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Sister Dianna Ortiz—US Nun Who Survived Guatemala Torture and Became Human Rights Champion—Dies at 62

"Dianna walked through the very worst of hell and came out with love... Her legacy is a witness to nonviolence and to love in the face of evil and to redemption. That's her legacy, to teach us that that's possible."

Sister Dianna Ortiz, torture survivor turned human rights champion, died Friday February 19, 2021. (Photo: AP/YouTube screen grab)

Sister Dianna Ortiz survived horrific torture at the hands of U.S.-backed Guatemalan forces and became a prolific anti-torture and human rights activist. (Photo: AP/YouTube screen grab)

Sister Dianna Ortiz, a Catholic nun from New Mexico whose 1989 abduction, rape, and torture by U.S.-backed Guatemalan forces led to her becoming an outspoken peace, human rights, and anti-torture activist, died Friday in Washington, D.C. at the age of 62 after battling cancer. 

"I know what it is to wait in the dark for torture, and what it is to wait in the dark for the truth. I am still waiting." 
—Sister Dianna Ortiz

Ortiz—who wanted to be a nun since she was a little girl—joined the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, part of a 400-year-old Roman Catholic order dedicated to the education of girls and the care of the sick and needy, when she was still a teenager. She taught kindergarten for a decade before moving to Guatemala in 1987 at the age of 28. 

Years later Ortiz explained that she wanted "to teach young indigenous children to read and write... and to understand the Bible in their culture."

It was dangerous work at a dangerous time. Guatemala was ravaged by decades of civil war that followed a 1954 CIA coup deposing Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected progressive president. U.S.-backed right-wing military dictatorships, some of which perpetrated genocidal violence against the country's Mayan population, followed. 

The 36-year civil war left over 200,000 Guatemalans dead, more than 600 villages destroyed, and countless people—mostly Mayan campesinos—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."

By early 1989 Ortiz was receiving threatening letters imploring her to leave Guatemala. She eventually did depart, traveling to the Urusline motherhouse in Kentucky. But only for a short while. 

"She had a great love for the Guatemalans," explained Luisa Bickett, another Ursuline sister who worked in San Miguel. 

"I heard a man's deep voice behind me: 'Hello, my love,' he said in Spanish. 'We have some things to discuss.'"
—Ortiz

Ortiz returned to Guatemala in September 1989. By the following month, she was receiving death threats. For her safety, Ortiz decided to seek refuge at Posada de Belén, a convent and religious retreat 170 miles (270 km) from San Miguel 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, 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.

Ortiz was then moved to another room with another woman prisoner. 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. Then:

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.

Ortiz said that a North American man her torturers called "Alejandro" was present during her ordeal. When he realized she was an American, he helped her get dressed and drove her away while apologizing. "He said he was... working to liberate [Guatemala] from communism," Ortiz recalled. 

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." The two women went to the home of the 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."

Ortiz also felt forced to do something unimaginable for many nuns. "I got pregnant as a result of the multiple gang rapes," she told 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."

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"I felt I had no choice," explained Ortiz. "If I had had to grow within me what the torturers left me I would have died."

Ortiz's torment continued as she sought—and was denied—justice. U.S. embassy officials accused her of staging her abduction in a bid to thwart the George H.W. Bush administration's military aid to Guatemala. Cigarette burns—111 of them, according to a U.S. doctor who examined her—told a different story.

"The U.S. government funded, trained, and equipped the Guatemalan army's death squads—my torturers themselves."
—Ortiz

In a bizarre twist, Guatemalan officials claimed Ortiz faked her kidnapping to cover up a violent lesbian affair, a rumor subsequently spread by U.S. 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 U.S.-backed troops in 1980.

Even though she was back in the relative safety of the United States, Ortiz received menacing phone calls and anonymous packages, one containing a dead mouse wrapped in a Guatemalan flag. However, undaunted, she made three trips to Guatemala to testify against the government there.

Ortiz tasted victory, albeit of a largely symbolic nature, in April 1995, when a federal judge in Boston ordered Gen. Héctor Gramajo, the Guatemalan defense minister who had tried to discredit Ortiz, to pay her and eight other torture victims a combined $47.5 million. 

In 1996 Ortiz held a five-week fasting vigil in front of the White House, where she demanded that the U.S. government declassify all documents about human rights abuses in Guatemala since the 1954 coup. Hillary Clinton, then first lady, invited Ortiz to her office. During their meeting, Clinton did not rule out the possibility that "Alejandro" was a past or current U.S. operative. 

Ortiz's relentless pursuit of justice eventually compelled the United States to declassify long-secret documents revealing details of U.S. cooperation with Guatemalan security forces before, during, and after the time of her abduction, including an admission that the U.S. embassy was in contact with members of a death squad.

The documents also showed that Gen. Gramajo had been trained in counterinsurgency tactics at the U.S. 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 files also proved that the U.S. was supporting Guatemalan forces guilty of perpetrating genocide. In 1999, President Bill Clinton apologized to the Guatemalan people for the U.S. role in the bloodshed, terror, and repression. 

"The U.S. 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."

Ortiz's suffering 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. In the 2000s Ortiz was a vocal opponent of the George W. Bush's torture program in the so-called War on Terror. 

Last year, she was named deputy director of Pax Christi USA, part of an international Catholic peace movement.

Recently, Ortiz worked for nuclear disarmament and led Pax Christi's work commemorating the 75th anniversary of the U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. 

As for her recovery, Ortiz wrote in The Blindfold's Eyes that despite years of therapy at Chicago's Marjorie Kovler Center for torture survivors, "no one ever fully recovers" from torture, "not the one who is tortured, and not the one who tortures."

Ortiz never not stopped searching for the whole truth of what happened to her back in 1989. 

"No one ever fully recovers, not the one who is tortured, and not the one who tortures."
—Ortiz

"I demand the right to a future built on truth and justice," she told Kennedy. "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."

Ursuline Sister Larraine Lauter was with Ortiz when she passed away on Friday.  Lauter called her friend "unfailingly good." 

"Dianna walked through the very worst of hell and came out with love," she told the Catholic Standard. "It's hard to believe that bad things happen to good nuns, but they do. Her legacy is for us to be nonviolent. Her legacy is a witness to nonviolence and to love in the face of evil and to redemption. That's her legacy, to teach us that that's possible."

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