November 2, 2001

Powerful Mexican Army Must Cooperate in Murder Probe

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mexican human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa was found shot, assassination-style, in her office in Mexico City on Oct. 26. The former nun repeatedly clashed with the Mexican military while defending Zapatistas and peasant environmentalists.

By Kent Paterson

President Vicente Fox vows his authorities will find the killers of human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa, shot in the head at point-blank range Oct. 26. Ochoa defended rebels and peasant environmentalists, clashing with a military accused of torture and killings. No suspects have been named, but a thorough investigation will have to probe the army, which has until now remained untouchable even to reformist politicians like Fox.

By taking on the military, the 37-year-old former nun broke a national taboo.

For most of the last century, the Mexican military was beyond reproach. In a country where corrupt public servants become rich overnight and scam banks vanish and reappear on street corners with regularity, citizens felt they could at least take pride in their soldiers. Young men in uniform served poor communities in social service projects or helped victims of hurricanes or earthquakes. In the public mind, the soldiers were descendants of the 19th century Ninos Heroes (Boy Heroes), cadets who wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and leapt to their deaths from the heights of Chapultepec Castle to defy American troops invading the capital.

In recent years the Mexican military quietly has become a powerful social institution with its own interests and agendas. Some officers have colluded in the export of narcotics. Though the arrest of a high-ranking Mexican general in 1997 for being in league with drug traffickers astonished former U.S. Drug Czar Gen. Barry Mc-Caffrey, prominent Mexican intellectual and journalist Sergio Aguayo reports that elements of the armed forces have been in the business since the late 1940s or earlier. Their first products were opium — cultivation had begun in World War II with encouragement from Washington to assure a ready source of painkilling drugs — and marijuana.

In parts of the destitute, rural outback of the Mexican south, the military acts as a civilian police force. Declaring victory over leftist rebels in Guerrero state in 1974, the army remained in the region and cultivated relations with traditional local power bosses known as caciques, who control timber concessions and other resources.

Following passage of the 1995 National Public Security System Law, enacted on the heels of the uprising in Chiapas, soldiers became more visible in urban civilian law enforcement, too. Today they guard highway checkpoints, patrol border cities in armored vehicles and command the state police in states like troubled Guerrero and Chihuahua.

The current expansion of the military's role in Mexican political life was underwritten in part by the United States, which trained soldiers at the center long known as the Army School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Ga., granted increasing military aid and approved direct commercial arms sales. For some, the culmination of the expansion was Fox's appointment of army general Rafael Macedo de la Concha to the office of attorney general. It was Macedo who, as a military prosecutor, blocked cases against members of the army brought by Ochoa.

Meanwhile, in places like Chiapas and Guerrero, an economy characterized by drug production, illegal timber harvesting, arms smuggling and other shady activities has flourished with at least the tacit acceptance of some military commanders, who are alleged to profit from the activities.

It was into this world that Digna Ochoa dared venture. In 1999, working on behalf of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, Ochoa forced two soldiers to admit in a Guerrero court that her clients, imprisoned anti-logging activists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, had been tortured after their arrests by the army. Audaciously, Ochoa called for torture charges to be brought against the soldiers allegedly involved, a move once practically unthinkable for a defense lawyer in Mexico.

Threats against Digna Ochoa in 1999 and 2000 coincided with her courtroom appearances in Guerrero for the Montiel-Cabrera case. On the evening of October 28, 1999, immediately after returning to Mexico City from one such trip, two men broke into her home, interrogated her for hours about guerrilla leaders in Guerrero and left her chained to a propane gas tank. After the incident, the Interamerican Court for Human Rights ordered the Mexican government to protect Ochoa.

Less than three weeks before her murder, Ochoa was reportedly back in the Guerrero mountains for a meeting with members of Montiel's Campesino Environmentalist Organization of Petatlan and Coyuca de Catatlan. Since l998, several supporters of the group have been murdered or disappeared, while entire communities in the region fled in fear to the mountains after soldiers swept into their communities. Late last year, another local anti-logging leader, Abimando Torres, was forced to flee his home after death threats. According to the Acapulco daily El Sur, leaders of the environmental organization sought Ochoa's assistance because they had received new threats.

Like Fox, Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico City, where Ochoa was murdered, has vowed to find the killers. Mexico City prosecutor Bernardo Batiz is in charge of the investigation. Batiz doesn't discount the possibility of questioning members of the military — indeed, they must be questioned for the probe to have any credibility. Much depends on the army's willingness to open its files and allow its personnel to be questioned about the Montiel case and others with which Ochoa was involved. Stonewalling could undermine civilian authority in a country supposedly experiencing a democratic transition.

Both the course and outcome of the Ochoa investigation should indicate whether Mexico is headed forward to a strong democracy, or backward to a Guatemalan or Chilean model, where nominally civilian governments must compromise with powerful military interests behind the throne.

Kent Paterson is an Albuquerque-based freelance journalist who writes regularly about Mexico.

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