Digna Ochoa

Defender of the Poor

Mexicans, hungry for improvement in their country’s human-rights record after Vincente Fox’s election, may have cheered too soon.

On Oct. 19, the country’s most prominent human-rights lawyer, 38-year-old Digna Ochoa, was shot and killed. Ochoa, a former Roman Catholic nun, was famous for taking on high-profile cases, like the defense in May 1999 of Rodolfo Montiel Flores [see “People,” WPR, August 2000] and Teodoro Cabrera—arrested on gun and drug charges—who lead a peasant group opposed to wildcat logging by local political bosses. Ochoa was repeatedly threatened, twice kidnapped, tortured, and nearly killed. Her assassination has raised suspicions of military involvement, and Ochoa’s cold-blooded killing was deemed the first political crime committed during the Fox administration.

Indeed, Mexico may be slipping back into old patterns of impunity: In selecting as his attorney general Rafael Macedo de la Concha, the top military prosecutor under former President Ernesto Zedillo, Fox had ignored pleas from rights activists to establish a clear division between military and civilian law enforcement. Now, de la Concha may be implicated in Ochoa’s assassination. “[He] stands out as the main suspect in the crime,” Brig. Gen. José Francisco Gallardo Rodríguez was quoted in Mexico City’s Proceso. (Gallardo was imprisoned in 1993 in reprisal for his writings on military human-rights abuses. )

Ochoa believed that Fox’s election did not herald real change in Mexico: She was still threatened, watched, and made to feel vulnerable, for many of the cases defended by her were linked to Mexico’s army. And it was de la Concha who requested in May 2001 that protection orders issued for Ochoa be withdrawn, arguing that those measures were no longer warranted. Still, Ochoa “believed in what she did and downplayed the risk,” writes Pablo Romo in Mexico City’s La Jornada. And Gilberto López y Rivas adds in the same paper (Oct. 26): She was “willing to take all the risks of the profession that was her only weapon: the law.”