[Congressional Record (Bound Edition), Volume 147 (2001), Part 16]
[Pages 22727-22729]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office, www.gpo.gov]

                              DIGNA OCHOA

  Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, I rise today to express the deep sadness 
and anger that I and many of my Vermont constituents feel about the 
senseless, cold-blooded murder of one of Mexico's most respected and 
courageous human rights lawyers, Digna Ochoa y Placido.
  On October 20, 2001, Ms. Ochoa was shot at near point blank range in 
her office. At her side was a note that threatened other human rights 
activists who have defended environmentalists, labor leaders, or other 
unjustly imprisoned or tortured by the Mexican army and police. A 
former nun, Ms. Ochoa was a role model for all human rights defenders, 
because of her extraordinary courage, dedication, and commitment to 
some of the most disadvantaged members of Mexican society.
  Ms. Ochoa frequently put the people she represented ahead of her own 
personal safety, and was an easy target for those who represent the 
worst of society, who would threaten or kill the downtrodden to protect 
their own crimes. She had received many death threats, and in 1999 she 
was kidnapped twice. During one of those abductions, her kidnappers 
tied her to a chair, opened a gas canister, and left her to die as the 
fumes slowly filled the room--from which she narrowly escaped.
  Digna Ochoa's death is a tragedy for all Mexicans. But it is 
particularly outrageous because it could have been avoided. Although it 
was widely known that threats and acts of violence were being carried 
out against her and other members of Prodh--the human rights 
organization where she worked--Mexican officials failed to investigate 
or prosecute those crimes.
  It would be hard to overstate the optimism I felt when Vicente Fox 
was elected Mexico's President after 70 years of misrule by the PRI. 
This election meant that Mexico could begin to overcome years of 
official corruption, police brutality, injustice and poverty suffered 
by the fast majority of Mexico's population.
  When President Fox took office, he promised to end the long history 
of abuses by the Mexican army and police. No one expected miracles. No 
one expected him to transform those secretive, corrupt and brutal 

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overnight. But it is the Government's first duty to protect its 
citizens, and people did expect him to make justice a priority, get rid 
of the old guard, and demand accountability.
  That has not happened, at least not yet, and Digna Ochoa's death has, 
tragically, focused attention again on this festering problem. There 
are undoubtedly many others who have suffered similar fates--faceless 
Mexican who are not widely known, who have been threatened or murdered, 
or who languish in prison without access to justice.
  To his credit, on November 9 President Fox ordered the release from 
prison of two ecologists, represented by Ms. Ochoa in the past, who 
never should have been imprisoned in the first place. For possessing 
the courage to try to stop the destruction of forests where they lived, 
they were arrested and allegedly tortured.
  The destruction of tropical forests is an urgent problem from 
Indonesia to Latin America, as logging companies compete for profits 
until the forests are completely destroyed. Often, the militaries in 
these countries are directly involved in these destructive, yet 
lucrative, schemes, and do not hesitate to kill or frame those who get 
in their way because they have known only impunity.
  However, besides releasing these two men, the Mexican Government has 
done little to respond to Ms. Ochoa's death. A truth commission to 
examine past human rights abuses has not been established. That is 
presumably because it requires challenging some of the most entrenched, 
powerful, and dangerous forces within Mexican society. Nevertheless, 
President Fox made this promise, and that is what is urgently needed.
  Another troubling case is the imprisonment of Brigadier General Jose 
Francisco Gallardo, who was convicted of corruption based on evidence 
that is, at best, inconclusive. Many observers feel that the main 
reason he is in prison and the Mexican Government continues to oppose 
his release is because he spoke out about abuses in the military. 
President Fox must deal with this case immediately.
  I am convinced that President Fox is the right leader for Mexico at 
this critical time, and I have confidence in him and his advisors. I do 
not minimize the herculean tasks they face--political, economic and 
social reform on a national scale. But there is no way democracy can 
succeed in Mexico without the rule of law. And there is no better place 
to start than by tracking down Digna Ochoa's killers, and bringing them 
to justice for all to see.
  Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a piece written by Digna 
Ochoa, about her life, which was included in Kerry Kennedy Cuomo's 
extraordinary book ``Speak Truth To Power,'' be printed in the Record.
  There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in 
the Record, as follows:

                              Digna Ochoa

       I am a nun, who started life as a lawyer, I sought a 
     religious community with a social commitment, and the 
     protection of human rights is one of the things that my 
     particular community focuses on. They have permitted me to 
     work with an organization that fights for human rights, 
     called Centro Pro, supporting me economically, morally, and 
     spiritually. This has been a process of building a life 
     project, from a social commitment to a spiritual one with a 
     mystical aspect.
       My father was a union leader in Veracruz, Mexico. In the 
     sugar factory where he worked, he was involved in the 
     struggles for potable water, roads, and securing land 
     certificates. I studied law because I was always hearing that 
     my father and his friends needed more lawyers. And all the 
     lawyers charged so much. My father was unjustly jailed for 
     one year and fifteen days. He was then disappeared and 
     tortured--the charges against him were fabricated. This led 
     to my determination to do something for those suffering 
     injustice, because I saw it in the flesh with my father.
       When I first studied law, I intended to begin practicing in 
     the attorney general's office, then become a judge, then a 
     magistrate. I thought someone from those positions could help 
     people. After I got my degree, I became a prosecutor. I 
     remember a very clear issue of injustice. My boss, who was 
     responsible for all of the prosecutions within the attorney 
     general's office, wanted me to charge someone whom I knew to 
     be innocent. There was no evidence, but my boss tried to make 
     me prosecute him. I refused, and he prosecuted the case 
       Up until that time, I was doing well. The job was 
     considered a good one, because it was in a coffee-producing 
     area and the people there had lots of money. But I realized 
     that I was doing the same thing that everyone did, serving a 
     system that I myself criticized and against which I had 
     wanted to fight. I decided to quit and with several other 
     lawyers opened an office. I had no litigation experience 
     whatsoever. But I was energized by leaving the attorney 
     general's office and being on the other side, the side of the 
       The first case I worked on was against judicial police 
     officers who had been involved in the illegal detention and 
     torture of several peasants. We wanted to feel like lawyers, 
     so we threw ourselves into it. Our mistake was to take on the 
     case without any institutional support. I had managed to 
     obtain substantial evidence against the police, so they 
     started to harass me increasingly, until I was detained. 
     First, they sent telephone messages telling me to drop the 
     case. Then by mail came threats that if I didn't drop it I 
     would die, or members of my family would be killed. I kept 
     working and we even publicly reported what has happening. The 
     intimidation made me so angry that I was motivated to work 
     even harder. I was frightened, too, but felt I couldn't show 
     it. I always had to appear--at least publicly--like I was 
     sure of myself, fearless. If I showed fear they would know 
     how to dominate me. It was a defense mechanism.
       Then, I was disappeared and held incommunicado for eight 
     days by the police. They wanted me to give them all the 
     evidence against them. I had hidden the case file well, not 
     in my office, not in my house, and not where the victims 
     lived, because I was afraid that the police would steal it. 
     Now, I felt in the flesh what my father had felt, what other 
     people had suffered. The police told me that they were 
     holding members of my family, and named them. The worst was 
     when they said they were holding my father. I knew what my 
     father had suffered, and I didn't want him to relive that. 
     The strongest torture is psychological. Though they also gave 
     me electric shocks and put mineral water up my nose, nothing 
     compared to the psychological torture.
       There was a month of torture. I managed to escape from 
     where they were holding me. I hid for a month after that, 
     unable to communicate with my family. It was a month of 
     anguish and torture, of not knowing what to do. I was afraid 
     of everything.
       I eventually got in touch with my family. Students at the 
     University, with whom I had always gotten along very well, 
     had mobilized on my behalf. After I ``appeared'' with the 
     help of my family and human rights groups in Jalapa, 
     Veracruz, I was supported by lawyers, most of whom were 
     women. The fact that I was in Veracruz caused my family 
     anguish. At first I wanted to stay, because I knew we could 
     find the police who detained me. We filed a criminal 
     complaint. We asked for the police registries. I could 
     clearly identify some of the officers. But there was a lot of 
     pressure about what I should do: continue or not with the 
     case? My life was at risk, and so were the lives of members 
     of my family. After a month of anguish, my family, 
     principally my sisters, asked me to leave Jalapa for a while. 
     For me, but also for my parents.
       I came to Mexico City. The idea was to take a three-month 
     human rights course for which I had received a scholarship. I 
     met someone at the human rights course who worked at Centro 
     Pro, one of the human rights groups involved on my behalf. 
     One day he said, ``Look, we're just setting up the center and 
     we need a lawyer. Work with us.'' I had never dreamed of 
     living in Mexico City, and I didn't want to. But I accepted, 
     because the conditions in Jalapa were such that I couldn't go 
     back. Two really good women lawyers in Jalapa with a lot of 
     organizational support took up the defense case I had been 
     working on. This comforted me, because I knew the case would 
     not be dropped--I had learned the importance of having 
     organizational backup. So I started to work with Centro Pro 
     in December 1988. Since I began working with the 
     organization, I've handled a lot of cases of people like my 
     father and people like me. That generates anger, and that 
     anger becomes the strength to try to do something about the 
     problem. At work, even though I give the appearance of 
     seriousness and resolve, I'm trembling inside. Sometimes I 
     want to cry, but I know that I can't, because that makes me 
     vulnerable, disarms me.
       At this time, because of what happened to me, I needed the 
     help of a psychoanalyst, but I wasn't ready to accept it. The 
     director of Centro Pro prepared me to accept that support. He 
     was a Jesuit and psychologist. For six months, I didn't know 
     he was a therapist. When I found out, I asked him why he 
     hadn't told me. ``You never asked,'' he said. We became very 
     close. He was my friend, my confessor, my boss, and my 
     psychologist, too, although I also had my psychoanalyst.
       The idea of a confessor came slowly to me. In Jalapa, I had 
     been supported by some priests. When I first ``appeared,'' 
     the first place I was taken was a church. I felt secure 
     there, though as a kid, I had never had much to do with 
     priests, besides attending church. To me they were people who 
     accepted donations, delivered sacraments, and were power

[[Page 22729]]

     brokers. It made an impression on me to see priests committed 
     to social organizations, supporting people.
       Since I've been at Centro Pro, we've gone through some 
     tough times, like the two years of threats we received 
     beginning in 1995. Once again it was me who was being 
     threatened. My first reaction was to feel cold shivers. I 
     went to the kitchen with a faxed copy of the threat and said 
     to one of the sisters in the congregation, ``Luz, we've 
     received a threat, and they're directed at me.'' And Luz 
     responded, ``Digna, this is not a death threat. This is a 
     threat of resurrection.'' That gave me great sustenance. 
     Later that day another of my lawyer colleagues, Pilar, called 
     me to ask what security measures I was taking. She was--
     rightfully--worried. I told her what Luz had said and Pilar 
     responded, ``Digna, the difference is that you're a religious 
     person.'' And I realized that being a person of faith and 
     having a community, that having a base in faith, is a source 
     of support that others don't have.
       Now, some people said to me that my reaction was 
     courageous. But I've always felt anger at the suffering of 
     others. For me, anger is energy, it's a force. You channel 
     energy positively or negatively. Being sensitive to 
     situations of injustice and the necessity of confronting 
     difficult situations like those we see every day, we have to 
     get angry to provoke energy and react. If an act of injustice 
     doesn't provoke anger in me, it could be seen as 
     indifference, passivity. It's injustice that motivates us to 
     do something, to take risks, knowing that if we don't, things 
     will remain the same. Anger has made us confront police and 
     soldiers. Something that I discovered is that the police and 
     soldiers are used to their superiors shouting at them, and 
     they're used to being mistreated. So when they run into a 
     woman, otherwise insignificant to them, who demands things of 
     them and shouts at them in an authoritarian way, they are 
     paralyzed. And we get results. I consider myself an 
     aggressive person, and it has been difficult for me to manage 
     that within the context of my religious education. But it 
     does disarm authorities. I normally dress this way, in a way 
     that my friends call monklike. That's fine. It keeps people 
     off guard. I give a certain mild image, but then I can, more 
     efficiently, demand things, shout.
       For example, one time there was a guy who had been 
     disappeared for twenty days. We knew he was in the military 
     hospital, and we filed habeas corpus petitions on his behalf. 
     But the authorities simply denied having him in custody. One 
     night we were informed that he was being held at a particular 
     state hospital. We went the next day. They denied us access. 
     I spent the whole morning studying the comings and goings at 
     the hospital to see how I could get in. During a change in 
     shifts, I slipped by the guards. When I got to the room where 
     this person was, the nurse at the door told me I could not go 
     in. ``We are not even allowed in,'' she said. I told her that 
     I would take care of myself; all I asked of her was that she 
     take note of what I was going to do and that if they did 
     something to me, she should call a certain number. I gave her 
     my card. I took a deep breath, opened the door violently and 
     yelled at the federal judicial police officers inside. I told 
     them they had to leave, immediately, because I was the 
     person's lawyer and needed to speak with him. They didn't 
     know how to react, so they left. I had two minutes, but it 
     was enough to explain who I was, that I had been in touch 
     with his wife, and to get him to sign a paper proving he was 
     in the hospital. He signed. By then the police came back, 
     with the fierceness that usually characterizes their 
     behavior. Their first reaction was to try to grab me. They 
     didn't expect me to assume an attack position--the only 
     karate position I know, from movies, I suppose. Of course, I 
     don't really know karate, but they definitely thought I was 
     going to attack. Trembling inside, I said sternly that if 
     they laid a hand on me they'd see what would happen. And they 
     drew back, saying, ``You're threatening us.'' And I replied, 
     ``Take it any way you want.''
       After some discussion, I left, surrounded by fifteen police 
     officers. Meanwhile I had managed to record some interesting 
     conversations. They referred to ``the guy who was 
     incommunicado,'' a term that was very important. I took the 
     tape out and hid the cassette where I could. The police 
     called for hospital security to come, using the argument that 
     it wasn't permitted to have tape recorders inside the 
     hospital. I handed over the recorder. Then they let me go. I 
     was afraid that they would kidnap me outside the hospital, I 
     was alone. I took several taxis, getting out, changing, 
     taking another, because I didn't know if they were following 
     me. When I arrived at Centro Pro, I could finally breathe. I 
     could share all of my fear. If the police knew that I was 
     terrified when they were surrounding me, they would have been 
     able to do anything to me.
       Sometimes, without planning and without being conscious of 
     it, there is a kind of group therapy among the colleagues at 
     Centro Pro. We show what we really feel, our fear. We cry. 
     There's a group of us who have suffered physically. On the 
     other hand, my religious community has helped me manage my 
     fear. At times of great danger, group prayer and study of the 
     Bible and religious texts helps me. Praying is very 
     important. Faith in God. That has been a great source of 
     strength. And I'm not alone anymore. As a Christian, as a 
     religious person, I call myself a follower of Christ who died 
     on the cross for denouncing the injustices of his time. And 
     if He had to suffer what he suffered, what then can we 
       For years after my father was tortured, I wanted revenge. 
     Then, when I was the torture victim, the truth is that the 
     last thing I wanted was revenge, because I feared that it 
     would be an unending revenge. I saw it as a chain. Three 
     years after coming to Mexico City I remember that a person 
     came to tell me that they had found two of the judicial 
     police officers who tortured me.
       The person asked if I wanted him to get them and give them 
     their due. At first, I did have a moment when I thought yes. 
     But I thought about it and realized that I would simply be 
     doing what they did. I would have no right to speak about 
     them as I am talking about them now. I would have been one of 
       I rarely share my own experience of torture. But I remember 
     talking to a torture victim who was very, very angry, for 
     whom the desire for revenge was becoming destructive. I 
     shared my own experience, and that made an impression on him. 
     But if we don't forgive and get over the desire for revenge, 
     we become one of them. You can't forget torture, but you have 
     to learn to assimilate it. To assimilate it you need to find 
     forgiveness. It's a long-term, difficult, and very necessary 
       If you don't step up to those challenges, what are you 
     doing? What meaning does your life have? It is survival. When 
     I began to work, when I took that case in which they made me 
     leave Jalapa, I was committed to doing something against 
     injustice. But there was something else that motivated me, 
     and I have to recognize it, even though it causes me shame. 
     What motivated me as well as the commitment was the desire to 
     win prestige as a lawyer. Thanks to the very difficult 
     situation that I lived through, I realized what was wrong. 
     What a shame that I had to go through that in order to 
     discover my real commitment, the meaning of my life, the 
     reason I'm here. In this sense, I've found something positive 
     in what was a very painful experience. If I hadn't suffered, 
     I wouldn't have been able to discover injustice in such 
     depth. Maybe I wouldn't be working in Centro Pro. Maybe I 
     wouldn't have entered the congregation. Maybe I wouldn't have 
     learned that the world is a lot bigger than the very small 
     world that I had constructed. Thanks to a very difficult, 
     painful experience for me and my family and my friends, my 
     horizons were broadened. Sometimes I say to myself, ``What a 
     way for God to make you see things.'' But sometimes without 
     that we aren't capable of seeing.