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The Mystery of Digna Ochoa 

Did the Mexican human-rights lawyer kill herself?

Wednesday, May 15 2002
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MEXICO CITY -- The unsolved killing of human-rights lawyer Digna Ochoa features all the elements of a tense Costa-Gavras political thriller like State of Siege or Missing. Ochoa, an ex- nun who often went to court in her Dominican sisters‘ habit to defend poor farmers and accused guerrilleros, was tortured by police in her native Veracruz for political activities while still a teenager. She was the target of repeated death threats and even kidnapped by suspected military-intelligence operatives, and was once forced to flee the country because the government never afforded her protection from her pursuers.

Digna Ochoa was found slain inside her tiny midtown office here October 19, and to date no arrests have been made for her murder.

Now a television documentary is in the works for the fall season, and, according to the Ochoa family, Hollywood has pricked up its ears -- Salma Hayek, Tinseltown’s most prominent veracruzana, has even expressed an interest in portraying the embattled human-rights warrior, a sort of Mexican Erin Brockovich. There is even a romantic angle for the proposed flick -- toward the end of her life, Ochoa, a somber workaholic, found love through an online chat room and planned to be married.

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Ochoa is also the unlikely subject of a hit tune, ”Imaginame!,“ recently performed by the red-hot Latino rockers Los Jaguares, before 100,000 fans in Mexico City‘s great Zocalo plaza. And Amnesty International has created an annual human-rights award in Ochoa’s name to honor her life. Ochoa‘s death shocked the international human-rights community and prompted exiting United Nations Human Rights commissioner Mary Robinson to publicly lament her passing.

But was Digna Ochoa slain by her political enemies, a list of suspects that includes former chief military prosecutor Rafael Macedo de la Concha, now Mexico’s attorney general? The investigation of the lawyer‘s death has been conducted by chief Mexico City prosecutor Bernardo Batiz because of Digna’s feud with Macedo.

Batiz‘s revelation that the weapon used in the Ochoa killing belonged to the human-rights lawyer has cast doubts upon the murder scenario. The gun, an unusual Czech-made .22-caliber pistol apparently designed not to leave powder burns, was kept in a locked closet in Ochoa’s apartment, says her brother Pedro, who gave her the weapon after she began receiving death threats four years ago. The weapon was found next to her body. Also found at the death scene: an anonymous note threatening lawyers at the Jesuit-run Miguel Agustin Pro Human Rights Center, where Ochoa had worked until she went into private practice.

Who actually fired the pistol is uncertain. The lawyer was wearing red latex gloves dusted with talcum powder when her body was discovered, and her fingerprints were not found on the gun. During her 1999 kidnapping, Ochoa‘s abductors purportedly forced her to don the same kind of gloves.

Batiz’s surprising disclosure appears to be a trial balloon for an even more startling hypothesis -- that Digna Ochoa, rather than having been murdered for her human-rights activity, actually committed suicide. In a recent interview, Batiz, a much-respected Mexico City neighborhood lawyer and member of the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), said suicide is one of four theories he must examine. ”Not to do so would be irresponsible,“ he told this reporter in a telephone conversation. Other leads being pursued include revenge by members of the military; retaliation by caciques (rural bosses) in the mountains of Guerrero, the scene of Ochoa‘s most celebrated case involving the now-released ”campesinos ecologists“; and a possible crime of passion.

Word of Ochoa’s supposed suicide was leaked to the daily Reforma newspaper by an unnamed associate Batiz accuses of betraying his confidence. The front-page story included detailed diagrams that showed how Ochoa could have first shot herself in the thigh, apparently seeking to open her femoral artery while seated in her cubicle, then fell to her knees. Realizing that she had missed the artery, Ochoa purportedly gripped her ever-present gabardine raincoat between her teeth to thwart the pain and shot herself in the heart before pitching forward into a facing chair where she was found several hours later. Detectives found no evidence of a struggle in the tiny space and have concluded that Ochoa was alone at the time of her death.

What are we to make of all of this? In a country where political killings have been common, could this be the makings of a frame? Even in the official version, the motive for the lawyer‘s possible suicide is unclear. In the month before her death, Ochoa had tended to personal matters. She had e-mailed her sister with precise instructions for dividing up her furniture among her siblings and her boyfriend, known only as ”Juan Jose,“ who was also reportedly made a beneficiary of Ochoa’s insurance policy. Ochoa gave no reason for this decision other than ”in case something happens to me.“ She had told friends that she received another round of anonymous death threats.

On the night of her death, Ochoa had canceled a date with ”Juan Jose“ because of her workload. She had met him in an Internet chat room during a year of political exile in Washington, D.C., and spoke of him as her ”fiance“ -- friends do not recall Ochoa ever having maintained any previous romantic liaison.

Ochoa‘s family and friends are up in arms at the suggestion that her murder was anything less than a political crime -- ”a crime of state,“ as Edgar Cortez of the Pro Center calls it. The Ochoa killing would appear to be the first political murder of Vicente Fox’s presidency and an acute embarrassment to his pledge to improve human rights here.

”We were her colleagues and companions. We knew her better than anyone except her family,“ Cortez argued. ”Digna Ochoa did not commit suicide.“

Ochoa‘s brother echoed that belief. ”My sister confronted many adverse situations,“ said Pedro Ochoa. ”She also showed great courage. She was not a suicidal type.“

”Digna loved life,“ wrote Harald Ihmig, a German human-rights worker who accompanied the lawyer on a fact-finding tour through the Guerrero mountains just two weeks before her death. Ihmig suspects that the killing was carried out by members of the Mexican military whom the martyred attorney had charged with torture.

Barbara Zamora, a human-rights lawyer who has been retained by the Ochoa family, is equally skeptical of Batiz’s suicide theory. Zamora too has received at least one untraceable e-mail threat, but she refuses to be intimidated. ”I want to make it very clear that I am not about to commit suicide,“ she recently told reporters.

Although Veracruz Senator Sadot Sanchez, a member of the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has demanded that Batiz turn the case over to Attorney General Macedo, Ochoa‘s family says it has more faith in an investigation headed by Batiz than by Digna’s old political enemy.

Still, Batiz, who has invited the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States to review his investigation, seems inclined to the suicide theory as other leads fail to pan out. Military personnel, for example, interrogated by his investigators presented ”air-tight“ alibis.

The Ochoa family believes that the Mexico City prosecutor is seeking to convince non-Mexican human-rights groups with whom he has contact that Ochoa killed herself. If Batiz opts for the suicide scenario, the family has vowed to carry on the investigation.

On April 19, the six-month anniversary of Ochoa‘s death, Batiz announced that his investigation would be concluded in a matter of weeks. The Ochoa case represents a high-stakes gamble for Batiz -- proving her suicide would so disaffect his political allies that it would mean his own political suicide.

John Ross has returned to Mexico City without a publisher for two works in progress, Murdered by Capitalism, a memoir of 150 years of life and death on the U.S. left, and Mexico Barbaro -- Dispatches From the Underbelly of the Mexican Reality 1985--2000.

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