Inter-American Commission Probes Lawyer’s Death

The Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has accepted the case of a  Mexican human rights lawyer who died under questionable circumstances in 2001. Lawyers for the family of Digna Ochoa y Placido confirmed that the IACHR has agreed to consider a complaint against the Mexican government because of an official investigation that concluded Ochoa committed suicide with three gunshots.

The 37-year-old Ochoa was among the first defense lawyers involved in the internationally-publicized case of Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, who were detained and tortured by Mexican soldiers in 1999 after protesting logging being done for the Boise Cascade Corporation in the southern state of Guerrero. Ochoa was found dead in a Mexico City apartment of gunshot wounds on October 19, 2001.

Years of police investigations, legal wrangling and polemics culminated two years ago when the Mexico City district attorney’s office upheld the suicide determination. When the case was closed in July 2011, the office was headed by Miguel Angel Mancera, the current mayor of Mexico City.

Supported by Mexico’s National Association of Democratic Lawyers and the Center for International Justice and Law, Ochoa family lawyers Karla Micheel Salas and David Pena helped convince the IACHR that investigative irregularities allegedly committed by Mexican justice officials warranted the review of the Organization of American States’ human rights commission.

“We are going to clear up my sister’s reputation, which (the district attorney’s office) has so smeared, and show that the murder hypothesis was not erroneous,” said Jesus Ochoa, brother of the late attorney.

A well-known Guerrero cattleman and politician, Rogaciano Alba Alvarez, was fingered as the intellectual author of Ochoa’s murder by two state residents nearly a decade ago.  Alba, the former Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) mayor of Petatlan, was arrested on drug-related offenses by Mexican federal police in the state of Jalisco in 2010.  In a video-taped confession released by police to the media, Alba admitted to ties with reputed drug lords Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

But in an unusual chain of remarks, Alba emphatically denied any involvement in Ochoa’s murder, even though he was not formally charged with the crime after his detention by the federal government.

Shortly before her death, Ochoa returned to Guerrero and met with farmer-environmentalists who were struggling to defend local forests from illegal logging. Whatever the cause of Ochoa’s death, the activist lawyer’s passing in the first year of the Vicente Fox administration set off alarm bells in Mexico.

Ochoa’s death was widely viewed as a harbinger for human rights in a country that was supposedly undergoing a transition from decades of authoritarian rule to a more representative democracy where freedom and expression and citizen participation would be respected.

More than 15 years after the forest defense movement gained momentum in Guerrero, the state’s mountainous zones are the scene of continued illegal logging, violent attacks against environmentalists, persistent outbreaks of narco-violence, and the forced displacement of communities.

The lawyers representing Digna Ochoa and family have until December 5 to present their arguments to the IACHR, which will then give the Mexican state an opportunity to defend the Mexico City investigation that determined Ochoa’s untimely death a suicide.

Additional sources: La Jornada, August 13, 2013. Article by Fernando Camacho Servin., August 13, 2013. Article by Blanca Valdez.  Cimacnoticias, August 7, 2013.

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