30 Years Ago, American Nun Dianna Ortiz Was Kidnapped and Tortured in Guatemala, She’s Still Waiting for Truth & Justice
Dianna Ortiz wanted to be a nun since she was 6 years old. To some people, that seemed a rather peculiar calling for a girl growing up during the seismic cultural shifts of the 1960s and ’70s, a time when many women were leaving religious orders. But Ortiz, the daughter of a homemaker and a uranium miner growing up in Grants, New Mexico, remained steadfastly committed to her goal through middle and high school and in her late teens she traveled across America to Maple Mount, Kentucky to join the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph, part of a 400-year-old Roman Catholic order dedicated to the education of girls and the care of the sick and needy.
In keeping with the Ursuline mission, Ortiz taught kindergarten for a decade. She then felt called to follow Jesus’ path and work helping the poor. In September 1987 at the age of 28 she moved to Guatemala to join several other nuns serving indigenous residents of San Miguel Acatan and other small villages in Huehuetenango in the western highlands. Years later Ortiz explained that she wanted “to teach young indigenous children to read and write in Spanish and in their native language and to understand the Bible in their culture.”
It was dangerous work at a dangerous time. The country was ravaged by decades of civil war resulting from a 1954 CIA coup that deposed Jacobo Arbenz, the popular, democratically-elected progressive president, and replaced him with a series of right-wing military dictatorships, some of which perpetrated genocidal violence against indigenous peoples. The 36-year civil war left over 200,000 Guatemalans dead, more than 600 villages destroyed and countless people, mostly Mayan peasants, displaced.
“Every family in San Miguel had people who had been tortured, disappeared or killed,” Mary Elizabeth Ballard, an Ursuline sister who had arrived in Guatemala a year before Ortiz, told the literary magazine Agni in a 1998 interview. “No family was untouched.” Through it all, successive US administrations backed the perpetrators with arms, training, funding and diplomatic support.
Around a year after Ortiz’s arrival in San Miguel, the local bishop received an anonymous letter accusing her and the other nuns of planning a meeting with “subversives.” By early 1989, Ortiz was receiving threatening letters imploring her to leave the country. That summer she traveled to the capital, Guatemala City, to study Spanish. While she was there she was accosted by an unknown man on the street who told her, “we know who you are, you’re working in Huehuetenango,” before telling her to leave Guatemala.
She did leave, returning to the Ursuline motherhouse in Kentucky, where some of the sisters implored her to stay. But those who knew her best knew that wasn’t an option. “She had a great love for the Guatemalans,” Luisa Bickett, an Ursuline sister who also worked in San Miguel, told Agni. Ortiz returned to Guatemala to continue her work in September 1989. While staying in Guatemala City on October 13, Ortiz received the following death threat in the form of a letter pasted together from words cut from magazines and newspapers:
ELIMINATE DIANA. RAPED. DISAPPEARED. ASSASSINATED. DECAPITATED. LEAVE THE COUNTRY.
‘Hello, My Love’
Ortiz returned to San Miguel and on October 17 received yet another menacing letter telling her to leave the country. She decided to seek refuge at Posada de Belén, a convent and religious retreat 170 miles (270 km) away in Antigua. On November 2 Ortiz was reading in the convent’s garden when her life was forever changed. In an interview with Kerry Kennedy of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization, she recalled that:
“I heard a man’s deep voice behind me: ‘Hello, my love,’ he said in Spanish. ‘We have some things to discuss.’ I turned to see the morning sunlight glinting off a gun held by a man who had threatened me once before on the street. He and his partner forced me onto a bus, then into a police car where they blindfolded me. We came to a building and they led me down some stairs. They left me in a dark cell, where I listened to the cries of a man and woman being tortured. When the men returned, they accused me of being a guerrilla and began interrogating me. For every answer I gave them, they burned my back or my chest with cigarettes. Afterwards, they gang-raped me repeatedly.”
They raped her until she passed out. This was just the beginning of her nightmare. Ortiz was then moved to another room with another woman prisoner. “We exchanged names, cried, and held onto each other,” Ortiz said. “‘Dianna,’ she said in Spanish, ‘they will try to break you. Be strong.’” Some men returned with a video camera and a machete, which Ortiz thought would be used to torture her. Instead, she says she was forced to kill the other woman.
“What I remember is blood gushing, spurting like a water fountain… and my cries lost in the cries of the woman,” she recalled. Her captors then threatened to release video of her attacking the woman if she refused to cooperate. She was raped again. Then, the unimaginable:
“I was lowered into a pit full of bodies — bodies of children, men and women, some decapitated, all caked with blood. A few were still alive. I could hear them moaning… A stench of decay rose from the pits. Rats swarmed over the bodies… I passed out and when I came to I was lying on the ground beside the pit, rats all over me.”
More brutal interrogation followed. At one point, her captors held her down and began assaulting her again. One of them said, “Alejandro, come and have some fun.” Alejandro, who was tall and had fair skin, cursed in English and told the men that Ortiz was an American nun whose disappearance had already made news headlines. She says he then ordered them out of the room before helping her get dressed and leave the building in a sport utility vehicle parked outside.
“He kept telling me he was sorry, [that] the torturers had made a mistake,” Ortiz told Kennedy. “He said he was… working to liberate [Guatemala] from communism.” As they drove into Guatemala City, Alejandro blamed Ortiz for her ordeal, saying she should have heeded the death threats that preceded her kidnapping. He threatened her again and, fearing for her life, Ortiz jumped out of the SUV at a red light and ran.
State of Shock
Darleen Chmielewski, a Franciscan nun who was one of the first people to see Ortiz after her escape, described her friend as in “a state of shock.”
“She was a shell of a woman; her eyes were blank and I presumed she had been tortured,” Chmielewski told Agni. The two women went the home of the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican representative in Guatemala City, who had offered Ortiz refuge. “Diana wanted to take a bath,” Chmielewski recalled. “I helped her wash and saw all the cigarette burns… she just cried and took baths.”
Two days later, Ortiz was back in the United States. “After escaping from my torturers, I returned home to New Mexico so traumatized that I recognized no one, not even my parents,” she told Kennedy. “I had virtually no memory of my life before my abduction; the only piece of my identity that remained was that I was a woman who was raped and forced to torture and murder another human being.”
She also felt forced to do something unimaginable for many nuns. “I got pregnant as a result of the multiple gang rapes,” she explained to Kennedy. “Unable to carry within me… what I could only view as a monster, I turned to someone for assistance and I destroyed that life.”
“Am I proud of that decision? No. But if I had to make [it] again, I believe I would decide as I did then,” Ortiz added. “I felt I had no choice. If I had had to grow within me what the torturers left me I would have died.”
Several months after her return stateside, Ortiz traveled to Chicago, where she lived for a time at the Su Casa Catholic Worker House for torture survivors. Sister JoAnn Persch said Ortiz arrived with “incredible fear” in her eyes and seemed “so fragile and traumatized.” She sat up all night with music and lights on so she wouldn’t succumb to the nightmares that came with sleep. “When she did fall asleep, she’d awaken with fists bruised from pounding the walls,” Persch told Agni.
Ortiz’s torment continued as she sought — and was denied — justice. Thomas Stroock, the US ambassador under President George H.W. Bush, accused her of staging her abduction in a bid to thwart US military aid to Guatemala. Cigarette burns — 111 of them, according to a US doctor who examined her — told a different story. In a bizarre twist, Guatemalan officials claimed Ortiz faked her kidnapping to cover up a violent lesbian affair, a rumor subsequently spread by US officials. Previously, the Reagan administration had undertaken a similar effort to discredit another Ursuline nun, Dorothy Kazel of Cleveland, Ohio, who along with three other American churchwomen was kidnapped, raped and executed in El Salvador by US-backed troops.
The prospect of Ortiz testifying about her ordeal terrified Stroock, a Wyoming oilman appointed by Bush, a Yale classmate who had no prior diplomatic experience. In a letter urging the State Department to not meet with her, he warned that “pressure… will build… to act on the information she provides.” Stroock worried that “we’re going to get cooked on this one.”
But it was Ortiz who continued to suffer. She received menacing phone calls and anonymous packages, one of them containing a dead mouse wrapped in a Guatemalan flag. Ortiz, however, remained undaunted. She made three trips to Guatemala to testify against the government, and tasted victory, albeit of a largely symbolic nature, when a federal judge in Boston ordered Gen. Héctor Gramajo, the Guatemalan defense minister who had tried to discredit Ortiz — in part by claiming her cigarette burns were the result of sadomasochistic sex — to pay her and eight Guatemalan victims a combined $47.5 million. “Forty-seven million dollars?” Gramajo scoffed. “I don’t have 47 million centavos!” He told the New York Times that he did nothing wrong; he was simply defending his country.
In 1996 Ortiz held a five-week fasting vigil in front of the White House, where she broke down in tears while demanding that the US government declassify all documents about human rights abuses in Guatemala since the 1954 coup. Hillary Clinton, then first lady, invited Ortiz to her office. “I knew I needed to try to get Mrs. Clinton not only to understand my plight but also that of the Guatemalan people,” she told the Chicago Tribune at the time. During the half-hour meeting, Clinton told Ortiz it was possible that Alejandro was “a past or present employee of a US agency.”
Still, the hard truth was that many people, including government officials, doubted Ortiz’s story. She started to think that her torturers, who warned her that no one would believe her if she ever talked about her ordeal, might have been right. It was the same sadly familiar scenario faced by so many women who muster the courage to step forward to report sexual violence only to be called liars, or worse.
Ortiz’s relentless pursuit of justice eventually compelled the United States to declassify long-secret documents revealing details of US cooperation with Guatemalan security forces before, during and after the time of her abduction, including an admission by Stroock that the US embassy was in contact with members of a death squad. The documents also show that Gen. Gramajo had been trained in counterinsurgency tactics at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), where military and police officials from Latin American allies — many of them dictatorships — were instructed in counterinsurgency and democracy suppression using course manuals that advocated the torture and execution of civilians.
“The US government funded, trained and equipped the Guatemalan army’s death squads — my torturers themselves,” Ortiz later wrote. “The United States was the Guatemalan army’s partner in a covert war against a small opposition force, a war the United Nations would later declare genocidal.”
In 1997 the Organization of American States (OAS) finished a four-year investigation that concluded Ortiz was kidnaped, tortured and very likely raped by Guatemalan security forces. The investigatory commission called on the Guatemalan government to hold the perpetrators accountable and to compensate Ortiz for the gross violation of her human rights. However, the case languished in the Guatemalan court system and no suspects were ever identified.
Healing Mind, Body and Soul
Ortiz’s suffering has left her with an acute awareness of human rights issues and a desire to work in service of those rights. In 1998 she founded Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), and in 2002 published The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth. Understandably, she is reluctant to discuss the horrific events of November 1989. “Those of us who have survived torture must relive all our torture every time we speak of it, and that’s one of the reasons why few of us do speak publicly,” she explained in a 2005 Democracy Now! interview. “I want to be free of these memories,” she told Kennedy. “I want to be as trusting, confident, adventurous, and carefree as I was in 1987.”
As for her recovery, Ortiz confessed in The Blindfold’s Eye that “no one ever fully recovers” from torture. “Not the one who is tortured, and not the one who tortures.” Her faith, which also suffered after her ordeal, has recovered — and evolved. “Today, my spirituality is an attempt to live a Gospel-centered life that is formed, inspired and transformed and guides me in my ministry,” she told Global Sisters Report in 2016. “Prayer centers my heart and ministry on what is most important.”
Through it all, Sister Dianna Ortiz has not stopped searching for the whole truth of what happened to her 30 years ago. “I stand with the Guatemalan people,” she told Kennedy:
I demand the right to a future built on truth and justice. My torturers were never brought to justice. It is possible that, individually, they will never be identified or apprehended. But I cannot resign myself to this fact and move on. I have a responsibility to the people of Guatemala and to the people of the world to insist on accountability where it is possible.
“I know what it is to wait in the dark for torture, and what it is to wait in the dark for the truth,” said Ortiz. “I am still waiting.”