Saturday, September 27, 2008

Hasta Siempre Sally Grace: Another US Activist Murdered in Oaxaca

In my memories of Sally Grace, she looks just like the photograph of her that her friends published along with the communique denouncing that she was raped and murdered--laughing and smiling with a camera in her hand.

Sally GraceSally told me she was a wanderer who had her strongest ties to Arizona. When she arrived in Oaxaca in the summer 2007 to help out local organizations in the popular struggle against Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, she published her photos, updates, and translations from the Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca - Ricardo Flores Magon (CIPO-RFM) and the APPO on Arizona Indymedia. When she went back to Arizona for a visit in March, she organized fundraising events and reportbacks where she showed photos and videos from the streets of Oaxaca and sold artisanry woven by CIPO women

Sally's friends in the CIPO-RFM, Encuentro de Mujeres Oaxaqueñas "Compartiendo Voces de Esperanza" ("Sharing Voices of Hope" Gathering of Oaxacan Women), Colectivo Mujer Nueva (New Woman Collective), Voces Oaxaqueñas Construyendo Autonomía y Libertad (Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Freedom), Colectivo Tod@s Somos Pres@s (We're all Prisoners Collective), and Encuentro de Jóvenes en el Movimiento Social Oaxaqueño (Gathering of Young People in the Oaxacan Social Movement) say that she helped out wherever needed, be it painting banners or murals, performing Arabic dances, organizing punk shows to raise money for the organizations she supported, teaching women's self-defense classes, or translating and teaching English. She also served as an international human rights observer, accompanying activists who felt threatened by the government or paramilitaries in Oaxaca.

Most recently, Sally accompanied family members of a witness in the case of murdered Indymedia journalist Brad Will. She lived in their home and accompanied them as they went about their daily lives. However, a family member decided that the situation put Sally's life in danger, too. For example, the mysterious people following the family didn't leave them alone, even if Sally was around. So the woman encouraged Sally to go off with some friends who were uninvolved in the movement.

***

Sally and I met in Oaxaca during the November 2007 commemorations and protests that marked the anniversary of Brad Will's murder. We woke up early the morning of the gathering that aimed to re-erect the barricades in the place where government agents shot Brad to death. Someone went out to check out the meeting spot. He came back pale. "There's police there. They're masked and they're grabbing everyone who shows up. We can't go." So we stayed hidden where we were, and Sally and I chatted about who we were and what we did. She talked about the neighborhood where she lived; she said it was dangerous because it was teeming with PRI members, supporters of the despised Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.

Hours later, Sally left with other compañeros and compañeras to participate in and take photos of a huge march called by the Section 22 teachers union and other APPO members. I stayed behind, using the excuse of other work that had to be done behind the scenes. Sally came back hours later and got to work uploading her photos of the march to Arizona Indymedia and her Flickr album. She worked all night while we slept.

We stayed holed up where we were for a few days. When a friend and I decided that the situation on the streets had sufficiently cooled down, we decided to venture outside to run errands downtown and find a new place to stay. Knowing that tattoos, dark clothing, and anything else "suspicious" would be more than enough reason to snatch us, we borrowed light clothing that covered our tattoos and bade farewell to Sally and the rest of the compañeros there. Then my friend and I walked out into the streets for the first time in days.

When we reached downtown we made our way towards the market. I don't know exactly at what point the pick-up truck full of municipal police began to follow us, but they made their presence known soon enough. Two cops jumped out of the back of the truck and, communicating with whistles and hand signals, ran towards us. One came around front and, without saying a word, pointed his automatic weapon in our faces.

I grabbed my companion's hand, and even though he didn't speak a word of English, I began to talk to him in English: "What's going on? What do they want?"

"Tranquila, tranquila," he responded. Act calm. Don't show them fear. They're looking to see if you get scared.

The police officer kept his gun leveled at our heads, first pointing it in my friend's face, then mine, then back again. "What's happening?" I asked in English.

The cop's colleagues whistled to him. He whistled back. Then he lowered his weapon and ran, disappearing around a corner. The pick-up full of cops peeled off. We continued towards the market as if nothing had happened.

I knew that being a reporter in Mexico entailed risks. Mexico is, after all, the most dangerous country in the hemisphere to be a reporter, and second in the world only to Iraq.

This point was driven home when I was working in Sonora in late October 2006. I was covering a Day of the Dead celebration with Subcomandante Marcos when everyone's cell phones began to ring. Those of us who answered got the bad news: they'd killed a gringo Indymedia reporter in Oaxaca. His name was Brad Will.

***

Sally's raped and decaying body turned up in a cabin 20 minutes outside of San Jose del Pacifico. A neighbor noticed the smell and called the police.

According to the friend who identified the body, her face was unrecognizable: it was black as if it had been burned, and all of her hair was gone as if it had been ripped out. But Julieta Cruz recognized Sally's tattoos.

Sally's murder may have passed as yet another case of sexual violence, completely unrelated to her political work with some of the most persecuted organizations in Oaxaca. But Sally's friends in Oaxaca City know that she was being followed as a result of her human rights work and her associations with CIPO and other Oaxacan organizations for whom political violence is a daily fact of life.

While Sally's friends can't say for sure that her murder was politically motivated, they are certain that the government is not doing enough to seek justice in her case. The police and attorney general's office are slow to act, and they are not interviewing key witnesses who saw Sally before she was murdered and may be able to identify whom she was with. To protest this lack of action, organizations who knew Sally held a protest on September 25, first in front of the US consulate in Oaxaca and then at the local attorney general's office. A CIPO spokesperson says CIPO simply doesn't have the resources to thoroughly investigate the case, and the government won't share information with anybody who isn't family. Therefore, they have to resort to pressuring the government to do its job and investigate the murder of Sally Grace.

***

Sally was not by any means a central figure in Oaxacan activism. She was not an organizer. On the contrary, she did the only thing a foreign activist can do: she helped out here and there as she could. And through her translations and reportbacks, she kept the lines of communication between the US and Oaxaca open. Long after international attention and outrage had fizzled in Oaxaca, Sally stayed and accompanied activists whose safety no longer matters to the international community. She didn't protect them and she didn't get involved--she just watched and listened.

So why would someone take the trouble to follow and then brutally murder someone like Sally?

My friend Sister Dianna Ortiz was disappeared and tortured in Guatemala in 1989. Sister Dianna taught Spanish to indigenous children, hardly a revolutionary or insurgent undertaking. She hadn't been in Guatemala long before she was disappeared. But they chose her.

Years later in her memoirs, Sister Dianna notes that torture and political violence aren't just intended for the individuals who physically suffer a violent act. Torture and political violence are meant to terrorize an entire population. When the attackers grabbed Sister Dianna--probably one of the least prominent and powerful people in her mission, and one without any connection whatsoever to the resistance--they sent a message to everyone: No one is safe.

If they'd grabbed a priest, a bishop, a social leader, or an insurgent, everyone else would have been able to explain it away, "Well, he was an insurgent, and she was a leader. I'm neither. I'm safe."

But when they grab someone who operates on the periphery, like Sister Dianna or Sally, they succeed in terrorizing everyone: foreigners, locals, leaders, rank and file, neighbors, activists, punks, journalists, women... No one is safe.

***

Brad Will died a martyr. He died on the job. He died in the streets during an uprising. He filmed his own murder. He died surrounded by compañeros and witnesses. Despite this and other damning evidence, the Mexican government still tries to explain away his murder. As if using his murder as justification for a violent police invasion of Oaxaca City weren't enough, the day Sally's body turned up the government announced that it will yet again seek arrest warrants for APPO members and supporters in relation to Brad Will's murder.

Sally, on the other hand, died in the worst way: scared, tormented, and alone. There's no video or photographic evidence. There was no uprising providing an obvious motivation for murdering her. On the contrary, her murder leaves open the question of whether it was politically motivated or a random act of sexual violence. This could have been intentional on the part of her attacker or attackers to hide their true aims.

***

Shortly after publishing my article exposing the identities of the private contractors who led torture trainings for police in Leon, Guanajato, people followed me. It happened at least twice. The first time I was with a friend, and the person drove off after a few blocks.

The second time I was alone. A gray pick-up started following me very slowly, keeping pace behind me as I walked. I stopped and asked him what he wanted. He didn't respond. He just stared. I kept walking.

After what seemed like forever, I stopped a second time. "What do you want?" I yelled in Spanish. He rolled down his window a bit. "Tell me what you want or leave me alone!" He just stared. "WHAT DO YOU WANT?!?!" He stared.

I stomped off. He kept following. I called someone for help. My friend came out into the street. The gray pick-up drove off.

I never denounced it because I still don't know if the motivations behind it were political or perverted. That's the double-bind of being a female social fighter. We suffer violence as activists, and we suffer violence as women. The violence is almost always linked. But political violence can be used as a cover for sexual violence, and sexual violence is used as a cover for political violence.

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