The last time I saw Digna Ochoa, the Mexican human rights lawyer who was murdered last month, was in June of 2000. Digna had been hounded by death threats for years and had managed–just barely–to foil an attempt on her life. Now she had been offered a chance to study in Washington, D.C., and decided it was time to leave Mexico for a while. Before she left, I wanted to interview her and drove to the nondescript, middle-class neighborhood where she was living, temporarily sharing an apartment. As Digna explained, she no longer felt safe living alone. As I arrived at her street in the Colonia Roma Norte, I couldn’t help but think that it seemed rather dark. It didn’t seem safe, considering all that she had been through.
I had known Digna for years and admired her daring and bold nature, her courageous and sometimes unorthodox way of standing up to judges, speaking up to the police, confronting the military. During one trial, for example, she fought to prevent two judiciales from conferring with each other during the proceedings and corroborating their testimony. First she told them they couldn’t talk to each other–that would be clearly illegal. Intent on defying her, the two men went outside; intent on defying them, Digna followed them outside. Then the judiciales went back inside and sat down on a bench; she sat between them to keep them from talking. Furious, they took off for the men’s room. Immediately, Digna followed and put her foot in the door to keep it open. She later reported them to the judge, who invalidated their testimony.
I got to know Digna because she often worked on cases with my husband, José Lavanderos. When I first met her, she was a staff attorney at the Jesuit-run Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (the Pro) in Mexico City. The legal department represented clients in high-profile cases–cases that other lawyers either refused to accept, or would accept only if they were paid the kind of fees that the defendants couldn’t pay. Most of theses cases had to do with abuse by the police, army corrupt officials–particularly against campesinos and suspected guerrillas. The Pro and its legal team began to gain considerable attention when they took on the defense of presumed Zapatista leaders who were arrested following the short-lived Zapatista uprising in 1994. The team was successful in obtaining their release, but during that time the death threats began. Letters filled with obscenities were directed at the legal team, other members of the Pro, and, in some cases, against their families, including their children. Our family was no exception.
But the threats didn’t stop Digna. In fact, they seemed to make her stronger, more determined, more convinced of the importance of what she was doing. “I think human rights defenders in this country are always at risk,” she told me. “All of us who are in this kind of work know this perfectly well.”
At times Digna seemed to be many persons in one. She could be a warm, jovial young woman, and then turn into a no-nonsense, bold inquisitor. She knew how to disarm even the most dangerous of foes, whether it be a judge, a policeman or an army general. When I first met her, she was still a Dominican nun, and in fact did not officially leave the order until two years ago. She dressed conservatively–blouses buttoned up to her neck and long skirts, no makeup, hair cut short and combed straight. She used her outward appearance to gain respect–something that was not always easy for a young woman from a humble background working in a male-dominated profession that was not known for respectability nor honesty. She knew her greatest defense was an aggressive offense; weakness meant vulnerability. But as I spoke to her that night in June, I could tell that she was not the same person who used to come to our home. The years of terror weighed on her. I remember thinking that she must feel terribly alone and vulnerable. I understood why she had to leave. Who would have known it would be the last time I saw her alive?
As a young girl growing up in Misantla, a town located in the citrus and coffee-growing region of Veracruz, Digna Ochoa y Placido learned first-hand about poverty and social injustice. Poor farmers who had been run off their land or had protested the arrest of their leaders often ended up camping out on the floor of her family’s home. She grew up listening to their stories of the injustice that marked–and continues to mark–the Mexican countryside.
Her father, Eusebio Ochoa, was a bricklayer and had himself been arrested, tortured and imprisoned. Digna would insist that he had been unjustly jailed on pre-fabricated charges, because he had protested against the government-controlled union at his factory. Growing up in Misantla, she also learned that people could organize to pressure the government to provide them with drinking water and to build roads. Her father used to joke that he had had so many children–there were 13 –to help leaflet, paint slogans and accompany him at protest rallies. He also used to say that what Mexico really needed were lawyers who charged what poor people could pay, an idea that Digna took to heart. After receiving her law degree, she tried working within the system in the Veracruz state prosecutor’s office, but soon became disillusioned. In Mexico City she headed the Pro’s legal office for six years, but as the Center’s reputation grew, the death threats increased and Digna was the lawyer most often targeted. This was especially true after she began representing two campesino/ecologists from the state of Guerrero whose case would cause an international scandal.
In May 1999, the army arrested Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, who had formed an organization of subsistence farmers and environmentalists to protest the logging of Idaho-based Boise Cascade Corp in the Sierra Madre of Guerrero. Montiel was determined to call attention to the logging practices that deforested and burned the land, virtually drying up major rivers and killing fish. The farmers blocked roads, halting the trucks that took logs to the sawmill.
Montiel and Cabrera say that after they were arrested they were tortured at an army barracks for five days and then charged with drug trafficking and illegal possession of arms. The National Human Rights Commission later confirmed that the two had been illegally detained, tortured and that the drugs and arms had been planted on them. Along with Montiel and Cabrera, Digna tried to point out the longstanding ties between the various logging companies, including Boise Cascade (which eventually abandoned the region), and the local power barons (called caciques), regional authorities and the army. The local boss in the town where Montiel and Cabrera were arrested is the compadre, an especially close, personal relationship–with a general in the region.
Shortly after taking on the ecologists’ defense, the threats began to accelerate. On August 9, 1999, three men forced her into a car. They stole her purse and briefcase containing her wallet and agenda. At first Digna thought it was another “express kidnapping,” part of the rash of crimes that began to plague Mexico City in the mid-1990s. But then she overheard one of the men asking the other about her identity, trying to verify if “it was really her,” and she knew that something else was going on.
In September the Pro received a wave of death threats in the mail. The messages would appear under a flower pot at the Pro office or in the receptionist’s drawer. Whoever was threatening her had the means to enter the office at will and clearly was following Digna at all times. While she was at home recuperating from an accident one day in early October, someone slipped her voter registration card, which had been stolen in August, under the door. Digna was no longer living at the address listed on the credential. But whoever slipped the card under the door, not only knew she was not at work that day, he knew where to find her.
Then on October 28, two men forced their way into her apartment. “I went into the patio to turn up the water heater to take a shower before going to bed when someone grabbed me, put something over my mouth and nose, and then I lost consciousness,” she told me in the most matter-of-fact manner, as she described what had been the most frightening attempt on her life.
“When I woke up they were blindfolding me. All I could see were the stocking feet of two persons, one sitting in a chair with a laptop.”
They questioned her all night, a total of about nine hours, asking her about her colleagues at the Pro and their families, how the center was organized, and her alleged ties to guerrilla organizations. They swore at her, demanding to know where she had received her “military training,” what kind of arms she used, and the identities of her contacts in the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero.
Digna told them that her only weapon was the law; that it was customary for her to go to prisons, courthouses, public ministries looking for disappeared persons whenever she went to Oaxaca or Guerrero. Then they took off her blindfold and shined a light into her eyes forcing her to look downward. They showed her about 100 photographs of campesinos, mostly men with indigenous features, whom Digna didn’t recognize. They gagged her, took her to the bedroom, pushed her on the bed and tied her feet and hands together. Then they turned on a 20-kilo gas canister and left the apartment. Terrified, she began working away at her blindfold. After she finally managed to remove it, she rolled over and reached the gas tank and turned it off. With great difficulty she untied her feet and hands, went to the phone to call for help, but the line had been severed. She discovered her cell phone was still in the other room and was able to call and get assistance.
The authorities conducted an investigation, but it went nowhere. They were unable to detect fingerprints–the assailants wore gloves, which they left behind in water. They had also been careful to remove their shoes before entering the apartment. That same night, someone broke into the Pro office. As had happened before, the closed circuit video had been disconnected and erased.
As the threats against Digna began to intensify, the lawyers at the Pro began leafing through their recent cases, trying to piece together what was happening and why. Of the eight cases they determined were most relevant, the army was directly involved in seven. But the army was never called for questioning. (Nor was that likely to occur. Montiel and Cabrera had been arrested by the army. President Vicente Fox would later choose the top army prosecutor, Rafael Macedo de la Concha–as his Attorney General.)
After she was nearly killed, the Inter-American Court for Human Rights ordered the Mexican government to provide Digna with police protection. But in the waning days of the administration of President Ernesto Zedillo that never occurred. Finally, Digna decided it was time for her to leave.
While in Washington, her stature increased, as did that of Montiel and Cabrera. Digna was profiled in a book by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who are Changing Our World, along with world-reknown activists such as Desmond Tutu and Rigoberta Menchú. In March, she returned to Mexico, determined to get back to legal work and get on with life. She had met the man who would be her compañero for the rest of her life and seemed to be genuinely happy. Initially she was provided with police protection, but in May the Fox government requested that the Inter-American Court withdraw protection orders, saying they were no longer necessary because there had been no new threats–and the investigations into past threats and attacks had been shelved for lack of information.
But there were new threats, Digna just never bothered to make them public, convinced the current administration could do no more for her than the last one. As far as she was concerned, the Mexican government refused to see what was happening to her as a human rights violation, tossing it off as a matter of common crime.
Last August she sent an e-mail to one of her sisters, telling her that if anything happened to her, it would be the army that did it, and making arrangements for the distribution of her limited personal effects. On the afternoon of October 19, Digna went to the office of her friend and colleague, Pilar Noriega. Noriega had just been appointed to a position with Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission, and she would be taking over her cases. Among the cases was that of two brothers accused of planting bombs that exploded outside several Mexico City banks last August; their first court appearance was set for the following Monday. But Digna would not be there. While she was working in Pilar’s office, she was shot to death. Her killers left behind a murder weapon–a rather unusual Czech gun from the ’40s and ’50s, according to press accounts–a weapon that would be difficult to obtain. They also left behind a chilling note: “Pro sons of bitches, if you keep it up, the same thing will happen to you.”
In the days that followed, I kept thinking of my last conversation with Digna, in that nondescript apartment not far from the office where she was murdered. I can still see her there and still hear her words. When I asked her what motivated her to continue, she replied “Indignación.” Indignation. She had also told me about a conversation she had had with her mother after the first attempt on her life. After hearing what had happened, her mother paused for a long time before she could say, “This is the price you pay for committing yourself to such a cause.”
On October 19, 37-year-old Digna Ochoa paid the ultimate price.
Cynthia Hawes has reported on Mexico for nearly 20 years. She lives in Mexico City.