The Murder of Sali Grace
San José del Pacifico, Mexico-Marcella "Sali" Grace Eiler, a young woman with several years of forest defense, train hopping, banjo playing, and dumpster diving already under her belt, stepped into La Taberna de los Duendes (The Gnome's Tavern) around 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 14, 2008, just two weeks shy of her twenty-first birthday.
At that hour of night, San José del Pacifico is pretty much shut down. A village of some 500 residents that is no more than a sprinkling of houses and cabins for rent on either side of a narrow mountain road that winds through thick pine forests, San José is a common stop on the international backpacker trail and well-known for the hallucinogenic mushrooms that grow wild in the forest.
A single large room with a high wood ceiling La Taberna was deserted that night in September save for its three owners, Heriberto Cruz, Davide Santini and Francesca (who asked that we omit her last name), who were all watching a movie on television.
Sali entered hefting a backpack over her shoulders. She said, "Good evening, my name is Sali, my friend Julieta recommended that I come here, that perhaps I could organize a dance performance here."
Sali began to discuss various possibilities of what her dance performance could be like. The Taberna's owners, all a bit sleepy and dazed by the television, could barely keep up.
"I was tired, watching a movie, I didn't want to talk about work," says Davide Santini. "I said she should come back the next day so that we could discuss things better. She said okay."
While Sali talked with the three owners of La Taberna, Omar Yoguez Singu came into the restaurant and took a seat alone by the front window.
Sali asked about places to stay in San José. She said that her friend Julieta had recommended staying at "Paco's ranch," a friend's place on the outskirts of the village.
"I told her that she should not go so late," says Santini. "I thought, at eleven at night, you, a young woman alone with your backpack, you'll never get there. I said that she should stay the night in a cabin for about a hundred pesos [then about ten dollars]. She said that she agreed. At that time that son-of-a-bitch came in."
Singu, also known as "Franky," a 32-year-old man from Mexico City, interrupted the conversation, according to Santini, Cruz, and Francesca, saying that he was friends with Paco and could show Sali the way out to his ranch.
"He had never come here before," says Francesca. "It seems to me that he saw her before he came in."
Singu "came in and sat at the table with the chess set [by the front window]. He asked for a beer, we served him one, and then we kept talking with the young lady," says Heriberto Cruz. "She asked where she could stay the night and he jumped into the conversation, saying he could take her out to the ranch."
"I didn't notice them greet each other, as if they had met previously," Cruz says, "And I tell you, he came in and sat down alone, he didn't greet anyone, then he jumped into the conversation."
Yoguez invited Sali to a beer, Sali accepted, and they sat down to talk by the window. The Taberna's owners went back to watching television. Singu and Sali drank one beer, talked quietly, and after a bit got up to leave.
"I remember that Sali looked me in the eyes and said, 'So, what should I do? I'll go with him then?' and we didn't say anything. It's not like we were going to say, 'don't go with this dude' right there in front of him," Santini says. "She didn't really trust him, but she didn't know what to do. So she left, in all senses of the word, she left."
"She liberated herself"
Rebellion seemed to come naturally to Sali, who was known as Sally, Ratty, Sally Rattypants, and Rattytat, before she moved to Mexico in 2007 and became Sali.
At the age of seven she wanted to join protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as they doused themselves with ketchup and locked themselves in cages in the Eugene mall to protest holiday shoppers on their way to buy fur coats.
Growing up in Eugene, Oregon she would excel in art, teach herself how to play the banjo, and get involved in animal rights and forest defense campaigns all by the age of fourteen.
"It was soon that our family and its middle class values… she just threw them off like a cloak," says Barbara Healy, Sali's mother. "It wasn't a big battle for her, she just wasn't interested."
Indeed, she lost interest in school by her sophomore year, attended a Quaker school for a year and then started looking for a way out.
"She asked me if she got her GED could she travel," says Healy. "I said yes, thinking that with all the courses she lacked it would take her a few years to get her GED. She got it in three weeks."
And so, at the age of sixteen and a half, Sali left home. She agreed to call her mother once a week from the road and would constantly circle back to her mother's house in Eugene, but also began to craft a life inside of a nation-wide anarchist subculture where the basic rules of capitalist society mostly did not apply.
For transportation she would hitchhike or hop trains. For food she would dumpster dive, carrying a wrench with her everywhere to break dumpster padlocks.
Her father, John Eiler recalls Sali's complete lack of interest in typical middle class teenage entrapments like allowance money, cars, and shopping. "She liberated herself," he says.
Memories and stories of Sali posted to a memorial Web site after her death (http://sali-ratty.weebly.com) paint a portrait of a young woman who was intensely mobile, energetic, and compassionate, without shedding a basic sense of fun.
Between the ages of fifteen and twenty, Sali rode trains across the United States and Canada several times, both accompanied and alone, often with her banjo, backpack, and pet rats in tow.
She cooked for Food Not Bombs in cities across the country, gathering all the food from dumpsters. She lived in forest defense camps like Straw Devil, near Eugene, often staying in women's only camps. She had friends and punk bands scattered around from Portland to Tucson to Minneapolis. She studied belly dance and performed across the country. She would take friends she met in the street back to both her mother and father's houses (who were by that time divorced and living in Eugene, Oregon and Saint Louis, Missouri respectively) and the friends would end up staying longer than Sali. She would shoplift health food from supermarkets, play anarchist soccer in city parks, make her own clothes from pieces found in dumpsters, tan the hides of roadkill raccoons, and carry jugs of water out into the Arizona desert while volunteering with No More Deaths.
Sali's parents speak of her passions with both awe and respect, even when those passions were as unconventional as dumpster diving.
"She was dedicated to Food Not Bombs," says Healy. "She would cook once a week, dumpster-diving all the food, and then ride off with these huge pots bungee-corded to her bicycle, rain or shine."
"When she'd come to visit I'd take her to Whole Foods," says Eiler, "naively remembering another Sali who would only eat organic. I'd go in and she'd go to the dumpsters. Whole Foods destroys things so you can't get them out of the dumpster, but there was an REI next door. She found stuff from REI with the tags still on and took them in to return them and then she got something she really needed, a sleeping bag. In the time I had gone to buy food in Whole Foods, she'd pulled stuff out of the REI dumpster, returned it all, and come out with purchases."
One thing that was not a part of the vibrant mosaic of Sali's passions, according to both family and friends, was drugs.
"Sali was not a drug user. Period," her close friend and fellow band member, Donny writes in an email answer to questions. Donny played in the band Cizaña with Sali, having toured in Mexico for three weeks in June.
"Sali was very into being healthy and having mental balance." Donny writes. "That was one of the reasons her belly dancing was so important to her. It was like meditation in that it grounded her and restored that balance. Drugs were absolutely not a part of that."
"Any of us who knew Sali intimately know that she had too much determination to allow bullshit into her life, this bullshit would have included stroking cowardly men's egos and/or taking drugs for recreation," writes Vanessa, a close friend of Sali's in an email.
In 2007, Sali moved to Oaxaca, Mexico. The year before a broad swath of Oaxacan society, grouped together in the Oaxaca Peoples' Popular Assembly, or APPO, occupied the state capitol in a six-month long unarmed uprising.
Though the APPO movement eventually retreated before a wave of repression that killed over 20 people and culminated in a mass raid by militarized federal police on November 25, 2006, the experience of the uprising invigorated thousands of people who continue to organize autonomous media, graffiti arts, and education projects across the state.
When Sali arrived, she moved in with the Oaxaca Popular Indigenous Council, or CIPO, a common destination for international solidarity visitors to Oaxaca.
"We planned community projects with her," says Miguel Cruz of the CIPO (no relation to Heriberto Cruz). "She went out to three communities with us, giving drawing and painting workshops with a theme of forests, environment, and land rights to children in the communities."
In late 2007, Sali hitchhiked across Mexico to Arizona where she rejoined her band and volunteered with No More Deaths. She returned to CIPO in February 2008 where she painted a mural at the CIPO house and made banners for youth gatherings. She traveled often to Mexico City to stay with friends and started teaching Arabic dance classes and performing in Oaxaca City.
That July she participated in an international solidarity caravan to Zapatista indigenous communities in Chiapas. When she returned in August she stayed for a few days with the mother of one of the witnesses in the Brad Will murder case and then moved in with the family of one of her dance students.
(Will, an Indymedia reporter, was shot and killed while filming clashes between APPO members and paramilitary gunmen in Oaxaca on October 27, 2006. Despite widely published photographs of the gunmen, the Mexican federal government has ignored overwhelming evidence and insisted that the APPO members who tried to save Will's life are in fact his killers.)
In Mexico City, Sali spent time with a loosely knit community of jewelry makers and percussionists who often hang out at the squatted Che auditorium at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, (UNAM).
Julieta says that she first met Sali at an art school in Oaxaca and then again on October 27, 2007 at a memorial for the Indymedia reporter Brad Will. They became friends, swapped salsa and Arabic dance lessons, and hitchhiked together from Oaxaca to Mexico City.
Julieta was at the Che when Sali visited over the summer of 2008. Julieta invited Sali to visit San José del Pacifico over Independence Day weekend saying perhaps Sali could organize a dance performance at a new place in town called La Taberna de los Duendes.
Just as Julieta and a group of friends were preparing to leave for Oaxaca however, a rumor ran through the Che auditorium that government-sponsored thugs were planning to take back the auditorium that weekend. Julieta sent Sali a text message saying that she would not be able to make it, but that Sali should go to La Taberna in San Jose and introduce herself as Julieta's friend and ask for directions to the house of another friend, Paco.
Sali wrote back saying that she would go on her own.
By this time Sali was filling in for another dance teacher at Casa del Angel in Oaxaca City, teaching Arabic dance classes three nights a week.
"She was really sweet," says Miguel Angel Rodriguez, who has taught yoga at Casa del Angel for ten years. "I taught the class right after hers. We always said hello to each other. We all knew her, but never very deeply."
Sali told friends at Casa del Angel and CIPO about her trip out to San José del Pacifico. None of them ever saw her again.
"A moral weight"
Felipe de Jesús Reyes, a woodcutter who lives in a small adobe house about an hour's walk from San José, thought that the dogs must have been starving. They kept barking and wining, day and night. They would wander off and then come back, always barking.
Omar Yoguez Singu had been staying in a ramshackle cabin-a one-room corrugated tin and wood lean-to with a dirt floor and a thin wood loft-about two hundred yards from Reyes' house. Singu had been coming to San José off and on for over a year and had recently begun to stay out at the cabin owned by a man named Antonio who was reported to be in New Zealand with his partner at the time.
Singu had two dogs that went everywhere with him, and the dogs had been wandering as if lost and barking for days. On Wednesday, September 24, Reyes decided to take the dogs some food.
"Since we hadn't seen that guy in a while, we thought that his dogs were barking because they were hungry, so I took them some tortillas," says Reyes, standing in the doorless entryway to the cabin where Singu had been staying. "I got to right here when I saw the blood and then the odor hit me."
Reyes immediately went to tell the local municipal delegate, Camilo Ramírez Ramos, who in turn radioed the municipal headquarters in Miahuatlan with the news.
Within hours the rumors had begun to circulate through San José.
"When I heard that someone had found a dead woman's body in a cabin on the outskirts of the village I immediately thought: the dead woman is Sali; the killer is Franky," says Santini.
Sali had never returned to the Taberna after the night of September 14 when she first arrived, as she had agreed to do, and Santini thought that was strange.
Coincidentally, the next day Francesca received an email from Julieta asking about Sali.
On September 25, Santini called Julieta, who had just arrived with her partner-call him Manuel-in Oaxaca, and told her that he thought Sali had been murdered.
"I called her and I said, 'you have to find that son-of-a-bitch Franky; grab him.' Julieta said that some people had just seen him in Mexico City and that he had a wound on his leg," says Santini.
Still, Santini did not know for sure that the dead woman was Sali, and Julieta did not want to believe it was Sali. Julieta decided to go to Sali's work at Casa del Angel while Manuel started making frantic calls to Mexico City to see if friends could locate Singu.
At Casa del Angel other teachers told Julieta that Sali had missed all of her classes for the past two weeks. They had called and left messages, but not heard back. They asked Julieta to have Sali call as soon as she could.
Manuel spoke with a group of percussionists from Oaxaca who had run into Singu in Mexico City and asked him where his dogs were. Singu told them that one of his dogs had bit a boy in San José causing villagers to attack the dogs with machetes. Singu said that he tried to defend his dogs, but had been repelled when one villager sliced his leg with a machete. The villagers killed his dogs, he said.
Manuel called Santini back and told him this story. "But his dogs are right here barking," Santini replied on the phone. For days the dogs had been walking back and forth from the cabin to La Taberna, looking for their owner.
When Julieta and Manuel met back up they knew two things: Sali was gone and "Franky" was lying. Julieta decided to rush off to Miahuatlan-two hours away-to identify Sali's body while Manuel started to organize Singu's capture.
"She was our friend," Manuel says. "We had invited her to San José. There is a moral weight involved."
Soon Manuel's friends found Singu and called, asking what they should do with him.
"Put up with him, get him drunk," Manuel told them, "give him beers, invite him to a concert, just keep him there while I look into things."
Manuel wanted to hear back from Julieta in Miahuatlan and he also wanted to ask for help from others in Oaxaca. He sent text messages to people at CIPO and a few other organizations asking them to meet him urgently. He went to CIPO's offices and house and waited there for Julieta's return.
"It was horrible to see her," Julieta says. "I asked, 'What did he do to her?' Her body was in a state of decomposition, but her face was unrecognizable."
Julieta was only able to identify Sali by her tattoos.
The autopsy mentions that Sali received four serious cutting wounds, one slash wound on the underside of her left forearm, one slash wound on her side, one stabbing wound in her back, and one slash wound across her chest so deep it lacerated her heart-the official cause of death. The depth of the wounds testifies to the overwhelming violence with which Sali was attacked.
The autopsy also mentions beating wounds to her throat. The autopsy mentions that her eyes and hair were missing and that her face was "black." (In photographs published in Oaxacan newspapers, Sali's face appeared completely charred, or as if all her skin had been removed.) The autopsy does not explain or in any way address why her face was black and her hair and eyes missing.
Even from the autopsy's clipped descriptions, the devastating violence unleashed upon Sali is dumbfounding.
Julieta and Manuel met back up that night at CIPO in Oaxaca. They started to write down everything they knew about Sali to order their thoughts. They decided to send a commission of four friends to Mexico City to go to the U.S. Embassy and to the Mexico City police and tell them what they knew about Singu. The commission left around three in the morning.
The next day, September 26, CIPO sent out a press release denouncing Sali's murder. The release exaggerated Sali's political involvement in Oaxaca portraying her as an "international accompanier of brothers and sisters who felt harassed by the bad government of Ulises Ruiz."
Miguel Cruz of CIPO later clarified that Sali's "accompaniment" activities had really amounted to spending a few days with the mother of one of the witnesses. Her political activity with CIPO had largely consisted of painting, gardening, and giving workshops. Yet the press release that traveled around the world concluded that, "This makes us think that her cowardly murderer is related to the widespread repression against the social movement and directed particularly at international observers."
Julieta and Manuel were irate at CIPO and other organizations' knee-jerk politicization of Sali's murder when they were almost certain that is was a brutal, sexually motivated crime.
On the morning of September 26, Julieta traveled back to Miahuatlan. The police had asked her to accompany them to San José to identify Sali's belongings. Once she arrived however, the police asked her to travel with them to Mexico City to identify Omar Yoguez Singu.
Several witnesses who claimed to have observed but not taken part in Singu's detention and interrogation, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, say that the group of young men and women who had located Singu and got him drunk decided to confront him directly once they knew the police were on their way to detain him.
They began by asking him to confess. According to the witnesses, Singu first said that he did not do it, that another man had tried to rape Sali and when Singu refused to help him, the other man attacked Singu with a machete, wounding him in the leg. Singu ran off, he said.
But Singu's captors did not believe this story. They confronted him with his previous story of villagers killing his dogs. They demanded that he confess.
"Yes, it was me, it was me" he said eventually, according to witnesses. "I knew I shouldn't have done it, I knew it, but I don't know what happened, I was too drugged out."
And then the beatings began.
"The beatings came because she was a friend," says Manuel, who was still in Oaxaca on September 26. "They couldn't take the impotence of being with him all day knowing that he had killed a friend."
One person who participated in Singu's detention and beating told me that a group had decided to beat him up and then turn him over to the police. All agreed not to strike him in the face or head. A few times, however, people lost control. One person shocked Singu with two live wires and then began to hit him on the face. Others quickly grabbed him and led him out of the room whereupon he collapsed, sobbing.
The person who participated later told me that upon seeing the photographs of Sali's body the following day in the newspapers they thought that Singu "got off light."
Meanwhile the commission of Manuel's friends who arrived that morning notified the Mexico City police of Singu's detention. With police from Mexico City and Oaxaca on their way, Singu's captors wrapped him in a blanket and carried him out into the street, telling alarmed on-lookers in the street that he was just very drunk. They dumped him outside a nearby super market and waited for the police to come and pick him up.
"I did her a favor"
I went to interview Omar Yoguez Singu in the Oaxaca state prison in Miahuatlan. Singu showed no remorse and tried only to evade responsibility for the killing. He contradicted himself repeatedly.
"I can't give you any information, because everything can be used against me," he said. "I don't remember anything; I don't remember. I don't want you to write things that aren't true."
Do you not acknowledge that you were seen with Sali in San José, I ask.
"I recognize that I was on drugs and that I had met the person in question, nothing else," he says.
But did you not confess?
"They tortured me! They gave me electric shocks," he says, "I said that because of the beatings, the electricity."
Are you saying that you were not in that cabin with Sali?
"The only thing I know is that I wake up and see the cadaver and get scared. In my life as an artisan, I'd never done anything like that. I don't know what came over me… The mushrooms…"
Singu realizes he has just contradicted himself and trails off. I ask him how he met Sali.
"We had a beer," he says, "she pulled out drugs, pills, ecstasy, and I don't know what the hell else. I did not know her. I was doing her a favor by letting her stay in my house."
Singu's story, which has shifted from his first confessions, both before his captors and before the police, still centers on his excessively drugged out state. He first told police that he and Sali had consumed cocaine, marijuana, mushrooms, hashish, beer, and mescal. In his interview above he first alluded to his consuming mushrooms and then said that Sali had offered him "pills, ecstasy, and I don't know what the hell else."
Either way, Singu claims to remember nothing due to the fog of drugs.
And no one appears to be investigating otherwise.
In San Jose, one witness who asked to remain anonymous told me that Singu had been kicked out of a hostel on the night of Sali's murder after threatening a woman staying there. As he left, he said, "Do you want me to screw you?" No police officials have traveled out to San José to interview this or other potential witnesses.
A blood test conducted during the autopsy could confirm whether or not Sali had consumed the ever-shifting list of drugs that Singu claims they both took. That blood test was not conducted during the autopsy. The Oaxaca state attorney general's office-perhaps the most discredited legal office in the country-has since produced, post facto, a blood test that supposedly confirms Sali's having ingested a still unspecified list of drugs.
At the cabin where Sali's body was found, the crime scene investigators had taken off and discarded their white rubber gloves in the entry way. They were still there in late November. Sali's clothes, papers, and jewelry had been left there as well, and at some point piled into an altar by two tourists who wrote a note: "We will to make justice for you Sally (sic). Sleep well guapa."
No crime scene investigation had taken place.
The original police report omits the fact that the suspect was actually investigated, detained, beaten, tortured, and turned over to the police by common citizens.
The Mexican commercial press reports are filled with speculation about Sali's drug and sexual habits, implying at least some level of culpability in her own murder, though not one journalist had traveled out to San José to interview the witnesses before my trip there in November.
On September 28, the Oaxaca-based newspaper El Imparcial, wrote: "It was dawn on September 15 when the couple began to smoke marijuana, although Marcella had already inhaled cocaine, had ingested Mezcal and beer, eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms, hash, and inhaled cocaine (sic)."
"Due to their state, the couple had sexual relations," El Imparcial continues, "though once they were finished the young woman began to argue with Omar. After obscene words, they both began to attack each other; supposedly Marcella attacked him with a knife. For that reason Omar took the machete and jumped on her."
El Imparcial cites no sources for this information and all the witnesses in San José del Pacifico interviewed for this article say that no reporters from El Imparcial or any other media had come to interview them before my visit.
State police in Miahuatlan repeated to me Singu's story, basically the same scenario as described in El Imparcial, which they seemed to accept on face value.
Even though the actual police work was done by a rag-and-bone group of jewelry makers and percussionists, the Oaxaca government's handling of the case exhibits only their assumption that the man whom witnesses observed promising to lead Sali to a place she never arrived, that the man who was only moments before expelled from a hostel for threatening to rape a woman, that the man who admits to "waking up next to the cadaver" is telling the truth, while assuming that the woman who was brutally murdered had indeed engaged in voluntary sexual activity with the man and consumed the absurd potpourri of illegal drugs and alcohol that the man claims she did.
The organizations that sent out urgent actions and called for marches in the streets when they thought that Sali's murder had been ordered by Ulises Ruiz, all fell strangely silent as the news of a sexual crime began to come out, as if sexual violence against women-especially in a country that introduced the word feminicide into the popular lexicon with the still unsolved murders of women in Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere-as if such crimes were somehow not "political."
"Just because he [Singu] is the one who survived doesn't mean that he is a reliable source of information about what occurred the night that Sali was raped and murdered," writes Sali's close friend Vanessa. "Let's remember that it was Sali who suffered at his hands and that it is her life and what she lived for that should be speaking for her in her death."
After years of wildness, Sali was beginning to come into her own in Mexico, her parents say.
"Mexico gelled everything for her. Something about the people, the women, the food, the colors," Healy says. "Mexico spoke to her."
"You can see it in the photos where she looks wild and then in the photos a month before her death in Oaxaca she looks angelic," says John Eiler, Sali's father. "That is the tragedy: we were deprived of what she was becoming."