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.

Anacaona and the Day of Indigenous Resistance 

Today, October 12, is the Day of Indigenous Resistance, at least in Venezuela and in the hearts of millions of people in other lands. In Costa Rica, it’s the Día de las Culturas. But in many places, it’s still called Columbus Day or the Día de la Raza. In Canada, the date is mostly ignored. Here, I am sharing the lightly-edited text of a piece I wrote in 2011.

Now, 529 years have passed since Chris got lost in the Greater Antilles and was found by the Taíno Indigenous people. 

At La Caleta, near the entrance to the Santo Domingo airport, there is a park that contains an ancient burial ground of the Taíno people, the original inhabitants of Quisqueya or Ayiti (the island the Spanish called Española).

Within 50 years of the Spanish arrival, the Taíno people had been wiped out. We have many of their words: names of places and rivers, along with words (some shared with other First Nations languages) that found their way into Spanish and English, including: barbacoa (barbecue), hamaca (hammock), kanoa (canoe), tabaco (tobacco), juracán (hurricane), plus the names of the staple of the Taíno diet, cassava or yuca. 

Two views of a (now controversial) statue of Christopher Columbus and the Taíno leader Anacaona in the central plaza of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

The history of Taíno resistance is not lost 

The story of one woman, Anacaona, stands out. My friend Félix Posada of the Latin American Centre for Popular Communication (CEPALC) in Colombia wrote about her in the January-March 2010 issue of CEPALC’s magazine, Encuentro. (Wikipedia has some accessible articles too, but the best source is the work of Bartolomé de Las Casas, the priest who wrote everything that he saw and heard over the first 50 years of the 16th century.) 

When Columbus showed up in 1492, there were five Taíno chiefdoms (cacicazgos) and territories on the island, each led by a principal cacique (chieftain). 

Anacaona, born in 1464, was chief of Jaragua, the territory on the southwest part of island. Her husband Canoabo was chief of neighbouring Maguana. They had a daughter, Higuerota. 

From the time Anacaona was small, she distinguished herself by her intelligence and talent for composing and memorizing poetry that she recited in festivals, in the areitos (party, song, dance, and rhythm, all at the same time). 

The cazicazgos of Ayiti/Quisqueya.

When the Spanish arrived, they were received with a certain sympathy. But disillusion came quickly. Columbus left a group of men in what was called “Fort Navidad” (located between the mouth of the Guarico River and Picolet Point on the northwest coast of what is now Haiti) while he returned to Spain to report on his discovery. 

The 39 men left behind stole from the Indigenous communities, mistreated and raped the people, and tried to destroy the local culture. Anacaona convinced Canoabo and other chieftains to attack and destroy the Spanish fortress and the soldiers who lived there. The attack was devastating: the soldiers were killed. Canoabo was eventually captured and shipped to Spain, dying in a shipwreck during the journey. 

Conflict, negotiation and treachery 

Columbus visited Anacaona and her brother Bohechío in Jaragua in late 1496. Columbus successfully negotiated for a tribute of food and cotton for the settlers under his command. Months later, Columbus arrived with a ship to collect part of the tribute. Anacaona and Bohechío sailed briefly aboard the ship in the Gulf of Gonâve, near today’s Port-au-Prince. 

Very quickly, Española became the centre of European colonization in the Americas. Santo Domingo, the city that Columbus founded on the south coast of the island, became home to civil servants, soldiers, missionaries and investors who took the best land, sought to enslave the Indigenous people and imported African slaves. 

As the Spanish presence grew, rumours of rebellion swept the island. Anacaona was a leader of the resistance movement, and her efforts became known to the Spanish governor, Nicolás de Ovando. Ovando sent a message to Anacaona that he would visit her in a spirit of friendship. He arrived at Yaguana with 350 soldiers. Received as a guest with feasts and dances, he ordered his men to burn the community and to make its leader his prisoner. 

Anacaona managed to escape together with her daughter Higuemota, grand-daughter Mencía, and also with the cacique Hatuey.

But Anacaona’s freedom did not last long. She was captured by Ovando and, at age 39, was hanged in 1504. 

The administration of Ovando was a cruel one. When the Spanish arrived in 1492, the Indigenous population was estimated at 500,000. According to a census taken in 1507, the Indigenous population had been reduced to 60,000.