Photo of defender Digna Ochoa

Dignified justice for women human rights defenders in Mexico

By Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas Director

31 January 2021

On 19 October 2001, the human rights defender Digna Ochoa was killed in her offices in Mexico City. The heinous crime shocked Mexican society and the international community. Digna was one of the most emblematic leaders in the defence of human rights in Mexico, in a particularly complex context.

Despite the global alarm, the state’s response to her death was unbelievable. Not only did the investigation lack impartiality and integrity, but the conclusion that Digna had “committed suicide” was a slap in the face of truth and justice for her and her family, as well as for hundreds of other human rights defenders who have since faced multiple forms of violence and persecution. Digna’s killing and the apathy of the authorities were not isolated occurrences, but part of a pattern of violence and impunity against human rights defenders, which sadly remains a legacy that continues to threaten human rights defenders and their organizations in Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders

It is in this context that the recent judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on the case of Digna Ochoa, condemning the Mexican state for serious failings in the investigation of her death, is a very important milestone for justice and human rights, and particularly for Digna and women human rights defenders.

Erika Guevara-Rosas

The Inter-American Court documented the multiple flaws in the investigations into her death, which in addition to showing the manipulation of evidence, including the crime scene, were plagued by gender stereotypes, and “intimate and personal aspects of the defender” were used to question her credibility and damage her image and reputation in order to minimize the impact of her killing. This is a recurrent issue in cases of killings and violence against women defenders in Mexico. The lack of a gender perspective in dealing with reports of violence perpetrated against women defenders and journalists, and attacks on the legitimacy of their defence work are a common denominator, not only in the few investigations that are carried out, but also in state discourse.

During the hearing before the Court, as an expert witness, I presented an analysis of the context of violence that human rights defenders in Mexico have been facing from the time of Digna’s killing until now. At Amnesty International we reported the threats against Digna and repeatedly demanded her protection from the authorities. Sadly this was not the only case as for years we have documented various cases of attacks and threats against women human rights defenders in the country. Emblematic cases of threats, such as those of Esther Chávez in 2002 and Obtilia Eugenio Manuel, who since 2004 has suffered multiple threats and even kidnapping; of sexual torture such as that of Lydia Cacho; or of killings such as those of Marisela Escobedo in 2010, Susana Chávez in 2012 and Zenaida Pulido in 2019, are proof that the Mexican state has not only failed to protect women human rights defenders, but that it fuels the impunity that guarantees that the violence will continue.

In the cases that Amnesty International has investigated, death threats, attacks, smear campaigns, disappearances and other forms of violence are almost never investigated, and the few investigations that are carried out, including into the killings of women defenders, are slow and lack specific protocols that focus on defence work or a gender perspective. In many cases the Mexican authorities and security forces themselves who are identified as responsible for the attacks, threats and aggressions, hence the investigations often lack impartiality and credibility.

One of the biggest obstacles for human rights defenders is that Mexico lacks truly comprehensive public protection policies. Although it has had a law and mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders and journalists since 2012, this has been clearly insufficient. Defamation and criminalization campaigns by public officials, the lack of firm measures to address the structural causes of violence, and the lack of investigation and punishment of those responsible for violence against defenders contribute to the hostile environment for the defence of rights.

The crisis of violence against human rights defenders and journalists in Mexico is monumental. The government itself acknowledges that from December 2018 to September 2021, 94 defenders have been killed, 23 of them women. The violence against the press merits its own analysis due to the severity of the situation, but to give an example, so far this year, three journalists have already been murdered. 

In the face of this crisis, and with all the problems identified with the protection mechanism, it is contradictory that, in October 2020, the Mexican Congress, with the approval of President López Obrador himself, eliminated the independent trust fund that financed part of the mechanism’s protection programmes. 

The Court’s judgment against Mexico in the Digna Ochoa case also recognizes this crisis and the state’s inability to provide protection. This is why in its judgment it orders the Mexican state to comply with reparation measures, both individually with the reopening of the investigation into Digna’s killing and compensation measures, and collectively, ordering the strengthening of the protection system with the adoption of investigation and protection protocols, training plans, recognition and prevention campaigns, and the allocation of adequate financial resources.

Mexico should not rely on a protection mechanism as the only state response for the protection of defenders. The state has an obligation to adopt a comprehensive perspective on the protection of defenders with a differentiated approach that takes into account specific needs, including those of women defenders.

Unless crimes against defenders and journalists are adequately investigated and punished, attacks will simply continue. Therefore, the state must strengthen the institutions responsible for prosecution and the administration of justice, as well as internal administrative oversight bodies, to ensure that all attacks are promptly, thoroughly, independently and impartially investigated, that perpetrators are brought to justice, and that victims receive full reparation and adequate assistance.

The deadline for empty promises has long passed. President López Obrador must act urgently and put an end to this violence that deeply harms all of society in his country. A first step is to stop his stigmatizing discourse and publicly recognize the work of human rights defenders in the construction of a more just and dignified Mexico. A Mexico where we no longer have to grieve for the Digna Ochoas that the violence takes from us.

This article was originally published in El País