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Nov. 1, 2004

Suspicious death brings call to action

Human-rights lawyer probed Mexican army. Handling of activist's case protested here


A young Toronto writer goes to a concert on a summer night, listens to the amazing Lila Downs sing her ballad about slain Mexican lawyer Digna Ochoa and finds herself swept away with emotion and wanting to help.

It's not hard to imagine her feelings. The ingredients were there: the power of this particular voice, the receptive crowd at a free concert at Harbourfront last Aug. 13, and the mystery and sense of injustice surrounding the shooting death three years ago of a human-rights activist who dedicated her life to fighting for the poorest of Mexico's poor.
"The words touched me so deeply, I began to cry," said Tania Tonintzin, 25, of the song entitled "Dignificada" (Dignified), a play on Ochoa's name. "I felt that once I knew Digna's story, I had to do something; I couldn't sit back and do nothing."
Such emotion, however, can be fleeting, fading into air with the last notes. Tonintzin came to Canada from Mexico a few years ago, but the problems of her native country are far away. She has her own concerns making a living in Toronto as a writer and jewelry designer, and life has a way of intruding on good intentions.

Not this time.

She didn't forget. Instead, she launched a campaign to protest the ruling last year by Mexican officials that Ochoa, 37, likely killed herself. She mustered support among friends, fellow artists, students, human-rights activists and city politicians to organize a memorial service last Friday — "In Memory of Digna" — at Ryerson University.
Tonintzin's friends pitched in, contacting Ochoa's family and former colleagues for video messages. They pulled in speakers from Amnesty International, the Ontario Coalition against Poverty, Lawyers Rights Watch Canada and Canadian-Chiapaneco Justice for Women, as well as the poets, musicians, singers and other artists who performed at the five-hour event. The emcee was Queen Nzinga, a radio host and reporter for Ryerson's CKLN, whose program, Sembradoras (Sowers), focuses on the struggles of impoverished women in Latin America.
"It was great," Tonintzin said. "People really came together for a cause. It shows we can do something when we care — we really can. When people hear about Digna, they want to learn more about her."

Ochoa, best known for investigating alleged human-rights abuses by the Mexican army, was found dead in her office on Oct. 19, 2001, with a bullet in her brain. She was wearing thick red rubber gloves, a macabre touch that stumped police. A note, laced with obscenities and left near her body, warned other Mexican rights lawyers that "this is no trick" and they could be next.
Mexico City officials twice ruled the death was a homicide, before reversing themselves last year and closing the case with a "probable suicide" verdict. Human-rights activists from around the world, including Canada, have been urging Mexican President Vicente Fox to order the case reopened.

"There are too many outstanding questions to let this go," said Toronto Councillor Olivia Chow, who has been involved with issues affecting members of Toronto's Latin American community since the first waves of Chilean refugees fled Augusto Pinochet's death squads during the 1970s and '80s.

"When there is no justice, the people who passed away can't rest in peace. And, when there is no peace, it affects the entire community," said Chow (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina). She supports the protest and petition, being organized by Tonintzin to send to Fox later this month.
"This is an interesting time to talk about remembering the dead," Chow said.
Today marks the beginning of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, where, at cemeteries throughout the country, families bearing food and flowers hold vigils at the graves of their loved ones.

Tonintzin said 10 pages of signatures have been collected so far, adding her campaign is just beginning. Maintaining that Ochoa's death remains unsolved, the petition urges Fox to take over the case from Mexico City officials, "who have failed to properly investigate."
"I hope they will reopen Digna's case because it's absurd to say she killed herself," Tonintzin said. "It seems that, in the end, they blamed the victim and forgot about her contribution to the fight for human rights in Mexico."
Tonintzin has never met Lila Downs, born to a Mexican mother and American father, who is increasingly recognized for her haunting songs of protest — especially about indigenous peoples in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. She wears the thick, dark braids, ropes of beads and colourful blouses and skirts of her Mixtec Indian heritage.
In 2002, she was nominated for an Academy Award for one of her songs for the movie Frida, about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who adopted the same colourful style of dress.
"I hope I can meet her," Tonintzin said. "But even if I don't, she has inspired me. We want to create awareness of who Digna Ochoa was and what she did, and it began for me with Lila Downs."

Star reporter Linda Diebel is writing a book about Digna Ochoa.

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