Monday, October 22, 2001 Volume 67, Issue 43



Activist was shot and killed Friday

Ellen Simonson

A lawyer was murdered in Mexico on Friday evening.

Digna Ochoa y Placido was 38. She was a human rights lawyer, often a dangerous thing to be during Mexico's transition to democracy.

In the past, Ochoa had defended several controversial people -- Zapatista rebels, political prisoners and alleged bombers said to be Marxists, among others.

She was shot to death Friday.

"There is no doubt the motive was political," the city prosecutor, Bernardo Batiz, said during a news conference.

This wasn't the first time Ochoa had faced disagreement in the form of physical harm. In three years she had received "many" death threats, and she was kidnapped twice in 1999. The second time, she was tied up and left to die in a room with an open gas canister, but she managed to free herself and survived.

Last year, human-rights organization Amnesty International awarded Ochoa its "Enduring Spirit Award" for her persistence and resolve in the face of the threats she had faced. In 1999, the Inter-American Human Rights Court took precautions to protect Ochoa and her co-workers -- they were even assigned bodyguards.

In the end, none of it mattered. Ochoa had worked with the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez human rights center until about a year ago, when she left the country for personal safety and to study. Questioned by previous abductors about this organization, she had been asked to identify individuals associated with it and threatened with death if she did not comply.

When she returned to Mexico, Ochoa set up a practice with other human rights lawyers. It was in their offices that she was found murdered.

Two of Ochoa's recent clients were anti-logging activists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera Garcia. In August 2000, these men were sentenced to six and 10 years respectively on drug and weapons charges. Ochoa had argued those charges were falsified and her clients were being retaliated against for their active protesting against clear-cutting of old growth forests near the coast of the Pacific.

It's plain that Ochoa, while she defended those of controversial political beliefs, was motivated primarily by the ideology of human rights. "This was a person who never shied away from taking on the toughest and most sensitive cases," Daniel Wilkinson, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told England's The Guardian. "She broke ground on using the Mexican legal system for defending human rights victims."

There are fears that Ochoa's murderers will never be found or prosecuted. A note left with Ochoa's body read, "If they (the human rights center) continue, this will also happen to another."

The Mexico City rights commission leader and other activists have pledged justice, but Edgar Cortez, leader of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez rights group, told local radio stations that "(i)n more than a year (of investigation into previous threats against Ochoa) there has been nothing, which makes it difficult to have confidence in this investigation."

The murderers' goal in taking Ochoa's life was to frighten those who are using the Mexican legal system to fight for human rights. Their tactics are getting more frightening and their acts more desperate.

Digna Ochoa y Placido was an exceptionally brave person. It's to be hoped that others like her don't lose hope in the face of her brutal murder. And it's to be hoped that her murderers, against expectation, will indeed someday be brought to justice.

Simonson, a senior English major, can 
be reached at

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