20 years: Digna Ochoa, ¡Presente!

“I learned that due to the rampant corruption and impunity in Mexico, it was not sufficient to be innocent, to be right, and to have the law on your side, but it was necessary to fight against an entire government structure that defends very specific political and economic interests.”

Digna Ochoa, speaking in September 2000 to the Enduring Spirit awards dinner in Los Angeles
Digna was remembered at an Amnesty International event in Toronto, 2011; Linda Diebel’s Betrayed: The Assassination of Digna Ochoa. The quote cited above is from p.445 of Diebel’s book.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of Digna Ochoa, a lawyer who defended the human rights of ecologists in Guerrero state and whose death remains a muddle of sloppy investigation, useless gossip, and high-level cover-ups.

While there are still a handful of officials who stick by their suicide-by-two-bullets version of events, the Mexican government this year admitted at least partial responsibility for her death. The admission came May 27 during a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and included a commitment to re-open the case. The new investigation will proceed with a human rights perspective and a gender approach under international standards, in addition to the participation of the family and their legal representation.

I met Digna on Nov. 25, 1999, a little less than two years before her death. Earlier that year, she had left the convent of Dominican nuns before taking her vows, and engaged herself fully in her original passion: the law. We were together in a fairly large group of representatives of Mexican non-governmental organizations who spent the day preparing a presentation delivered by a smaller group later that evening to Mary Robinson, the former Irish president who was then the head of the United Nations’ human rights commission. 

Digna’s legal defence of imprisoned and tortured rural ecologists who challenged logging companies in Guerrero—the Pacific coast state south of Mexico City that includes the resort cities of Acapulco and Ixtapa—brought her into conflict not just with the companies but the political establishment in Guerrero, and quite likely with the Mexican army and its allies in the national government and that of Mexico City. In the months before the meeting with Robinson, Digna had already been kidnapped twice and threatened countless times.

Our 40-page message (reduced to nine paragraphs for the oral presentation) to Robinson addressed these points:

  1. Obtaining and imparting justice: impunity, legalized repression, inefficiency in investigations, lack of independence, manipulation of the law, military justice, lack of knowledge of international protection.
  2. Militarization of public security and military presence in Indigenous and rural areas.
  3. The general situation of Indigenous people in Mexico: internal legislation, state institutions and public policies with regards to Indigenous women, Indigenous rights and the environment, land and territory.
  4. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: globalization, labour rights, freedom of association, land rights and the situation of small farmers.
  5. Political rights in Mexico: institutional reform, electoral rights, and political rights in general.
  6. Harassment and aggression against defenders of human rights and journalists. (In the evening meeting with Robinson, Digna Ochoa read this section.) 

At that time, there was a lot of hope in Mexico that the long run of the PRI party was nearing its end. Indeed, the following July, Vicente Fox of the conservative PAN party won the election. But 21 years later—after two PAN governments, one more by the PRI, and now three years of the popular left administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—few would argue that things have improved for most Mexicans. 

Today, a new civil society report to Robinson’s successor, Michelle Bachelet, might add a focus on the extremely high numbers of forced disappearances—about 91,000 between 2006 and 2021—and all of the issues related to migration from and through Mexico toward the United States. As it happens, Bachelet is collaborating with the Mexican government in ongoing investigation of the case of the 43 Ayotzinapa normal school students who were disappeared in Guerrero in 2014. 

It may be hard to find signs of improvement yet, but every step toward truth-telling and investigation of crimes old and new lays the foundation for a better future that is still being imagined.

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