We were about to go to press when we received a chilling e-mail from a colleague in Mexico City. “I’m sending you a word-for-word transcript (including obscenities) of the threat to five human rights defenders in Mexico,” he wrote. “Given the current climate, it is a serious threat since it can affect, and what is worse, reverse what’s been called the transition to democracy.”
“The current climate” is a reference to the October 19th murder of Digna Ochoa, the nation’s most prominent human rights lawyer, who was shot to death while working at a Mexico City law office. Her killers left behind a tantalizing set of clues: a rare, vintage Czech weapon, a pair of red latex gloves placed on her hands, and a note threatening the members of the Jesuit-run Miguel Augustín Pro Juárez Center for Human Rights, where she had previously worked. “Pro sons of bitches,” the note read, “if you keep it up, the same thing will happen to you.”
As this issue’s Las Americas column makes clear, if there was ever a case of a death foretold, it was that of Digna Ochoa, who represented Zapatistas, campesino ecologists, and students accused of belonging to guerrilla groups. The 37-year-old lawyer had achieved international recognition for her willingness to fight the Mexican judicial system to the limits. Her best-known battles were fought on behalf of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, campesinos from the state of Guerrero who organized anti-logging protests and were arrested by the army, tried by a military prosecutor, and remain imprisoned on trumped-up drugs and weapons charges.
Ochoa’s murder was followed by a wave of condemnations around the globe. Disturbingly, President Vicente Fox initially referred to the killing as “a homicide, one more that has occurred in Mexico City.” It was up to the Mexico City government, he said, to investigate the crime.
But Ochoa’s murder was not “one more” homicide in a crime-ridden mega-city. It was the first political crime of the Fox administration and a terrible setback for Mexico, which ended 71 years of one-party rule when Fox took office last December. Despite high hopes and an initial burst of rhetoric, so far the Fox administration has proven either unable or unwilling to place human rights and judicial reform high on its agenda. Fox’s Attorney General, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, a general and a former top military prosecutor, showed not the slightest inclination to pursue a serious investigation into the threats against Ochoa–that was a matter for the previous administration, he told reporters. And as veteran human rights activist Sergio Aguayo has written, the current administration had also shied away from breaking up longstanding, repressive intelligence networks, preferring a policy of “appeasement” that has allowed those networks to become further entwined with organized crime in several regions of the country.
On October 27, a letter sent to the Mexico City newspaper Reforma, which was not made public until days later, claimed credit for Ochoa’s murder and singled out five other prominent human rights workers, including Aguayo and Edgar Cortez, the current director of the Pro. In a bizarre twist, the anonymous authors demanded the government pay a ransom–to whom?—of over $3 million by October 31 as protection money.
In recent weeks we have all become numbed by images of death in the United States. Our president has declared a vague, peculiar war against terror. But we need to pay attention to Mexico and a single, terrifying murder. We need to see Digna Ochoa’s death for what it is–an act of terror that recalls death squads and dirty wars. And we need to add our voice to those in Mexico and around the worked in urging the Mexican government to ensure the safety of Sergio Aguayo, Edgar Cortez, Miguel Sarre, Juan Antonio Vega, and Fernando Ruiz, and see that it is not repeated. – BB