She had survived years of
threats, kidnappings and electric-shock torture. Despite the pressure, Digna Ochoa, one of Mexico’s best-known human-rights activists, would not give up her cause.
In October, the lawyer and former nun was finally silenced. She was found shot to death execution style in her Mexico City office. Her killing is the latest in a long series of high-profile assassinations and has once again placed Mexico under the glare of human-rights organizations all over the world. When he took office a year ago, President Vicente Fox vowed to end the government’s legacy of tortures and beatings. Human-rights organizations say the Ochoa case will test whether Fox is serious.
Ochoa’s murder, the first of a human-rights activist in Mexico in 10 years, was decried by everyone from Mexico’s Catholic bishops to the U.S.’s State Department. It took Fox three days to vehemently condemn her killing and vow to see that it would be solved, no matter where the trail leads.
In a related matter last month, Fox announced he would punish any officials found guilty of killing leftist rebels and dissenters during the 1970s and 1980s’ so-called dirty war. The move is unprecedented in Mexico’s history; the government all along denied such incidents ever occurred.
The common belief in Mexico is that Digna Ochoa — whose first name in Spanish means “Dignity” — was killed in retaliation for her dangerous work in defending Zapatista rebels, jailed environmental activists and the poorest peasants shunned by everyone else. Her murder has turned into a whodunit case that has plunged Mexico into a conspiracy maelstrom.
Detectives say they are baffled by the case, but what they know for sure is this: On the night of October 19, someone shot the 37-year-old Ochoa in the head and leg while she worked in her office in Colonia Roma, a well-known middle-class neighborhood of Mexico City. Her killer sprinkled the ground with flour before taking off red latex gloves and placing them on top of her body, slumped in a chair. The killer also left a Czech-made .22-caliber submachine gun manufactured during the 1950s, a weapon police described as “strange” and likely obtained on the black market.
There are even suspicions, according to Mexico City’s district attorney, Bernardo Batiz, that the Mexican army was involved. Senior officers were at odds with the lawyer for defending two environmental-activist peasants from the state of Guerrero. Ochoa contended that Teodoro Cabrera and Rodolfo Montiel were trying to save their local forests from deforestation by the American Boise Cascade logging company and were wrongly charged with drug trafficking and having ties to guerrilla groups. Boise Cascade has since left the area.
In 1999, soldiers captured the two men and allegedly tortured them into signing confessions. Three weeks after Ochoa’s death, Fox responded to pressure from the international human-rights community and freed the two men. Batiz has also considered the possible role of shadowy right-wing forces that could have been irked by Ochoa’s work. He also has questioned Ochoa’s relatives and her boyfriend, whom she met on the Internet seven months before her death. In the months before her killing, Ochoa had taken out a life-insurance policy, though the amount has not been released.
According to the Mexican daily Reforma, Ochoa, in the last e-mail she wrote to her sister, Estela, told her that she and Ochoa’s boyfriend, Juan Jose Vera, were the beneficiaries of her policy. Ochoa instructed her to take care of her possessions. “If something were to happen to me, I am asking you, with Juan Jose, to take care of my things. He can take what he needs and as for the rest, you can find someone who you can give them to,” Ochoa wrote in the
e-mail dated in August.
Vera, a junior high school teacher, denied to Reforma that he knew about being a beneficiary. He said he found out about it when authorities questioned him on November 1.
Ochoa’s death has resonated with Latino activists who see the unsolved case as a continuation of Mexico’s long history of human-rights abuses, said Rodrigo Argueta, a Los Angeles activist. President Fox’s regime is proving to be more of the same, he said. “Human-rights violations continue to happen in Mexico. Ochoa’s murder is proof,” said Argueta, during a demonstration in front of the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles.
Ochoa grew up in poverty in the southern state of Veracruz, one of 14 children. Her father was a sugar-factory worker and a union leader who fought hard so that his town could have potable water, roads and land certificates. As an activist, he came under attack from the authorities. Ochoa remembered several times when her father was jailed and tortured on false charges. She said she studied law so that she could defend those like her father.
Upon graduation, she joined the equivalent of the local district attorney’s office, where she would often end up fighting on the side of rich coffee-plantation owners. Unhappy with the way her work betrayed her ideals, she opened up an office with other lawyers in her home state.
In an interview with human-rights activist Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, Ochoa recalled her first case, in 1988, defending several peasants who had been illegally detained by judicial police officers. Ochoa said she ignored several warnings to drop the case and was kidnapped for 30 days, tortured by police with electric shocks and with “Tehuacanazos,” a slang word for having shaken mineral water flushed up her nose. She managed to get hold of a kidnapper’s gun and escape, she told Cuomo. She went into hiding for weeks until she “reappeared” with the help of human-rights activists.
Convinced that her work now placed her family in jeopardy, Ochoa handed the case to other lawyers and moved to Mexico City, where in 1988 she joined the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez, a human-rights center run by the Jesuits. There, with the help of a priest, she found her calling as a nun.
In 1992, she began training with the order of the Dominican Sisters of the Incarnate Word, a Mexico City–based congregation established in 1935, said Paola Clarat, a nun who worked with Ochoa. The congregation takes on social causes, and many of its members are professional women. The order dropped its habits after the Vatican II council and required that Ochoa wear a white outfit only during prayers at one of the members’ homes. She spent the required two years as a novice before taking her preliminary vows. “She was always very dedicated,” Clarat said of Ochoa.
The order encourages its members to work in their chosen professions and to preach by example, Clarat said. So by 1995, Ochoa was back full time to work at the Jesuit center, better known as “El Pro” — and once again at odds with authorities.
A petite, unassuming woman of Mexican Indian origin, Ochoa often deliberately shocked foes to get her points across, Cuomo said. In a country where women are known for their shyness, Ochoa would shout at soldiers or assume a karate position during confrontations. It was all a pose meant to achieve her aims, Ochoa told Cuomo. The only martial arts she knew were from what she saw in the movies, and as for her fearlessness, she was mustering up all the courage she could. “At work, even though I give the appearance of seriousness and resolve, I’m trembling inside,” she told Cuomo. “Sometimes I want to cry, but I know that I can’t, because that makes me vulnerable.”
Her fears were more than justified. In 1996, Ochoa and her friend and fellow lawyer Pilar Noriega received death threats for defending alleged members of the Zapatista army who were accused of carrying illegal weapons and of being terrorists. Three years later, she was accosted and blindfolded in her home twice by masked men who questioned her about her ties to Mexican rebel forces. Her office was ransacked several times by unknown perpetrators who left threatening notes. At the time, authorities sent officers to protect Ochoa and the El Pro center, but the lawyers there said most of the officers were inexperienced and out of shape.
Aware that next time she could be killed and that her co-workers at El Pro were endangered if she stayed, Ochoa left the Dominican Sisters and moved to Washington, D.C., in September 2000 for an internship with Cejil, an international human-rights organization that specializes in Latin American cases, said Cejil social worker Tamaryn Nelson, who worked with the ex-nun during her seven-month stay there.
Ochoa had trouble adjusting to her new city and longed to return to Mexico. She moved back to Mexico City in March, and it “was probably the happiest month of her life,” Nelson recalled. No longer bound by the rules of the Dominican order, Ochoa began dating Juan Jose Vera, a man she had met on the Internet two months after her move back to Mexico, investigators said.
She also had returned to her legal work. The day she was killed, Ochoa was preparing to travel to Guerrero to check on the status of the case against Montiel and Cabrera, the environmentalists who had opposed the Boise Cascade logging. That afternoon, as most of Mexico City’s upper class — including the Foxes — were planning to attend an Elton John benefit concert, her law partner Gerardo Gonzales found her body around 6 p.m.
Ochoa’s death is a grim reminder of the risks undertaken by those who work in the human-rights community, Cuomo said. Her legacy will live on. “We should all strive to live a life like she did: We should all try to imitate her.”