Mexico: Digna Ochoa y Plácido, lawyer

ABOUT THE DIGNA OCHOA CASE: Digna Ochoa y Plácido, human rights lawyers was murdered in her Mexico City office on October 19th 2001: Ms Ochoa was shot in the leg and head with a .22 caliber weapon.

At the time of her death, it was widely believed that Digna Ochoa was murdered because of her effective work as a lawyer. Amnesty International said, “There is no doubt that her murder was the result of her work in defence of human rights. In particular, her insistence that the authorities fully investigate cases of serious human rights violations in which state agents could be implicated, including officials in the army and the Office of the Attorney General, Procuradouria General de la Republica (PGR).”
(Amnesty International Press Release 20 October 2001. AI Index: AMR 41/035/2001 News Service 186)

Dean Claudio Grossman, President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said, “Digna Ochoa was committed to forging a democratic society with complete respect for the rights of the individual, so that her death fills us with grief and a personal feeling of indignation.”
(Press Release IACHR Condemns the Murder of Digna Ochoa in Mexico No. 27/01

Digna Ochoa represented some of the most difficult and politically charged human rights cases in Mexico. Her human rights work has been recognized internationally: Amnesty International awarded Ochoa the 2000 Enduring Spirit Award. On June 6, 2002, Global Exchange posthumously awarded the International Human Rights Award to Ochoa. On May 23, 2003, the Institute des Droits de l’Hommes du Barreau de Bordeux (IDHBB) in partnership with the European Lawyers Union (UAE-Human Rights) awarded the prestigious Ludovic-Trarieux Human Rights prize was awarded to Ochoa. The Ludovic-Trarieux Human Rights prize is awarded every two years for exemplary advocacy in the defence of human rights.

For approximately 5 years prior to her death Digna Ochoa had been the subject of threats and other harassment that appeared to be reprisal for her legal work. In response to an attempt on Ochoa’s life in November of 1999, the National Network of Civil Human Rights Organizations, the Center for Justice, and International Law, and the Lawyers Committee of Human Rights (now Human Rights First), petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IAHCR) passed a resolution and on November 19, 1999 the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (the Court) ordered the Mexican government to adopt all measures necessary to protect the safety of Digna Ochoa, to investigate the attacks against Ochoa, identify those responsible, and to punish them. These orders are binding on the Mexican government pursuant to Mexico’s ratification of the American Convention on April 3, 1982 and subsequent acceptance on December 16, 1998, of the contentious jurisdiction of the Court. No proper investigations of the attacks on Ochoa were completed and the protective measures removed shortly before her death.

Born in Veracruz in May 1964, Digna Ochoa completed her law degree at Universidad Veracruzana in l986. Amnesty International awarded Ochoa the 2000 Enduring Spirit Award. In 2000, she went to the United States and was one of 50 human rights defenders honoured by President Bill Clinton. Ms Ochoa left Mexico in September 2000 “waiting for the danger to pass’ and returned in April 2001.  Until shortly before her death, Digna Ochoa worked with the Centro de Derechos Humanos ‘Miguel Agustin de Juarez’ (PRODH), a well-known human rights organisation in Mexico. She represented many cases involving allegations of torture or murder by Mexico’s military and security forces, including the widows of the Aguas Blancas massacre and the campesino ecologists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera. Montiel and Cabrera, who received the Goldman award for their work in forcing Boise Cascade to stop clear-cutting in the southern state of Guerrero, were sentenced to imprisonment on drug and weapons charges that Ochoa claimed were fabricated. Digna exposed the use of torture by the army to extract confessions from the environmentalists.


FACT SUMMARY--Preparation of a summary of the facts and legal proceeding relevant to Ms. Ochoa’s murder.

LETTER WRITING—LRWC/BHRC has written to Mexican government officials and departments advocating a bona fides investigation of the threats and assaults of Digna Ochoa and of her murder.

· LRWC letter November 27, 2001
· LRWC/BHRC letter August 15, 2002
· LRWC/BHRC letter September 2, 2003
· LRWC/BHRC carta 9 de Tiembre del 2003
· LRWC letter October 29, 2004
PUBLICATIONS : LRWC and BHRC members prepared and distributed English and Spanish language press releases, public statements, articles and reports on the investigation.

· Elizabeth Houle, “Vancouver lawyer doubts Suicide of Mexican human rights lawyer,” THE LAWYERS WEEKLY, Vol. 23, No. 10. July 4, 2003
· Pronunciamiento de Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada sobre el asesinato de la abogada Mexicana y defensora de derechos humanos Digna Ochoa 30 de noviembre del 2001
· Stephen Jacob, “World Responds to Murder of Civil Rights Lawyer” The Lawyers Weekly Vol. 21, No. 30, December 7, 2001 and
· John McAlpine, “The Homicide of Digna Ochoa” The Advocate, Vol. 60 Part 3, May 2002, page 379.
· REPORT ON THE DIGNA OCHOA MURDER INVESTIGATION for Lawyers Rights Watch Canada & The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, July 2002.
· Letter re: Digna Ochoa Investigation: LRWC/BHRC Reject Suicide Theory, September 2, 2003.
· Carta en cuanto a Investigación Digna Ochoa: LRWC/BHRC Rechazan La Teoría Suicide, 2 de Tiembre del 2003.


MARCH 2002--In March 2002 LRWC and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales sent a team to Mexico to investigate and assess the Digna Ohoa investigation and the adequacy of safety and independence safeguards for lawyers and other human rights advocates in Mexico. The LRWC/BHRC Mexico team was composed of B.C. lawyer John McAlpine Q. C. (for LRWC), British barrister Nicholas Stewart Q. C. and Kirsty MacDonald BHRC programme coordinator. McAlpine and Stewart interviewed government officials including the Attorney General’s lead investigator, human rights lawyers, and diplomats. From April 11-24 2002, Global Exchange, a San Francisco based international human rights organization conducted further interviews on behalf of LRWC/BHRC. While the LRWC/BHRC team was in Mexico City the Attorney General’s office leaked to the press information supporting the theory that Ms. Ochoa committed suicide. The LRWC/BHRC report was published July 2002.
APRIL 2003–In April 2003, another LRWC/BHRC team, LRWC member Leo Mc Grady Q.C., British barrister Nadeem Ahmad and BHRC programme coordinator Jennifer Geen visited Mexico City to interview parties and conduct a further review of the investigation of the death of Digna Ochoa. This LRWC/BHRC team was able to obtain unprecedented access to the evidence gathered that included access to the physical exhibits as well as the records of witness interviews. McGrady and Ahmad were able to conduct a lengthy question and answer session with the Special Prosecutor Margarita Guerra.

HUMAN RIGHTS AWARD:--LRWC and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) nominated Digna Ochoa for the 2002 Ludovic-Trarieux Human Rights Prize, an award given bi-annually by the Institute des Droits de l’Hommes du Barreau de Bordeux (IDHBB) in partnership with the European Lawyers Union (UAE-Human Rights) for exemplary advocacy in the defence of human rights. Ms Ochoa was the only one of the 12 2002 nominees from the Americas. The prize was awarded on May 23, 2002 to Iranian lawyer Mehrangiz Kar. On May 23, 2003, the Ludovic-Trarieux Human Rights prize was awarded to Ochoa and Mexican lawyer Barbara Zamora. On June 6, 2002, Global Exchange posthumously awarded the International Human Rights Award to Ochoa.


June 3, 2002: Renato Sales Herida, then lead prosecutor in charge of the investigation announced to the media that his conclusion that Digna Ochoa had killed herself as “a way to keep fighting, to recover a place in the world of human rights that she did not have anymore.” This announcement reactivated earlier criticisms and Sales resigned from the investigation on June 21 2002.
July 2002: Attorney General of the Federal District of Mexico City, Bátiz announced the creation of a Special Prosecutor’s office to assume responsibility for the investigation into Digna Ochoa’s death. Margarita Guerra y Tejada was appointed lead prosecutor.

October 18, 2002: PRODH withdrew from official assistantship (coadyuvancia) because the investigator was going to treat death threats found at the scene and the murder as separate investigations and was going to limit the co-assistantship to the death threat. This decision has made it impossible, in PRODH’s opinion, to adequately exercise co assistantship. The co-assistantship was turned over to Digna’s brother Mr. Juan Carlos Cruz Plácido who appointed PRODH as his legal counsel.

Negotiations between the government of Mexico and the office of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights culminated in an agreement to allow experts to review the collection, storage and testing of evidence. Three experts from outside Mexico were selected: Alan John Voth, Royal Canadian Mounted Police ballistics expert, María Dolores Morcillo Méndez, forensic specialist of the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences of Colombia and Mr. Pedro Díaz, Colombian prosecuting attorney. The report of these experts was presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in June 2003.

While the report is not public, PRODH released a summary of the Experts’ report, which identifies errors and problems with evidence collection, evidence preservation, and with the investigation itself. Some of the errors identified were failure to secure the crime scene, failure to maintain adequate custody of evidence, a propensity to draw absolute conclusion from evidence that was inconclusive, unreliable or inadequately tested. Failures by the military to comply with requests for evidence and failure to obtain evidence from potentially important witnesses were also identified as problems. The report concluded that available ballistics information was insufficient to establish a suicide or a homicide.

October 18-19, 2002: the Digna Ochoa y Plácido Human Rights Centre opened in Mizantla, Veracruz, to commemorate the death of Digna Ochoa. The Centre, a project of Ochoa’s family and friends, is dedicated, on the first anniversary of Digna’s death, to her work as an internationally respected human rights lawyer. LRWC was invited to attend the opening. A joint statement of LRWC and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales was read at the opening ceremonies by a Global Exchange representative.

July 19, 2003: The Special Prosecutor Margarita Guerra, in charge of the investigation since July 2002 echoing the June 2002 statement of her predecessor Renato Sales, announced her opinion that Ochoa died by her own hand.

August 11, 2003: Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez announced that he was firing human rights activist Mariclaire Acosta as deputy foreign minister for human rights and eliminating her post. Derbez says that the deputy-minister for global affairs will now handle human rights.

July 2004: The human rights commission of Mexico City was set to release a 200-page report challenging the prosecutor’s finding that Digna Ochoa committed suicide. The commission’s chief, Emilio Alvarez Icaza, said that the group found the government prosecutors failed to properly investigate Ms. Ochoa’s death, and had covered up importance evidence. While the commission would not declare whether or not it was a suicide, Mr. Alvarez felt that prosecutors did not pursue leads incriminating social, police and rural political bosses who were targets of Ms. Ochoa’s human rights work. The report also noted errors in the way investigators collected and processed evidence, inconsistencies in the conclusions drawn by the three prosecutors, and mismatching and contradictory descriptions from medical and criminal experts investigating the death.

July 23, 2004: The 1st District Court dismissed the application brought by Ochoa’s family to have the investigation re-opened on the grounds that investigators had refused to consider evidence from the experts retained by the Ochoa family.

October 29, 2004: Ryerson University hosted the Canadian premiere of Digna, a documentary about the life and work of Digna Ochoa. The evening also featured guest speakers from Amnesty International, Lawyers Rights Watch Canada and the Mexican Mayan Community, as well as performances, political poetry reading, visual arts and live music.

January 2005: Subcommander Marcos, elusive leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, penned a letter to Bernardo Bátiz Vázquez, the General Prosecutor of Mexico City (PGJDF), challenging the PGJDF’s handling of the investigation and calling for the reopening of the Digna Ochoa case. In particular, he challenged the PGJDF adherence to the suicide theory, and expressed his concern that the investigation of Ms. Ochoa’s death has been “plagued with irregularities, inefficiencies and weaknesses” and that “the public servants under [PGDJDF] supervision have conducted themselves dishonestly.” He criticized the refusal to allow the Ochoa family’s evidence from the forensic doctor, criminologist and forensic chemist despite the family’s right under the Mexican Constitution to bring evidence to the investigation.

February 2005: The Digna Ochoa case was re-opened when a federal judge ordered prosecutors to re-examine the forensic evidence. The relatives of Digna Ochoa are seeking to enter into evidence three expert reports which demonstrate that Digna was assassinated, as opposed to committed suicide, as the attorney general’s office contends. The first decision, on July 23, 2004, had gone against the Digna’s relatives.

February 25, 2005: The attorney general of Mexico City issued a bulletin indicating that prosecutors would reopen the investigation into the death of Digna Ochoa without delay. Jose Antonio Becerril, lawyer for the complainants, affirmed that the order had opened the possibility that the evidence would now be thoroughly examined by the ministerial authority, that the truth would come out, and that Ms. Ochoa’s memory would be vindicated. Barbara Zamora, also a lawyer for the Ochoa family, expressed similar optimism that the reopening of the case had increased the possibility of a proper investigation of Digna Ochoa’s death and of the threats against her: an investigation getting to the bottom of the mystery of Digna Ochoa’s death.

(see Publications)