellow for Global Exchange, writes that the surge of rebels transformed itself into a popular assembly. The Oaxaca People's Popular Assembly, or APPO, was formally constituted on June 21. The APPO would have no leaders but many spokespersons, and all decisions would be taken in popular assemblies.

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;For weeks, the APPO and Section 22 paralyzed Oaxaca, but the rest of Mexico didn't notice. Instead, the nation was hypnotized by the hotly contested July 22 presidential election, in which the right-wing Felipe Calderon won a narrow victory over leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Obrador cried fraud, and millions of his supporters poured into the streets. It was the most massive political demonstration in Mexican history. In comparison, Oaxaca seemed like small potatoes.

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;But Oaxaca is an international tourist destination, and the APPO and Section 22 had closed down the tourist infrastructure. The airport was blocked and five-star hotels had to shut their doors. On July 17, Ortiz announced the cancellation of 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.

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;In early August, the governor launched what came to be known as a Caravan of Death – a train of 30 or 40 private and government vehicles rolling nightly, firing at the protesters. The gunmen were drawn from the ranks of the city police force and the state ministerial cops.

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;To head off the Caravan of Death, the APPO and the maestros threw up barricades. The rebels piled up dead trees, old tires, the carcasses of burnt-out cars and buses to create the barricades, which soon took on a life of their own. Murals were painted with the ashes of the bonfires that burned all night on the barriers. The barricades gave the Oaxaca struggle the romantic aura of the Paris Commune, and attracted droves of dreadlocked anarchists to the city.

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;By the time Brad Will arrived, an uneasy lull in the action gripped Oaxaca. It wouldn't last long.

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Watch the video of Brad Will's last stand
Story continues below
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;ON THE BARRICADES

;Will had no Mexican press credentials and was therefore in the country illegally, working on a tourist visa and susceptible to deportation. So that he would have something other than his Indymedia press card to hang around his neck, he got himself accredited at Section 22 and wore the rebel ID assiduously.

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;On Oct. 14, APPO militant Alejandro Garcia Hernandez was killed at a barricade downtown. Will joined an angry procession to the hospital where the dead man had been taken. In the last dispatch he filed from Oaxaca, on Oct. 16, Will caught this very Mexican whiff of death: "Now (Alejandro) lies there waiting for Nov. 2, 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."

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;The dynamic in Oaxaca had gotten "sketchy," Will wrote to Neary. Section 22 leader Enrique Rueda Pacheco cut a deal with the outgoing Fox government and forced a back-to-work vote Oct. 21. It narrowly passed, though not without its own allegations of chicanery. If the teachers went back to work, as the vote seemed to indicate they would, the APPO would be alone on the barricades and even more vulnerable to Ortiz's gunmen. The APPO wasn't about to back down. It voted to do just the opposite: ratchet up the conflict and try to make Oaxaca truly ungovernable.

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;The APPO formed brigades of young toughs armed with lead pipes and nail-filled boards. They hijacked the buses that were still running in the city, forced the passengers off and drove around looking for action. Then they set the buses ablaze. The escalation proved a terrible miscalculation. In Mexico City, the post-electoral turmoil subsided and the conservative PAN party was ready to deal with its political rival, PRI. Bailing out the Oaxaca governor was the price of admission.

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;It wasn't a good time for foreigners. Ortiz's people were checking hostels' guest lists for internationals they deemed inconven-ient. 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.

;;Then on Oct. 26, a new pirate radio station emerged on the FM dial. Radio Ciudadana announced it was broadcasting "to bring peace to Oaxaca" and to celebrate the honor of "our macho, very macho governor." The broadcasters let loose such vitriolic invectives as "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."

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;It's unclear whether Will heard or understood the rhetoric that blasted from the radio Oct. 26 and 27. He didn't speak much Spanish.

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;BRAD'S BULLET

;On Oct. 27, Will went out to do interviews on the barricade at Cal y Canto. That outpost was crucial to the APPO's effort to close down Oaxaca. The broad Railroad Avenue, where the barricade was stacked, was empty. Nothing moved. Will walked onto the next barricade at La Experimental to check out the action.

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;Shortly after he left, all hell broke loose at Cal y Canto. A mob of 150 of the governor's supporters stormed down Railroad Avenue, led by a fast-moving SUV. "We thought it would try and crash through the barricade," says Miguel Cruz, an activist with the Council of Indigenous People of Oaxaca. But the SUV stopped short and several men jumped out with guns blazing. The rebels hunkered down behind the makeshift barrier and moved the women and children who were with them into a nearby house. Then they counterattacked with Molotov cocktails, homemade bazookas that fired bottle rockets and slingshots. The mob melted away, and with the gunmen retreating, the rebels torched their car.

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;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. He climbed under a parked trailer to video the gunmen, and focused his camera on a man in a white shirt. Meanwhile, his camera captured a bicyclist pedaling dreamily through the intersection, and then a large dump truck that appeared, which the group on the barricade used as a mobile shield while they chased the gunmen down Railroad Avenue.

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;Suddenly, the pistoleros veered down a narrow side street and took refuge in a windowless, one-story building, the only access to which was a large metal garage door. The reporters followed the APPO militants, many of them with their faces masked, as they tried and force their way in. Will stood to one side of the door for a minute, poised for the money shot. The rebels tried to knock down the door by ramming it with the dump truck. That didn't work.

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;In the midst of this frenzy, five men in civilian clothes — two in red shirts (colors worn by the governor's loyalists) and three others in white shirts – appeared about 30 meters away and began shooting at the rebels.

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;The two men in red shirts were later identified by the Mexican news media as Pedro Carmona, a local PRI political fixer and cop, and police commander Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello. One of the white shirts crouched down behind Carmona was Abel Santiago Zarate, aka "El Chapulin" (which means "grasshopper"). Zarate and Coello were reported to be the personal bodyguards of PRI municipal president Manuel Martínez Feria. The other two white shirts were identified as Juan Carlos Soriano and Juan Sumano, both police officers.

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;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 his bullet came for him. On the video, you hear the shot and listen to Will's cries of dismay as it tears through his Indymedia T-shirt and smashes into his heart. A second shot destroyed his innards, but produced little blood. The first slug stopped his heart from pumping.

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;The second shot is not recorded on the film's soundtrack and may have been fired simultaneously with the first one.

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;Others were hit in the pandemon-ium. Oswaldo Ramirez, filming for the daily Milenio, was grazed in the fusillade. Lucio David Cruz, a bystander, was shot in the neck and died four months later.

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;As Will slid down the wall into a sitting position, another journalist and an activist ran to him. With bullets whizzing by, they picked him up and dragged him around the corner and out of the line of fire. Along the way his pants fell off.

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;"Ambulance! We need an ambulance! They've shot a journalist!" one of Will's helpers yelled. They loaded Will into a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked nearby and drove toward a hospital, performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation along the way. "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.

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;The VW Bug ran out of gas, and rain began to pour down. They tried to stop a taxi to take them to the hospital, 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.

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; OUTRAGE

;Will wasn't the only person to die during the Oaxaca uprising. Between May 2006 and January 2007, 26 people perished in that conflict. Nor is he the only journalist to die at an assassin's bullet. Nine reporters have disappeared or been killed during the past year in Mexico, most under the guns of narcotics gangs. But he is the most notable. Will's death triggered international outrage. Because he was so connected – and because much of the episode was recorded on film – the image of the mortally wounded reporter lying in the middle of an Oaxaca street went worldwide on the Internet in a matter of minutes.

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;There were vigils on both American coasts. On Oct. 30, 11 of Will's friends were busted trying to lock down the Mexican Consulate, off Manhattan's Park Avenue, where two months later graffiti still read, "Avenge Brad!" Anarchists splattered the San Francisco Mexican consulate with red paint. There were memorials and calls for international protests from various activists throughout the United States and Latin America.

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; The official reaction to Will's death was more muted. "It is unfortunate when peaceful demonstrations get out of hand and result in violence," a U.S. spokesperson told the media. After once again warning Americans that they traveled to Oaxaca "at their own risk," U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza, a Bush crony from his Texas days, 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, violence and disorder in Oaxaca have worsened. Teachers, students and other groups have been involved in increasingly violent demonstrations."

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;In other words, the Bush Administration blamed APPO for causing the disruption that led to Will's death. That statement signaled President Fox that it was time to act. On Oct. 28, 4,500 members of an elite military force were sent into Oaxaca, not to return the state to a place where human rights and peoples' dignity and a free press are respected, but to break the back of the rebellion and keep Ortiz in power.

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;On Oct. 29, the troops pushed their way into the plaza. They tore down the barricades and drove the Commune of Oaxaca back into the shadows.

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;In Mexico, the dead are buried quickly. After the obligatory autopsy, Will's body was shipped back to his parents, who live south of Milwaukee. After a private viewing, the family had the body cremated.

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;SHAM ACCOUNTABILITY

; On Oct. 29, state prosecutor Lizbeth Cana Cadeza announced that arrest warrants were being issued for two of the five cops caught on film firing shots at Brad Will. They were subsequently taken into custody.

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; Two weeks later, Cadeza dropped a bombshell: The cops hadn't killed Will, she said. He was actually 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, Cadeza said, although there is nothing in the autopsy report that supports this. The real killers were "the same group (Will) was accompanying."

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;In the state prosecutor's scenario, Brad had been shot in the side in the street and then finished off with a slug to the heart on the way to the hospital in the Volkswagen.

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;The APPO denied the claim. "The killers are those who are shown in the film," Florentino Lopez, the group's main spokesman, asserted that night.

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;In fact, there is little evidence to support the state'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 where he fell, indicating that his fatal heart wound had occurred well before he was dragged into the car where he was supposedly shot.

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;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 interviewed by this reporter tell the same tale: The rebels at the Cal y Canto barricade that day had no firearms.

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;"The companeros had no guns," says Miguel Cruz, who spent much of that day with Will. "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."

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;Cadeza never charged any of the rebels in Will's death, nor have Ortiz's prosecutors publicly presented the alleged murder weapon. But definitively disproving the official story would require exhuming Will's body, which is impossible because he was cremated.

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;On Nov. 28, a Mexican judge released the two men who'd been arrested for Will's murder because of "insufficient evidence."

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;ON THE EVIDENCE TRAIL

;"Will died eight months ago," says Dr. Luis Mendoza, who performed Will's autopsy. "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 police weren't eager to help this reporter's investigation either. Attempts to interview the officers accused of Will's murder were unsuccessful, despite a visit to the police station and a dozen phone calls.

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;Such stonewalling is nothing new in Mexico, where killer cops often sell their services to local political bosses and go back to work as if nothing happened. Those who direct this mayhem from their desks in the state houses and municipal palaces – the "intellectual assassins," as they are termed – are never held accountable for their crimes.

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;In March, Will's parents and older brother went to Oaxaca looking for answers, but didn't get far. The Mexican attorney general's office had taken over the case, but they were busy pursuing the official story, that APPO rebels killed Will. Four eyewitnesses to Will's death testified at a hearing in front of Will's parents, despite the ominous possibility that, at any moment, they could be arrested and charged for killing him. They weren't asked about the cops who they say shot Will; they were asked to testify about their own companeros, some of whom appeared, masked, on Mexican television. They refused.

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;The government also refused to let Will's family view his T-shirt or the two bullets that ended his life. They were under the control of the judge who set the accused cops free.

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; THE POLITICS OF OIL

;The crackdown in Oaxaca was all about a political deal between Calderon's PAN and Ortiz's PRI: Save Ortiz's ass, and the PRI would support the president's legislative package, which would guarantee Felipe the two-thirds majority he needs to alter the Mexican constitution. And at the top of Calderon's legislative agenda is opening PEMEX, the nationalized petroleum corporation, to private investment. That requires a constitutional amendment.

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;The White House very much favors the privatization. Since President Lazaro Cardenas expropriated and nationalized Mexico's petroleum industry from Anglo-American owners in 1938, the United States has been trying to take it back. "Transnational pressure to re-privatize PEMEX has been brutal," observes John Saxe Fernandez, a professor of strategic resource studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

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;During the run-up to the hotly contested July 2006 Mexican presidential elections, the two candidates debated the issue before members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico City. Leftist Obrador insisted he would never privatize what belonged to all Mexicans. But Calderon's pledge to open PEMEX to private investment drew wild applause from the American businessmen.

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;Calderon was Washington's horse in the race.

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;"Without the PRI's votes PEMEX will not be privatized," says Fernandez, the professor. "That is why Calderon has granted [Ortiz] impunity."

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;It is painful to imagine Brad Will as a pawn in anyone's power game. But as months tick by, and the killing and the killers sink into the morass of memory, that truth seems more and more undeniable.

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;Editor's note: 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 the University of California-Berkeley.

; feedback@orlandoweekly.com

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