Mexican Human Rights Lawyer Is Killed
MEXICO CITY, Oct. 21 - One of Mexico's most prominent human rights lawyers was found shot to death in her office here on Friday, bringing criticism of the administration of President Vicente Fox from environmentalists and rights advocates.
The lawyer, Digna Ochoa, 37, was a longtime advocate at the Jesuit-run Miguel Agustín Pro Center for Human Rights. She was perhaps most widely recognized for defending two jailed peasant farmers considered by Amnesty International to be "prisoners of conscience."
The two men, Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, protested logging by local political bosses and were imprisoned in May 1999 on dubious gun and drug charges. They have lost numerous appeals despite official findings that they were arbitrarily detained and then tortured.
Ms. Ochoa, winner of Amnesty International's Enduring Spirit Award, had been menaced by death threats for years, often in notes devised from newspaper clippings that appeared under her door. In 1999, she was kidnapped and beaten. Two months later, she was tied, blindfolded and tortured in her home for nine hours. No arrests were made in the attacks.
Hoping the danger would pass, Ms. Ochoa spent several months outside Mexico. She returned home in April, formally separating herself from the human rights center but continuing to pursue high-profile political cases.
A number of her clients were accused of being members of guerrilla organizations. Among them were two brothers accused in August of planting small bombs near automatic bank teller centers in well-to-do neighborhoods in Mexico City.
New threats against Ms. Ochoa began appearing in September. An obscenity-laden note found Friday next to Ms. Ochoa's body warned former colleagues at Miguel Agustín Pro that they could be next. Ms. Ochoa, a native of the gulf coast state of Veracruz, had been shot at close range in the head and thigh.
In a news conference on Saturday, investigators said they believed that Ms. Ochoa's killing was political. Colleagues from across the world said that her death stained the political transition being led by President Vicente Fox.
"This is a horrible, tragic blow to human rights protection in Mexico," said Curt Goering, deputy executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A. "The rhetoric of the Fox administration indicated that he was prepared to deal with human rights issues differently than in the past. Well, in the aftermath of an event like this, that rhetoric rings hollow."
Mr. Fox, whose election last year ended the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, had promised not only to open investigations into past abuses of power but also to root out corruption within the government. His commitment to ending torture by the military and federal law enforcement agencies was applauded by human rights advocates around the world.
However, 10 months after the start of Mr. Fox's presidency, his promise to create a truth commission remains unfulfilled. Human rights officials were alarmed when Mr. Fox appointed a military general as attorney general. Hopes for real changes in the culture of impunity grew dim as months passed without any significant reversals in the fate of prisoners like Mr. Montiel and an Army brigadier general, José Francisco Gallardo.
General Gallardo was arrested in November 1993 on charges of slandering the armed forces by criticizing abuses against civilians. The charges were dismissed a year later, yet he remains in prison.
"President Fox seems to be more concerned about keeping the military happy than he is about stopping their abuses," said Alejandro Queral of the Sierra Club, which has supported Mr. Montiel's defense.
A statement issued by the Interior Ministry lamented Ms. Ochoa's murder and reiterated the government's commitment to human rights.
Edgar Cortez, director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Center, was not encouraged. At a memorial Mass for Ms. Ochoa, he called the killing "an ominous sign" that impunity continues to undermine justice.
In an interview today, Mr. Cortez cited several recent incidents of assaults on human rights investigators in Chiapas, including one lawyer whose home was set on fire and another who was nearly run down by a speeding vehicle. Mr. Cortez said that law enforcement agencies conducted only half-hearted investigations into such attacks.
"The general atmosphere of threats and violence has never been quashed," he said. "Digna's murder is only the most heinous in a series of troubling incidents."