In October 2001, renowned Mexican human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa was found shot dead in her Mexico City office. Despite previous attempts on her life and other evidence pointing to foul-play, Ochoa’s death was declared a suicide by Mexico City prosecutors. We discuss her life and death with award-winning journalist Linda Diebel, author of “Betrayed: The Assassination of Digna Ochoa” and Kerry Kennedy, founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. [includes rush transcript]
We take a look at the life and death of the Mexican human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa. Ochoa was a former nun who went on to represent some of Mexico”s poorest constituents against powerful government interests. She also uncovered torture and other abuses by the Mexican military and police. Ochoa worked on behalf of peasant ecologists in the state of Guerrerro, Zapatistas guerrillas in Chiapas and indigenous Indians in her home state of Verazcruz. At the time of her death, she was defending three men charged with bombing banks in Mexico City to protest against globalization.
In October 2001, Digna Ochoa was found shot dead in her Mexico City office. She was thirty-seven years old and had received many death threats. In fact, when Ochoa was twenty-four she was kidnapped and raped only days after discovering a blacklist of union organizers and political activists in the office of the state attorney general.
Later in her life, she was forced to flee to the United States for her safety. Despite these previous attempts on her life and other evidence pointing to foul-play, Ochoa’s death was declared a suicide by Mexico City prosecutors. Ochoa’s family and fellow human rights activists never accepted the finding and fought for years to have the case re-opened. In February of 2005, prosecutors re-opened the investigation into Ochoa’s death.
A new book by award-winning journalist Linda Diebel provides an in-depth account of Ochoa’s murder and the cover-up that followed. It’s called “Betrayed: The Assassination of Digna Ochoa.” Linda Diebel is the former Washington bureau chief for the Toronto Star. For many years she was a Latin-America correspondent based in Mexico City. She is a three-time recipient of the Amnesty International Media Award.
Kerry Kennedy is the founder and former Executive Director of the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. She is also author of the book “Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World” She devoted a chapter in her book to Digna Ochoa.
They both join us in our firehouse studio.
- Linda Diebel, author of “Betrayed: The Assassination of Digna Ochoa.” Diebel is the former Washington bureau chief for the Toronto Star. For many years she was a Latin-America correspondent based in Mexico City.
- Kerry Kennedy founder and former Executive Director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. She is also author of the book “Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World” She devoted a chapter in her book to Digna Ochoa.
JUAN GONZALEZ: A new book by award-winning journalist Linda Diebel provides an in-depth account of Ochoa’s murder and the cover-up that followed. It’s called: Betrayed: The Assassination of Digna Ochoa. Linda Diebel is a former Washington bureau chief for the Toronto Star. For many years, she was a Latin America correspondent based in Mexico City. She’s a three-time recipient of the Amnesty International Media Award. We’re also joined by Kerry Kennedy. She is the founder and former Executive Director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. She’s also the author of the book, Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World. She devoted a chapter in her book to Digna Ochoa. Welcome to both of you.
LINDA DIEBEL: Thank you.
KERRY KENNEDY: Thank you.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Linda, I’d like for you to start. You became involved — you met Digna Ochoa when you were in Mexico City for the Toronto Star, and you became involved in your own investigation of what happened to her. Could you talk a little bit about why you decided to write the book and what propelled you to continue this investigation, even after the Mexico City government has closed it down essentially?
LINDA DIEBEL: Yes. I did become involved with Digna after I went to Mexico City. She was a very scrappy lawyer. And she took cases very personally. And one of the first stories I did involving the death and torture of two young men, 17 and 21, in Veracruz, had been her case, and they were last seen in the company of the police — never solved. And I had known her over the years on various stories.
After 2001, I came back up to Washington to work in the bureau there, came up to New York City to pay my respects in October, and on the train going back to Washington from New York, read that she had been murdered. And from that moment, I knew I had to write her story. And on the train, what struck me was, Digna used to wear these white blouses, and I sat there looking out the window wondering if she had gotten blood on her blouse and if the blouse had been ruined. It’s really funny what you think about. But I decided that I had known her, and I owed it to her to tell her story.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you end up uncovering as you investigated her death?
LINDA DIEBEL: I thought that I would be telling her story, a homicide. I would lay out who her enemies were, the threat that she represented to the States. And she was well known in the States. It was her fame, in some degrees, in human rights circles that made her a threat. And I was in the middle of that investigation, and then in March 2002, suddenly there was a cover-up. Suddenly they started to whisper that it was probable suicide, that she had, wearing great big red rubber gloves — a very small woman —- these huge gloves in her office, had shot herself in the thigh, apparently trying to bleed to death, and then wrapped her arm around her head and with her wrong arm shot herself in the head. And while they were saying that this was a legitimate investigation, both the conservative president of Mexico and the leftist mayor -—
AMY GOODMAN: Vicente Fox?
LINDA DIEBEL: Vicente Fox and the leftist mayor of Mexico City, López Obrador, who is running for president this year, promised justice. And while everyone was saying that it was a legitimate investigation that was going on, behind the scenes it was being set for a probable suicide. There were two investigations that followed. Apparently very serious investigations. The woman who headed — the judge who headed the final investigation had overseen a case in Mexico City a few years before. There had been a report done on a man who had apparently committed suicide by shooting himself twice in the heart. So you get the sense of how serious it was. And they ruled probable suicide with so many things, both from the physical evidence to the events of her life, that it was just preposterous.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Kerry Kennedy, you met Digna Ochoa, wrote a chapter in your book about her as one of the world’s true human rights leaders. Talk to us a little bit about your experience with her and your concern about what’s happened since her death.
KERRY KENNEDY: Well, when I was researching my book, I was looking for people who are the heroes of human rights, people who have faced imprisonment, torture, and death, but who had a history of success in creating change in their communities. So we were not looking for victims, but really looking for the Martin Luther Kings, the agents of change in their countries. And, again and again, Digna’s name came up as the leading human rights defender in Mexico.
She was an extraordinary woman, just somebody with such vitality and life, and just a bright, cheerful look at the future. She approached her work under such difficult circumstances. First of all, to be a human rights defender in Mexico is an extremely dangerous job in and of itself, but in addition to that, she was a woman, and she was a nun, and she was an Indian. So she had a lot going against her in a very, very difficult society.
You know, I talked to her one day about some of the human rights work that she did, and she was constantly coming up against police, the army, people involved with drugs, people involved with — the most dangerous people in her society and confronting them. And I said to her, “Where do you get that courage? Is that something that you’re born with, or is that something that you can develop?” And she said, “You know, I’m just so angry when I think about what they’ve done to me and to my family and to my country. And I take all of my outrage, and it gives me this extraordinary sense of strength with which I can confront anyone.”
And I think really the message of her life in a way was — reminds me of the pyramids that were built by slaves, and they say on them — there’s graffiti that’s thousands of years old that says, “No one was angry enough to speak out.” And I think what Digna was saying is, “You have to be angry enough to speak out when you see injustice.”
AMY GOODMAN: Who do you believe, Linda Diebel, killed Digna Ochoa, the Mexican human rights lawyer?
LINDA DIEBEL: My sense is — my gut feeling is regarding her work in Guerrero, because in Guerrero she was helping to defend people who were trying to protest against illegal logging by, among others, U.S. corporations like Boise Cascade who have since moved out of Mexico. But it could be other cases. She was, as Juan mentioned, investigating the bombing at Banamex. I think the most important — so, I was not trying to show who killed her, but that there was a cover-up. But she — what was very important about Digna was that she took on the army. She’s the only lawyer that I’ve ever seen in Mexico who actually took — was able to interview soldiers in court, question soldiers in court who were charged with torture. So, it was the threat that she represented of trying to make the army accountable.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And many people look at Mexico, and they think that it’s been progressing in terms of democracy. But your sense — and we’ve only got a little bit in this segment, then we’re going to continue it —- but the -—
AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.
JUAN GONZALEZ: — your sense of Mexico’s real picture in terms of human rights.
LINDA DIEBEL: Right. So many Americans go to Mexico every year. Huge tourist spot. But behind the palm trees and the lovely beaches is this other world which was Digna’s world.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there now. Part two tomorrow. Linda Diebel, author of Betrayed: The Assassination of Digna Ochoa, and Kerry Kennedy, founder and former Executive Director of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, author of the book, Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World, Digna Ochoa, one of the people she profiled.