Plan Mexico's Prisoner

Since U.S. journalist Brad Will was shot in the streets of Oaxaca during the 2006 uprising, the Mexican government has been dragging its feet on prosecuting his killers. But now that billions of U.S. drug war dollars hang in the balance, the government has tried to pin the murder charges on Juan Manuel Martínez. Evidence strongly shows Martínez's innocence, suggesting the Mexican government is trying to whitewash its human rights record.

August 7, 2009

On July 3 Mexican federal investigators pulled Juan Manuel Martínez Moreno from his prison cell to an interrogation room for the fifth time. The fierce questioning, laced with expletives and threats, had one goal: Force Martínez's confession to the murder of U.S. journalist Brad Will.

Martínez's lawyer, Alba Gabriela Cruz, says her client has suffered intense "psychological torture" and lives in fear. She says Martíinez once told her: "If I get out of here the federal investigators will want to kill me. I will have to leave Oaxaca."

Martínez and his lawyer insist he is being framed for the murder of Brad Will. Martínez was arrested two years after gunmen fatally wounded Will on October 27, 2006, while he was filming street protests on the streets of Oaxaca. Human rights groups have denounced the charges against him as a complete fabrication and have initiated a campaign to demand his release. Photographs of the shooting and Will's own video footage of his death clearly corroborate Martínez's version. Despite authorities total lack of evidence, Martínez remains in prison and faces a potential 40-year sentence.

Cruz believes the motive behind her client's incarceration is that for the Mexican government more than a billion dollars in drug war money hang in the balance. She says that prosecuting a culprit in the Will case – any culprit, guilty or not – helps the Mexican government whitewash its human rights record for the Obama administration. Not having someone in jail for Will's murder would be a public relations disaster for the $1.6 billion being offered to Mexico under the Mérida Initiative – Washington's anti-drug aid package, also known as Plan Mexico.

Cruz says, "In meetings we’ve had with the federal government they’ve told us that this is not a common case. It’s much more. It has deep international significance." The only reason that he is still incarcerated with no evidence, she insists, is that he is “a prisoner of the Mérida Initiative.”

Father José Rentería, who along with other Oaxacan priests spearheaded a bi-national letter to the U.S. and Mexican Presidents demanding Martínez’s freedom, echoed Cruz’s theory: “His imprisonment is needed to show that there is justice in Brad Will’s case. He is a scapegoat to clear the way for this U.S. military aid.”

Recent U.S. funding bills for military aid have not conditioned aid on the prosecution of Will's killers. But non-binding "explanatory statements" attached to the bills – including the first Plan Mexico bill passed in June 2008 – have described state and federal investigations into the murder as “flawed.” The statement also calls on the Secretary of State to submit a report “detailing progress in conducting a thorough, credible, and transparent investigation to identify the perpetrators of this crime and bring them to justice.” Similar language is attached to the 2009 installment of Plan Mexico.

The State Department has already filed one report on the case before Martinez’s arrest. The second report was blocked this week by Sen. Patrick Leahy, who rejected it for the report's praise of Mexico's progress on human rights.

Human rights organizations and international forensic experts have roundly denounced the Mexican government's investigations as deeply flawed. The government's own National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) has accused federal authorities of blindly following only one line of investigation: That Will was shot at close range by members of the social movement coalition known as the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO).

Forensic reports by the CNDH and the non-governmental Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) contradict the federal government's “short-range theory,” and all the available evidence shows the shots were fired from long-range. Pictures taken moments before Will fell to the ground show gunmen with their pistols raised and pointed in Will's direction, shooting to kill. The armed men in the pictures have all been identified and have links to the Oaxacan state government.

Nonetheless, federal investigators rejected this evidence. They base their accusations on the testimonies of two witnesses, both connected with the state government. And yet, even their testimonies do not directly identify Martínez as Brad Will’s killer.

Before the Mérida Initiative was introduced, the Will case had been dragging on for years. CNDH Ombudsman Jose Luis Soberanes, a government appointee, recognizes that the Mexican government was under pressure from Washington to resolve the case. "They weren’t going to get Merida Initiative resources if they didn’t resolve this case,” says Soberanes.

His perception is bolstered by the Mexican government's failure to prosecute anyone else for the more than 20 assassinations and hundreds of cases of arbitrary detention and torture during the Oaxacan social conflict in 2006. State and federal police have been accused of the bulk of these crimes. Yet the only one behind bars is Martínez.

Since his arrest, the State Department has not made any official statements about the federal investigation. When asked about the case, a State Department spokesperson gave a boilerplate response: "The State Department expects that any prosecutions in the Brad Will case will be fully transparent and based on the evidence." The State Department has not denounced the Martínez witch-hunt or the serious holes in the investigation, as detailed in both the CNDH and PHR reports.

Martínez was spending his ninth month in prison when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on July 16 that Mexico was “satisfactorily” complying with human rights. She assured that the upcoming State Department report would recommend the release of all Mérida Initiative funds. Clinton’s statement reassures not only the Mexican government, but also dozens of U.S. companies, such as Dyncorp and Blackwater, who are bidding for defense industry contracts under Plan Mexico.

Meanwhile, Martínez continues to languish in jail, refusing to confess to a murder he did not commit, despite police threats. His fears about police retaliation seem well founded: Martínez's family reports that police have been staking out his home, sometimes taking pictures.

As the State Department mulls over its next report on the Mérida Initiative, Martínez remains Plan Mexico's prisoner.

Todd Miller is a NACLA Research Associate.

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