Vancouver lawyer doubts ‘suicide’ of Mexican human rights lawyer

Houle, Elizabeth A.

THE LAWYERS WEEKLY, Vol. 23, No. 10, July 4 2003, page 16.

The investigation into the shooting death of Mexican lawyer and human rights advocate Digna Ochoa took an abrupt twist when the Prosecutor began looking for indications that the death may have been suicide, not murder as originally believed.

The body of Digna Ochoa y Plácido was found in her Mexico City office on October 19, 2001 with gunshot wounds to her leg and head. An anonymous note found near her body threatened other human rights workers at the Centro de Derechos Humanos “Miguel Augustín Pro Juárez” (PRODH), the human rights organization for which Ms. Ochoa had served as legal advisor since 1988, and prompted lead investigator Bernardo Bátiz to proclaim that the murder was “undoubtedly political in nature.”

Over the course of the investigation however an alternative theory began to emerge, suggesting that Ms. Ochoa had committed suicide in a quest for martyrdom, and in March 2002 information supporting that theory was leaked from the Attorney General’s office to the press.

Those that argue Ms. Ochoa’s death was self-imposed cite a litany of evidence found at the scene including the fact that the gun that killed her was her own; that there were no fingerprints on the gun (she was found wearing a pair of latex gloves); and that the locks were intact; as well as subsequent comments from members of the human rights movement about Digna’s strange behaviour prior to her death.

Nonetheless, close friends and family, as well as other observers insist that Digna had no reason to take her own life. And pressure over the handling of the case continues to fuel an ongoing investigation.

In July 2002, Bernardo Bátiz announced the creation of a Special Prosecutor’s office to assume responsibility for the investigation. In January 2003, a team of international criminology, ballistics and forensic pathology experts from the Inter American Commission of Human Rights (CIDH), including RCMP officer Alan John Voth, went to Mexico City to verify that the results of the investigation conformed to international standards. The findings of each are still pending.

Digna Ochoa had represented some of the most politically charged human rights cases in Mexico, many of them involving allegations of torture and murder by Mexico’s military and security forces, including individuals involved in the Zapatista insurgency and more recently Teodoro Cabrera and Rodolfo Montiel, two prominent peasant ecologists in conflict with logging groups in Guerrero.

Since 1995, Digna Ochoa’s work with PRODH had made her the target of harassment, violence and intimidation. In August 1999 she was kidnapped and beaten, and in October she was assaulted, held captive in her home and interrogated for hours about her work with PRODH. Her attackers then bound her to her bed and locked her in a room with an open gas valve in an attempt to asphyxiate her. That same night the offices of PRODH were broken into and ransacked.

In November 1999 these incidents, coupled with prior and subsequent death threats, resulted in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ordering the Mexican State to do whatever was necessary to protect the life of Digna Ochoa and others working with PRODH, and to find and punish those responsible.

Digna Ochoa moved to Washington, D.C. in August 2000, returning to Mexico City in early May 2001 to continue her defense work. That same month the Federal Attorney General applied to the IACHR for removal of the protective measures and advised Ms. Ochoa the investigation into her case had been suspended. In August 2001 the application was granted. In October, Digna Ochoa was dead.

The case of Digna Ochoa has garnered the sustained interest of human rights organizations in Mexico and around the world. Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (LRWC), a Vancouver-based group that campaigns for lawyers who are threatened as a result of their advocacy, is one of these groups.

A joint team of lawyers from LRWC and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) went to Mexico City in March 2002 and their findings formed the basis of the LRWC/BHRC’s July 2002 “Report on the Digna Ochoa Murder Investigation,” (a copy of which can be viewed on the LRWC website:

In April 2003, Vancouver lawyer Leo McGrady Q.C. represented LRWC in a joint follow-up assessment of the investigation with representatives from BHRC. After interviewing the Special Prosecutor, government officials, journalists, as well as colleagues and a member of Ms Ochoa’s family, Mr. McGrady remained “very skeptical” that Ms. Ochoa’s death was suicide. Mr. McGrady says that “the evidence from the death scene relied on by the suicide theorists simply does not support that theory. In fact it contradicts it.” He added that evidence must also be viewed in the broader context of the documented repeated threat of violence and death directed towards human rights advocates in Mexico. This problem is most acute in states such as Guerrero, where she was working in the weeks prior to her death.

The controversy surrounding the death of Digna Ochoa casts doubt on President Vincente Fox’s stated commitment to address Mexico’s record of human rights abuse. For more than 35 years, Amnesty International has systematically chronicled hundreds of cases of arbitrary detention, torture, “disappearances,” and extra-judicial executions. With the election of President Fox in December 2000 after 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), many believed Mexico had turned a corner in this disturbing legacy.

Yet despite legislation aimed at eliminating human rights violations, a report released by Amnesty International in 2001 documented the continued use of torture in all of Mexico’s 31 states. And despite all the money and effort the current Fox government has been pouring into rectifying Mexico’s human rights abuses, all of the parties interviewed in the April 2003 follow-up assessment agreed that there has yet to be a single apprehension, charge or conviction.