La Semana: Sunday, Mar 13
The week in women's rights
Welcome to the Sunday edition of The Mexpatriate.
On Mar. 8, thousands of women across the country—and the world—participated in marches for International Women’s Day, demanding justice, equality and change.
For today’s newsletter, I have chosen three pieces related to the lives and livelihoods of women in Mexico, including one I wrote in 2013 about Mexican mothers searching for missing loved ones.
“A strong feeling of rage”: the story of Digna Ochoa
Extended-hour public school program is shut down
Las Madres: celebration and grief (from the 2013 archive)
Please send me your comments, feedback and questions, and feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. You can always find all sources (with links) at the bottom of the email.
“A strong feeling of rage”: the story of Digna Ochoa
On Oct. 19, 2001 the body of 37 year-old human rights attorney Digna Ochoa y Plácido was found in her office in Mexico City. She had been shot twice, in the leg and in the head. A note was found near her body threatening other human rights defenders she worked with at the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (Centro Prodh). Over two decades later, on Jan 19. 2022, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Mexican state responsible for “serious failings” in its investigation of her death—which prosecutors claimed was suicide—and it was announced that the case will be re-opened.
“The investigation was biased from the beginning by gender stereotypes…”
Inter-American Court of Human Rights press release
One of thirteen children born to a working-class family in Misantla, Veracruz in 1964, Ochoa’s early life was shaped by the wrongful imprisonment of her father in 1980. “We saw how justice worked in Mexico, we saw the dishonesty of some lawyers, we saw all of it…so we decided to become involved in social justice,” said one of her brothers, Jesús Ochoa y Plácido.
Digna attended university to study law in Xalapa and worked for the state attorney general’s office, but was also active in political opposition groups. Her first encounter with violence and intimidation happened in 1988 when she was kidnapped and raped by state police. She reported to the authorities, but her allegations were never investigated and in 1991, she entered a convent where she studied for eight years. She left before taking vows.
During the investigation of her death in 2001, police and prosecutors attempted to justify their theory of a suicide staged to look like a murder by describing Ochoa’s religiosity and her personality as “demanding”, having a “strong sense of rage” and possibly suffering from “histeria conversiva” (conversion disorder) and paranoia. None of these psychological assessments was based in evidence beyond the investigators’ access to her personal diaries and correspondence and their thinly veiled misogynistic bias.
By the time of her death, Ochoa’s life had been threatened repeatedly: she had been kidnapped and held in Mexico City for several hours in 1995 and one night later that year, intruders broke into her home, tied her up, drugged her and interrogated her. At the time, Ochoa was working on several cases involving alleged abuses by Mexican law enforcement and the military against accused members of the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army). In 2000 she went into exile in the U.S. and was given Amnesty International’s “Enduring Spirit” award.
When Ochoa returned to Mexico in 2001, she still had provisional protection as had been recommended by the Inter-American Human Rights Court in 1999, but those measures were lifted only two months before her death. She was working on a case involving campesino environmentalists in Guerrero who had been detained and tortured by the military, forced to confess to cultivating marijuana and poppies. The men were freed by an executive order from President Fox in 2001 and their sentences were commuted.
Ochoa’s family brought her case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in 2013, after years of trying to re-open the investigation into what they firmly believed was murder. It was then sent to the human rights court in 2019.
“The investigation…was biased from the beginning by gender stereotypes, appealing to intimate and personal details of the victim’s life with the goal of questioning her credibility,” states the press release detailing the court’s ruling.
“The Court’s judgment against Mexico also recognizes…the state’s inability to provide protection,” notes Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International. “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.”
Extended-hour public school program is shut down
The Department of Public Education (SEP) announced on Feb. 28 the end of the “Programa de Escuelas de Tiempo Completo” (PETC), a government program started in 2007 that provided extended hours of schooling for students across Mexico. The education advocacy group Mexicanos Primero estimates that 3.6 million children will be affected. The funding has been re-allocated to one of the López Obrador administration’s educational initiatives called “La Escuela es Nuestra” (The School is Ours), in which monies are distributed directly to committees of parents who then create and disburse budgets for the schools. According to the most recent audit by the Auditoría Superior de la Federación (Superior Federal Auditor), this program already had left 552 million pesos unaccounted for in 2020. Querétaro, Michoacán, Puebla and Mexico City announced they would continue with the PETC using their own state resources.
The families likely to be most affected by the termination of the PETC are the poorest, with two working parents or a single working parent. The program provided meals for students, which for the poorest children, was the primary meal of their day. Data indicate that working mothers who had access to the PETC had an increase of up to 29% in their income, and students in the program were less likely to show severe educational deficit and performed better on standardized tests. Coming so soon after the educational and economic fallout of extended school closures during the pandemic, this will deliver another blow to struggling families, and particularly, to mothers.
The PETC was far from perfectly managed and in some schools, parents complained that there was a lack of planning for the extra hours; in others, students were benefiting from additional classes in English, arts and other subjects. “For me it was helpful because I work, and instead of having the kids at work with me, they were in school and they were given a meal,” commented a mother interviewed in Cuilacán, Sinaloa. It is important to point out that standard hours for public schools in Mexico are from 9 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. for preschool, and 8 a.m. to 12:30 pm for primary grades in the morning shift, or 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. for the afternoon shift. The extended hours offered by the PETC brought public schools who participated in closer alignment with the schedule offered by most private schools, with children ending the school day between 2:00 and 3:30 p.m.
“This decision by SEP deserves to be repudiated, it betrays progressivism and the right to education of children who today, after two years of the pandemic, need more than ever to have access to more hours of study and social/emotional attention at school,” states a press release from Mexicanos Primero.
Las Madres: celebration and grief
Published originally on May 14, 2013
On May 10, mothers across Mexico were honored and celebrated for Día de las Madres. My first day in San Miguel de Allende thirteen years ago was a blazing hot Mother's Day and it was my first experience of the hustle, bustle and delightful chaos of a Mexican communal celebration; it seemed every resident of the town had left home and settled into the streets, plazas and parks. Children chased each other through the forest of adult legs while the adults chatted, snacked on corn cobs smothered in mayonnaise or fruit doused in lime and chile. The hot air filled with the strains of warbling mariachi trumpets, punctuated with the occasional cluster of cohetes exploding in the hills; slightly different rituals than the Hallmark cards and obligatory family dinners up North.
The quest for assistance from the authorities is a grim one; many of these bereft mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins have spent years being ignored or ridiculed by the very people who should be looking for their loved ones.
This year, hundreds of mothers gathered on Reforma in Mexico City, holding photos of missing sons and daughters, crying for justice as they marched. They took the streets not to celebrate, but to demand answers and to unite with others in pain. “I want to tell my son, Brandon, that he’s still Mommy’s little Prince, and that until I draw my last breath I will be with him and I will never, ever give up looking for him, that I do it day after day...God bless you my darling son.”
This was a letter one of the mothers read to her eight year-old son, who went missing with his father in Coahuila. She is one of thousands; an estimated 27,000 people disappeared during the previous sexenio. Many of their relatives have become nomads, searching the country's police stations, hospitals, morgues.
Why have so many vanished? In the words of Marcela Turati, a journalist who writes for Proceso and contributed to the book Entre las Cenizas: “There are many theories: to strengthen dwindling cartel armies, to force them to do illegal activities, to traffic their organs, to sell them to the sex trade, to extort money, to rid the country of delinquents...or because they got involved with people they shouldn't or they were just at the wrong place at the wrong time, or even as a preventive measure to keep them from joining the ranks of an enemy cartel.”
The quest for assistance from the authorities is a grim one; many of these bereft mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins have spent years being ignored or ridiculed by the very people who should be looking for their loved ones. While the previous administration attempted to deny that people were disappearing from their homes, from the highways, from their workplaces, the current government acknowledges the tragedy, if only because they can blame it on their predecessors.
Recognition does not equate with action however. A group of eight relatives of missing persons started a hunger strike six days ago in Mexico City in front of the offices of the attorney general. Their demand is to have a meeting with President Peña Nieto, the attorney general, the head of the Department of the Interior (SEGOB), and the National Security Commission. A representative from the attorney general's office visited them yesterday to tell them their strike is pointless and that there will be no meeting with his office. He said it would be better for them to approach the Department of the Interior (SEGOB); in other words, go sit in front of their building so they can shoo you away.
Daniel Zapico, the executive director of Amnesty International in Mexico, spoke to the mothers on Friday, supporting their efforts. “You deserve justice, you deserve the truth, to know what has happened, and not have the government deny this reality...[They have] said good things, but that's not enough while there is still even one person missing.”
Digna Ochoa, de defensora de derechos humanos a loca histérica (Animal Político)
A 20 años, el crimen de Digna Ochoa sigue impune (La Jornada)
Digna Ochoa: un asesinato llamado suicidio (Pie de Página)
Rodolfo Montiel y Teodoro Cabrera (Centro Prodh)
Dignified justice for women human rights defenders in Mexico (Amnesty International)
¿Extrañarán madres y padres las escuelas de tiempo completo? (Revista Espejo)
La tragedia de perder las escuelas de tiempo completo (Animal Político)
“No vamos a desistir” señalan madres en huelga de hambre (Animal Político)
Entre las Cenizas by Marcela Turati and Daniela Rea