If you live through this, no one will believe you. No one will listen. No one will care.
Blame the victim. A long-standing tactic used when a victim steps forward to face his or her accusers looking for justice. For closure. Rather than receive either, the victim is blamed for his or her own victimization. It's your fault you were raped. Part of that tactic includes accusing the victim of lying, manufacturing the evidence of abuse. And denial any took place. The abuse perpetuates. No justice. No closure.
Sister Dianna Ortiz was subjected to horrors few can even conceive, at the hands of agents of the government of Guatemala. It left her devastated, physically, psychologically, emotionally; questioning her faith. She turned to the "justice" system there and received none. She turned to her own country, the country of her birththe United States. She received none. She was further slandered, humiliated and her emotional and psychological wounds reopened and salted.
This is her story.
Dianna was born in New Mexico. Despite that and her name, she wasn't fluent in Spanish. Like so many things, it would be used against her. The short (5' 3") woman dedicated her life to her faith and began the path to her vocation at age 17. She studied at a convent in Kentucky, becoming an Ursuline nun. She began her mission work in Guatemala in 1987, when she joined some others that were working mostly with rural Indian children (Mayan), teaching them to read.
This was enough to be considered a danger to national security. Then again, this was a government (not alone in Latin America) which viewed the church as a potential or de facto subversive element spreading dissent and antigovernment sentiment. This is confirmed by the army's own public relations office: "some religious activistsboth from catholic as well as protestant churchespreached to the peasants so that these, with new ideas and religious principles backed by the authority of the preachers, would reject the bases of a democratic system."
To make matters worse (for her), she was learning to speak better Spanish through a combination of classroom study and immersion by living with a Guatemalan family. Members of the family belonged to the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, an indigenous rights organization. One member of the family was "disappeared" in 1990 and not seen again.1 The next year the bishop in the area where the nuns were teaching was given an anonymous typewritten note that alleged the nuns were planning to meet with subversive elements. It was only the beginning.
In the first three months of 1989, the 28 year old nun received three letters (one on her windshield, one through the post, and one slipped under her door). Two were addressed to "Madre Diana"which contradicts the claim of the mysterious "Alejandro" (to whom we return) that she had been mistakenly kidnapped instead of a Veronica Ortiz Hernandez. Dianna was told she was in danger and must leave the country. That she received the letters (then and after) while in different parts of the country, seems to prove she was already under some kind of surveillance. It was later found that a number of photographs had been taken of her while she was unaware, the earliest was shortly after she arrived in the country in 1987. She would later be shown the pictures during her "interrogation."
In July of 1989, she stopped by a demonstration (a teacher's strike) near where she worked. She had seen some people she knew and wanted to talk to them. A few days later, a man she'd never seen confronted her near her home and told her, "We know who you are. You're working in Huehuetenango." She was told to leave Guatemala. She then took a two month vacation (unscheduled). A month after she'd returned, a letter was dropped through the mail slot where she lived. In cut and pasted words from newspapers and magazines, Dianna received an unequivocal death threat warning: "Eliminate Diana. Raped. Disappeared. Assassinated. Decapitated. Leave the country." Again, the use of her name contradicts the later claim of mistaken identity.
Four days later (at another location), she received another note, this time informing the nun that "It is dangerous for you to stay here. The army knows you are here. Leave the country." She went to a religious center in Antigua, Guatemala, hoping for a respite from the harassment. Another letter was sent to the center before she arrived (she did not receive it before "disappearing").
Then came 2 November 1989.
Hell is here.
It was early on Thursday, 2 November. Dianna went to the center's gardens where she planned to sit quietly and listen to some music away from the vague threats of letters and strange men in the street. She asked a caretaker to open the gate for her and she went in to relax and reflect. She was there for about ten minutes when she felt the weight of a hand on her shoulder. A man's voice spoke: "Hello, my love." It was the voice of the man who had confronted her a few months earlier. She tried to back away but he gripped her arm. She then noticed a second man. She struggled to free herself but could not escape. She stopped when she was shown the gun the man had in his pocket. She had to leave with them.
Dianna was forced to walk to the back of the garden to an opening in the wall. The abductors forced her into a dry creek through which they walked for a while, unseen. They came upon a street and ordered her to get onto a city bus. To ensure compliance, one of the men showed her a grenade and threatened to blow up her and all the innocent civilians if she resisted. The three rode along until they were outside of the city. They exited the bus and led her down a dirt road until they came upon a waiting police car.
She was blindfolded and put into the back seat as the uniformed officer said, "I see that your trip was successful." She was driven to a building like a warehouse. She was able to hear the cries of a woman and a man moaning somewhere. She was taken to a room (apparently unblindfolded), put into a chair left alone. After what may have been a couple hours, one of the men returned, blindfolded her again, and was joined by the other two. They began removing her clothes and fondling her body.
The molestation was postponed with "We will get to that later, we have to take care of business first." They began to play an interrogation game. She would be asked questions. If she answered to their satisfaction, she would be allowed to smoke. If not, she would be burned by cigarettes. What was her name? Where did she live? What was her job? Was she involved with subversives? Regardless of her answers, she was "incorrect" 111 times, second degree burns covering her back.
It went on for a while. The blindfold was taken off and she was greeted with the surveillance photos taken of her. Other pictures were shown. Indians. A man with a gun and a woman with a gun. They accused her of being the woman in the picture. Said that Indians were subversive. She was subversive. The blindfold was replaced and she was struck across the facehard enough to knock her out of the chair and onto the floorleaving abrasions.
She was stripped of whatever clothing she had left. The rapes began. She was forced to fellate and masturbate her torturers. They violated her wounds. Called her "mi amor." Again and again. Somewhere in the spiral into hell, something happened with dogs that she cannot speak of even years later, except to allude to a cause of her fear the animals. She was told she must tell them the names of the people in the pictures. Of her "contacts." She mercifully blacked out. It wouldn't be the first time.
During one of the "breaks" while having been transferred to another room, she noticed a woman in the room under a bloodied sheet. She was beaten to a pulp, cut, and Dianna saw what appeared to be maggots crawling in the wounds on her chest. For a time, two victims comforted each other in the depths of hell. "For what seems like hours, we hold on to each other" (www.salon.com).
Dianna was told that they had taken pictures and videotape of the "interrogation" and the acts she was forced to commit. They would be released to the public and the press if she did not cooperate. At one point, a large knife, perhaps a machete, was put into her hands. At the time, she just wanted to die. Thinking it was for her, she didn't resist. Instead, she was forced to repeatedly stab and probably kill another woman. "What I remember is blood gushingspurting like a water fountaindroplets of blood spattering everywhereand my cries lost in the cries of the woman" (www.washingtonpost.com). It was videotaped by her abusers.
She awoke from one of the blackouts to find herself hanging, her hands tied to something above her. It seemed to be a courtyard of some sort. She was again asked to name the people in the picture. She was raped again. Something heavy was moved across the ground and she felt herself being lowered into some sort of pit, at the bottom of which were bodies. Men, women, children. Some alive, some not. And rats. Lots of rats. Again, blackness.
Waking up to rape.
During the ordeal, the torturers warned Dianna that if she didn't give them what they wanted, they would get their boss, "Alejandro." She found herself in another room being "questioned" and then raped again, when one of the men said, "Alejandro, come have some fun." A tall, fair-skinned, bearded man who had just entered the room, exclaimed in perfect, (according to Ortiz, American) unaccented English, "Shit." Then breaking into halting, broken Spanish, he called the men idiots and said she was a North American nun and that the story of her disappearance had hit the media.
The men were sent out of the room and he helped her put on her clothes. She was taken from the building into an attached garage and put into a jeep. He kept apologizing and saying that it had been a mistake. She could tell he wasn't a native speaker and he understood her perfectly when she spoke English. When asked if he was an American, the reply was "Why do you want to know?"
Dianna was told she was being taken to a friend of his at the US embassy who would help her out of the country. Despite the "apologies," she was told by the man who claimed to be "concerned about the people of Guatemala and consequently was working to liberate them from Communism" (www.washingtonpost.com) that she was to blame for the torture. That she should forget about it and forgive the people who had done it to her. She was also reminded that they had videotape and photos.
While stopped in traffic in a part of the city that she recognized, Dianna fled, running for her life. She kept running until she found a woman who took her into her home. After several hours (she had been missing for a day), she gathered the courage to go to a travel agency and contact members of the religious retreat who came to get her. Within 48 hours, she left the country.
Blaming the victim
Starting almost immediately Dianna was accused of lying. That it was a "self-kidnapping," intended to embarrass and defame the Guatemalan government. Her injuries were either nonexistent or self-inflicted. A week after the abduction, the ambassador stated that "her story is not accurate" (flag.blackened.net). During the investigation, he provided a letter (10 April 1990) that stated he had given her his "own personal examination," finding her to have been "seriously beaten and mistreated." But he didn't believe the story. The Guatemalan Minister of Defense made statements that it was an attempt to cover up a "lesbian tryst." He later said the information had come from the US embassy.
ABC News tracked down the alleged source, the human rights officer. He threatened to sue the network but never did, still denying the statement. He or another member of the staff was also alleged to have said to a religious delegation, "I'm tired of all these lesbian nuns coming down to Guatemala" (www.eecs.umich.edu). According to State Department documents she was later able to get hold of, even before any formal testimony or investigation took place, the ambassador referred to what happened as an "alleged disappearance and subsequent reappearance" (ibid.) He would claim it was all a ploy to block US funding of the Guatemalan government, which had hearings coming up in Congress. She had done it for political reasons and the church was an accessory.
A "big political problem"
An embassy official stated in a document (1992) that her case was a "big political problem" because a nun is more believable than the Guatemalan government, but that she (the official) did not believe her "nor does anyone else who knows the case welltoo many inconsistencies in her accounts." She then added that it was being written "informally because we have to be so very careful in this case in order not to be accused of being partial or disbelieving" (www.eecs.umich.edu). A glance at various interviews and public statements made by the "big political problem," as well as the report drawn up by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR, an organ of the Organization of American States), shows that she has been consistent from the beginning and the inconsistencies have come from the governments of Guatemala and the United States.
She was seen as a danger from early on. In letters from the US ambassador to the State Department in 1990, he wrote of concern for "the potential damage to US interests resulting from this alleged incident" (www.eecs.umich.edu). He felt that her meeting with the State Department (as she had requested) would be a mistake because "pressure from all sorts of people and groups" could force the department to act on her informationthat he was "afraid we are going to get cooked on this one" (ibid.). He also sent a letter to her lawyer accusing her of breaking the eighth commandment (bearing false witness).
Years later when she received some of the documents she had requested through the Freedom of Information Act, one included the statement (1990) "VERY IMPORTANT: We need to close the loop on the issue of the 'North American' named by Ortiz as being involved in the case" and "The EMBASSY IS VERY SENSITIVE ON THIS ISSUE, but it is an issue we will have to respond to publicly" (www.eecs.umich.edu).
In 1994, a Guatemalan army spokesman asserted to the media that Dianna was "the principal spokesman for the rebel forces in Guatemala." A very dangerous nun, who either was a liar, manipulating public opinion for political means, or who deserved what she got.
Antigua Escuela Politecnica
The attempt to destroy her credibility continued on both sides of the border. In 1994, she was accused by an(other) army spokesperson of "mental problems" and having a "vice of telling untruths" around the time she identified the detention center (she had also recognized sights along the way she had been driven). A detention center that the government denied was ever used for such a purpose (let alone torture and extrajudicial executionregrettably, far too clinical terms for what was going on there). It denied the use of any "clandestine detention centers." The IACHR report points out that it had previously established the use of places similar to where Dianna was held as detention centers.
It backed its "proof" that she couldn't support her accusation for two main reasons. The first was that when she was taken there for the "judicial recognition," she was unable to complete it due to a "nervous attack," something that should not be surprising from a victim of torture. The second, was that the judge in charge of the process could not find the places described within the center. Countering that was the document for the procedure, showing that the judge had only visited places that "were in use," and not the entire place. While it didn't prove the story, the dismissal after an inadequate investigation is part of the ongoing pattern of behavior on the part of the Guatemalan government.
Witnesses and police cars
More of the government's "proof"it was all a lie were in two witnesses. The first claimed he had let her into the garden that day and had seen her walk toward the back of the garden (alone) "looking for an exit." While he appears to have let her in the gate and may have seen her walk toward the back of the garden, his credibility ends there.
Unless he was in the garden with her (which he never stated), he could not have seen the area where she exited (with or without "help") and his supposition that she was looking for an exit is only that. It would have also required him to have waited the ten minutes or so while she sat listening to music. He claimed there were no strange men hanging around but, without a view of where the "incident" took place (either the kidnapping or the alleged sneaking out of the garden alone), there is no way he could be certain. Further, Dianna never claimed the men were right inside the gate.
It becomes more interesting in that those statements were the only ones given. He never testified before a court or tribunal. He had even been asked to testify (whether he was summoned to testify, as requested by the prosecutor, seems in question). An attempt to locate him in 1991 was unsuccessful.
The second witness came to the police saying he saw her, describing the clothing she wore. His statement is suspect. Dianna was reported missing soon after it was discovered. In the report a description of her clothes was given. One item left out was a blue sweatshirt she had been wearing (confirmed by the people at the travel agency). The witness also made no mention of the sweatshirt. The witness did say she had been wearing a canvas vest (chaleco de lona). Why that is interesting is that the sister who reported the disappearance said Dianna had been wearing a wool shawl (chal de lana). The implication is that the "witness" got his description from the police.
That second witness was called upon to testify in 1989. He did not appear. It was later found that many of the people from the area knew the man as a "vagabond." Another attempt to locate him in 1991 failed.
More "proof" of the manufactured nature of the disappearance, was the number seven statement. Dianna's story was that she was driven to the detention center in a police car (later she identified the type of car). The government claimed that she gave a statement that she recalled the number seven as one of the identifying numbers on the vehiclein the middle position (of three). Since no police cars have a designation number in that position, she must be lying (not that it would disprove the story).
Some court documents do have her making the statement, though it may be due to her mediocre Spanish. In statements she made to people in English, she said she couldn't recall which position the number was in. Incidentally, there are some cars in Guatemala City and the area around it with seven in the numbers. Though this really wouldn't prove anything either way, it does demonstrate the lengths to which the Guatemalan government was willing to go to discredit her.
It was claimed Dianna had no medical certification for the injuries and burns. This was a lie as one of the investigative reports noted the certified exam reports from the doctor she saw while in Guatemala (who noted the cigarette burns that were made within the previous 24 hours) and when she fled to the US. She was later cited for not taking part in an exam March 1993 (as if there was much to find three and a half years later).
The government also made much of her not having had a gynecological examination (though she was examined both there and in the US, she never had a pelvic exam, let alone a rape kit). The IACHR charged that this was an attempt to narrowly define the case in terms of the rapethe reasoning being if no rape was proven, the whole case would fall apart. The IACHR chose to consider the rape as part of the torture/abusewhich it found to be well supported by the evidence. The government would continue to demand her to take an exam well beyond the time when any real evidence could be found. The Commission found that to constitute obstructing the progress of the case and harassment of the victim.
The "investigation": Guatemala
At every step of the way, the government dragged its feet or claimed she was dragging hers. There were a number of times when it was claimedeven announced to the mediathat she had refused to answer questions or even allow herself to be questioned. In almost every case, she had done so. In at least one case, she had invited the investigator in order to give testimony. The investigator never showed. In other cases, it was claimed that she had not filed reports with the authorities. Once on the same day that she submitted one.
The IACHR report also found that the military and the government both failed to perform adequate investigations into the matter. The military refused not only to investigate but to turn over documents requested by the courtsthe Attorney General stated that "the case had not progressed because the Guatemalan military did not have the political will to carry out an investigation to determine whether military personnel were involved." He also noted that they made it difficult to access military installations or investigations of personnel. As of 1995, the Special Investigative Group of the National Police had not submitted a report to the courts. Some reports simply could not be found. More than once the government had the case closed.
In 1997, the IACHR released its findings. It concluded that "Sister Ortiz is a credible witness and that her consistent statements support a finding that she was kidnapped and taken to a clandestine detention center where she was tortured" and her rights "to humane treatment, personal liberty, a fair trial, privacy, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of association and judicial protection" had been violated by the Guatemalan government, along with a few other articles of the OAS charter. The surveillance and methods of detainment were determined by the Commission as well as outside experts to be typical of the Guatemalan security forces.
She declined allowing the case to proceed because of the "heavy personal toll," that "Testifying...has been a painful and terrifying ordeal that has forced her to relive the trauma she suffered, opening again the emotional and psychological wounds that had only begun to heal" (www.eecs.umich.edu). The IACHR sent a number of recommendations to the Guatemalan government.
The "investigation": US
When Dianna took the case to the US, things were little better. Information was not forthcoming (some was released following her vigil; see below). The Department of Justice "interviewed" her for 40 hours, accusing her of lying the whole time. They spoke to her family and friends, all of whom were given the impression she was guilty of lying and making false accusations.
Rather than investigating the charges, Dianna Ortiz was investigated. She eventually removed herself from the investigation, weary and emotionally drained from having to constantly relive her 24 hours of hell. She had answered questions. She had given her testimony. She had given them the sketches of Alejandro and the other men who had kidnapped and abused her. The sketches were made with the help of a forensic artist, who believed Dianna was not lying about the experience. When they were finished, she had a difficult time facing her torturers once again.
The result was that the case was closed. She was not informed of the conclusions nor was allowed to see the over 200 page report the DOJ made on the case. She was told that it was "classified to protect sources and methods and to protect my own privacy" (www.eecs.umich.edu). She was told there were only four copies and they were kept locked away. That only three people would ever see it, the DOJ man in charge of the investigation, the Deputy Attorney General, and the Attorney General (Janet Reno). Another lie. She later found that several others had read it, including the US ambassador to Guatemala, who released that fact to the press.
She felt she was being blackmailed. Some of the things she described to them were deep, dark, shameful secrets. Secrets that would be exposed if the report was made even more public (through a FOIA request, for instance). In order to counter that, in 1998 before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus Briefing on Torture, she revealed that secret:
I got pregnant as a result of the multiple gang rapes by my torturers, and unable to carry within me what they had engendered, what I could view only as a monster, the product of the men who had raped me, I turned to someone for assistance and I destroyed that life. Am I proud of this decision? No. But if I had to make the decision again, I believe I would again decide as I did eight years ago.
I had little choice. My survival was so precarious at that time that to have to grow within me what the torturers had left me would have killed me.
On Palm Sunday 1996, Dianna began a vigil in the park across from the White House. As the story spread, she got support from all over. A candlelit vigil in Kentucky, people who gathered silently in San Salvador, people who showed up in Washington, DC to hand out flyers, pray, talk, and wait. People brought food, spent the night with her in her small hut covered by a blue tarp. She sat on pillows and a blanket during the 21 hours a day she was awake. To keep out the cold, she wrapped herself in coats and sleeping bags, many provided by supporters.
She was never alone while she waited. Even some of the homeless joined in. One man who happened to find himself in that position the day the vigil began would sleep behind her shelter. A few weeks later (with her permission), supporters began to gather right in front of the White House in a show of civil disobedience. People from all walks of life and all ages showed up. Many were arrested for their demonstration (it being illegal to demonstrate there without official permission). The park was cleared while demonstrators were handcuffed and led away, singing and praying. After processing, they returned to the vigil. After over 100 people had been arrested, the government released some of the documents she had been demanding access to.
When she ended it, she held a press conference:
Over five weeks ago, I stood in Lafayette Park, along with other survivors of torture in Guatemala, along with others whose lives had been torn apart by the violence there. The tulips were only slips of leaves, patches like open hands....
In the five weeks of my silent vigil, during two of which I have fasted, I have lost twenty-five pounds. I have suffered the wind, and the cold, and the rain. But that is nothing. In Guatemala, approximately ten people have been tortured since the tulips budded and bloomed. Around thirty more have been murdered for political reasons.
Among the documents released included one from the early 1990s that included the statement that she "was in fact kidnapped as she claimed, probably by the S-2 office of military zone 302, with headquarters in Chimaltenango" (www.eecs.umich.edu). The vigil also accomplished promises from the White House that matters would be looked into, partly the result of a letter to (then) President Bill Clinton signed by 103 members of Congress.
Simply put, there is none. The men who tortured her have never been brought to justice. The Guatemalan government has never had to answer for the crimes (a court did award her and other victims $5 million). And the US has not done much to solve the case. Subsequent lawsuits against the CIA, FBI, DOJ, and the State Department have not resolved anything. In 1994, she joined the staff of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA. But she has never gotten the answer to her cries for justice. She has never learned "Who is Alejandro?"
In 2002, she wrote (with some help) a book (The Blindfold's Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth) about her ordeal and her attempts to heal, to escape what happened to her. Something that can never be undone and it is a burden she has to live with each day. A memory of the worst horror.
I want to be free of these memories. I want to be as trusting, confident, adventurous, and carefree as I was in 1987 when I went to the western highlands of Guatemala to teach young indigenous children to read and write in Spanish and in their native language and to understand the Bible in their culture. But on November 2, 1989, the Dianna I just described ceased to exist. I tell you this story only because it reflects the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in Guatemala, a country ravaged by a civil war that began in 1960 and lasted thirty-six years. Most of the victims, like me, were civilians targeted by government security forces.
Which is the reason I felt compelled to tell her story.
1The "disappeared" (Los desaparecidos), are people who have been abducted by government security forces, the police, or paramilitary groups (the key being that they are working for the state) and usually never seen again (they become nonentities, as if they never existed). If they are, it is usually dead. Dianna was "lucky" in that respect. Many tens of thousands throughout South and Central America (some 47,000 in Guatemala alone) over the last 30 to 40 years have not been.
Opening quote from the Washington Post 25 June 2001
All quotes from the IACHR Case Report (www1.umn.edu/humanrts/cases/1996/guatemala31-96.htm) unless specified
Articles on the Sister Dianna Ortiz Case at www.eecs.umich.edu/~pavr/harbury/archive/ortiz/index.html
Sojurner's Magazine July-August 1996 (www.sojo.net/magazine/index.cfm/action/sojourners/issue/soj9607/article/960710.html)
Washington Post "Camera Works: Truth to Power" (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/photo/onassignment/truth/st/03.htm)
Washinton Post 12 May 1996 (www.franksmyth.com/clients/FrankSmyth/FrankS.nsf/ 6df03603d2bbf85885256b6c00561194/c719ae5bb58ce13085256b7b00790686?OpenDocument)
Salon.com Books (www.salon.com/books/review/2002/11/19/ortiz/print.html)
Address to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus Briefing on Torture (flag.blackened.net/revolt/mexico/usa/torture_guatemala_jun98.html)