Searching for the Oaxacan Governor in NYC

protest3.jpgProtesters were waiting for Ulises Ruiz, the governor of Oaxaca, to make an appearance, except he never did. Photos by Sarah Ferguson

It felt a little like an Elvis sighting.

On Saturday, about 100 jeering demonstrators gathered outside the Mexican consulate in hopes of confronting the much-reviled governor of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz. If only they could find him.

Last summer, Ruiz was the object of the protests that transformed Oaxaca into an urban war zone after protesters barricaded streets and took over radio stations to try and force him from power. Many accuse Ruiz of launching a violent campaign to repress the uprising, resulting in the shooting deaths of more than 20 activists—including New York Indymedia journalist Brad Will.

Will was gunned down on October 27 as he filmed a clash between protesters and plainclothes police on the outskirts of Oaxaca City. Despite ample evidence—including Will’s own videotape—implicating local police and state officials in the shooting—Will’s killers remain free.

So when the Mexican media reported that Ruiz would be part of a delegation of Mexican governors visiting New York and several other cities to address immigration reform, activists began mobilizing.

protest2.jpgWaiting for Ruiz.

“We have a murderer among us!” someone shouted outside the Mexican consulate in midtown on Saturday as protesters blanketed the cast-iron fence with placards and signs denouncing Ruiz as a killer.

A few tomatoes were lobbed at the upper floors. But aside from the security guards, the place seemed empty. Then someone spotted the Mexican delegation dining up the block at Salute, an upscale Italian restaurant on the corner of Madison and 39th Street.

Could that guy with the black mustache and open-collar shirt sitting at a table of well-dressed Mexican officials really be Ruiz? The protesters peering through the restaurant’s plate glass windows weren’t sure. He looked thinner than the cartoon mug shots of Ruiz plastered all over Oaxaca and the Net, and he wasn’t wearing specs like Ruiz usually does.

But when a member of the wait staff told a reporter that Ruiz was there and wouldn’t be giving any comment to the press, that seemed confirmation enough.

"Ya cayo! Ya cayo! Ulises ya cayo!" the demonstrators chanted, echoing the familiar refrain of the protesters in Oaxaca. ("He has fallen, he has fallen. Ulises has already fallen!")

Activists papered the front windows with flyers denouncing Ruiz as a “terrorist” along with big placards demanding that he resign.

"Ruiz is the Pinochet of Oaxaca," said Victor Toro, a Chilean exile who braved the protest even though he's now facing deportation charges after 24 years in the U.S. "We feel he has no right to talk about immigration when his policies of violence and economic hardships have made it impossible for people to live in Oaxaca."

When the manager came out to rip down the signs, one of Will’s friends jammed his foot in the door, then bolted inside. He was quickly forced out by the wait staff and manager, who appeared ready to slug the interloper in the street. Moments later, the same activist ran up and toppled all the sidewalk tables.

The startled Mexican delegates retreated to the back of the restaurant, where they were held virtually hostage by the protesters for more than two hours, until police set up a gauntlet to escort them out of the restaurant.

“Asesinos!” [“Murderers!”], the crowd shrieked as the delegates scurried into several waiting cabs and SUVs. “You’ve got blood on your hands!”

Although one Mexican woman insisted she’d seen Ruiz, the press officer for the consulate told the Voice that Ruiz was not in the restaurant. In fact, he didn't come to New York at all.

Apparently, either the advance reports about the governors' tour were wrong, or Ruiz ducked out at the first sign of controversy. One Mexican daily reported that Ruiz went to Los Angeles on Thursday. But there’s no mention of him at subsequent stops in Chicago and Dallas, let alone New York. According to an account in Sunday’s La Jornada, the delegation in New York included the governors from three other states—Guanajuato, Colima, and Zacatecas—as well as “representatives” from Oaxaca. No Ruiz.

Some Mexican immigrants who were invited to meet with their governors were upset that the afternoon press conference and meeting at the consulate were canceled due to the ruckus at the restaurant. "We were going to talk to the governors about the exploitation of the immigrants here and we couldn't. It's not right. The people from the consulate were very upset," remarked one woman who asked not to be named.

Yet for Will’s friends and supporters, the opportunity to express their rage to Ruiz’s appointees and the other Mexican officials was worth it—even if Ruiz himself didn't show. “They need to know that Ruiz is a problem and he has to go,” said Chelsea Mozen.

Will’s friends aren’t the only ones looking to turn up the heat on Ruiz. On July 31, Amnesty International released a scathing report on Oaxaca’s human rights crisis that calls on Ruiz to address the use of “torture,” arbitrary arrests, and “excessive force” by both state and federal security forces to suppress the popular rebellion. The report also faults the Ruiz government for failing to hold anyone accountable for the deaths and the "unlawful killings" of at least 18 people, including Brad Will.

Beyond Ruiz, the report condemns federal authorities in Mexico for failing to open a new investigation into the murder of Will after state prosecutors botched the case by presenting bogus evidence purporting to show that protesters had shot Will at close range.

“The clearest avenue of investigation—that is to locate the weapons used by [police] officials identified in photographs and to carry out thorough ballistics cross-checks with the bullets recovered in the autopsy—was never pursued effectively, as only two official revolvers in the police station were checked, even though photo evidence indicated that at least one official was using a semi-automatic rifle."

Ruiz has dismissed the report as “one-sided” and accused Amnesty officials of being “advisors” to APPO (the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca), the coalition of labor, student and indigenous groups that banded together to demand his resignation.

On August 7, Amnesty’s Secretary General Irene Khan met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to urge him to intervene: "Given the palpable failure of the state government to properly investigate abuses, ending impunity in Oaxaca would be a clear demonstration to Mexican society and to the international community that the government of President Felipe Calderón is committed to protecting, ensuring and fulfilling human rights," Khan said.

Similarly, last month, Illinois Senator and Majority Whip Dick Durbin wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanding that she pressure the Mexican government to investigate the murder of Will (who grew up on Chicago’s North Shore) and several others killed in Oaxaca the same day.

“I understand that murder is a state crime in Mexico. However, since sufficient action has not been taken on the state level, I urge you to press the Mexican federal government to swiftly complete a thorough investigation of the killing of Bradley Will and the Oaxaca protestors,” Durbin wrote.

Several Congress members have also urged Rice to seek justice in Will’s case—among them New York reps Carolyn Maloney and Jose Serrano of the South Bronx, who noted that Will had been active with community groups in his district.

In a May 14 letter to Rice, Serrano wrote:

“The murder of Mr. Will raises a larger issue about the role of the Mexican government in aggressively pursuing a cessation of murder, beatings, and torture carried out by police and paramilitary groups in Oaxaca, Guadalajara, San Salvador, and Atenco. Some of my newest constituents hail from these regions and have fled their former homes in the face of escalating violence and intimidation by these groups. I am hopeful that you will urge President Calderon to fully investigate and pursue all allegations of such abuses.”

State Department officials have expressed “concerns” over Will’s death and say they are following the investigations by both state and federal authorities in Mexico.

But with federal prosecutors in Mexico still relying on the state’s evidence—or lack thereof—rather than opening up a whole new investigation into Will’s shooting, his case appears to have hit a dead end.

protest1.jpgBrad Will remembered.

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